I may lose some friends in the process.
But this has been eating at me for a while, especially today. And I can’t sleep because I’m bothered.
The latest debacle in the ‘colourblind’ casting carnival rears its head with Edward Albee.
And I’m annoyed. Very annoyed.
But here’s the thing – I side with the Albee estate on this.
Look, most people who know me know I am the first to blow the race whistle and call some White folk out on their tomfoolery so they get even a little woke.
But now we’re treading dangerous ground.
As an actor there are many roles I want to play. I was spoiled early in my career before I moved to New York by playing amazing roles that I would never have been cast in, in NYC (and, in truth, in looking back, my presence as an actor of colour altered the stories in ways I didn’t think of then). My one dream role left (George in Sunday in the Park with George) will probably never be realised and it’s for a very simple reason: George was a white Frenchman and he was a real person. I speak French. And that’s about it. Sure, I could pass. Maybe. But it would be inauthentic.
And I think I am ok with that. Unless Sondheim and Lapine gave me their blessing then all bets are off. Maybe.
But if I am not ok with then I betray Sevan the Writer. The writer who creates very specific worlds and characters. Sometimes I don’t care about the race of my characters because it’s not integral to the story; anyone can and should play those roles to reflect our contemporary society. Sometimes I am very specific and I make a note that it should not be cast any other way for any reason because it disrupts the story and world I have created.
I don’t want my work to turn into a gimmick because of a director’s ‘vision’ to bring some new awareness to support the latest political agenda or grand statement. I’ve seen too many director’s glaucomic visions ruin amazing plays.
When we cast ‘colour blind’ we’re not just doing it in the name of equality. It comes loaded with several layers of semiotic meaning.
We blow this whistle hard enough and what is to stop someone from doing an all-white production of The Colour Purple? Would it be fair for us to deny them that ‘colour blind’ casting if it truly doesn’t matter? Careful.
Sevan, you think, don’t be an idiot. That is clearly a Black show about a Black historical moment. It wouldn’t work with White actors.
Well, you’re going to have to allow it if you allow all the other things you want, i.e., an all East Asian Cherry Orchard set in Russia or re-set in China.
Let’s be clear, I don’t advocate any of those because it’s not what the writers created. That is not the world they created. They are not subservient to our political needs to make statements that will prove a point to the industry.
And more importantly, I’m not on this planet to tell YOUR stories as an actor. If you want to showcase talented actors of colour. If you want to have a diverse season. Then I know 10 playwrights at the top of my head whose work you can produce which could go toe-to-toe with these classics. Plays/musicals written FOR actors of colour. Or even those written with so much casting room that you don’t even have to think about your choices. Swing that cat around and let it hit whomever in the room and cast them.
But the sad thing is that casting race contrary to a play and it becoming a political symbol is something you cannot avoid. We have not reached a point of enlightenment in our society where none of it matters.
And even if we WERE in that place, you’re still remaking someone else’s work and world to suit your own.
Sure, you can say that these subversive moves are to show that actors of any colour are capable of doing anything. You can still make that point with new work.
And I get it, there are some classic roles that are just so fucking incredible that as an actor you want to get your teeth into them NOW. But why can’t we produce shows that elicit the same feeling for characters of colour?
Don’t get me started on Shakespeare either…please.
Read that Jezebel article carefully before you go right to the race whistle.
…it is important to note that Mr. Albee wrote Nick as a Caucasian character, whose blonde hair and blue eyes are remarked on frequently in the play, even alluding to Nick’s likeness as that of an Aryan of Nazi racial ideology. Furthermore, Mr. Albee himself said on numerous occasions when approached with requests for non-traditional casting in productions of VIRGINIA WOOLF? that a mixed-race marriage between a Caucasian and an African-American would not have gone unacknowledged in conversations in that time and place and under the circumstances in which the play is expressly set by textual references in the 1960’s.
I know we want to think this is racism. It’s not. Albee was a picky, controlling bastard on the best of days (although he was totally ok with a Blacktress playing Martha in an Orlando production). The context of this play is very specific. It might be a WPPP (Boring White People Problems Play), but the man makes it very clear what section of society he is writing about. You change that, and you change the play. Maybe not tremendously, but you change it from what he intended. Even his somewhat hilarious height requirements for Three Tall Women makes sense when you think about the play and what he is doing.
I fault the director in this, sorry. His need to create a new vision and to make the play more relevant to today angers me. If you want to talk about an issue today why not produce a new play that can do the same thing. He says: I believe casting Nick as black adds depth to the play. But what he ends up doing is changing what Albee what was scrutinising, analysing, and skewering.
Also, do we REALLY think THAT play needs more depth?
He goes on to say:
The Nick I cast is bald. My request from the Albee Estate was going to be to change the term ‘blond’ to ‘bald’ and ‘blondy’ to ‘baldy’ or ‘curly’. This would be a comparable insult. If they would not allow the change, the actors would have had to say ‘blond’ and ‘blondy’ with a touch of irony. But I think it would still work. A minor drawback to an otherwise intriguing opportunity.
If you don’t seem the problematics in his decision and what he says then please don’t engage me in a conversation about this because it won’t end well. Because if you’re OK with this then you need to be ok with the all-white production of The Colour Purple as a way to talk about the continuing abuse in Appalachian communities; simply change the more black-centric language to make it work. A ‘minor’ drawback indeed. Now if it was an all-Latino production of the same musical would you be ok with it? Why? Because they’re not white? We’re not going to reverse issues or change them by simply displacing them on the perpetrators.
I’m also not going to entertain the conversations where people say things like: Well, if you’re going to do Macbeth then shouldn’t all the actors be Scottish? Doesn’t that interfere with the playwright’s original choices? Why are people doing The Kite Runner without Afghani actors in it? Huh, Sevan? Huh?
If I write a play about the Middle East with Middle Eastern characters, I don’t want anyone else playing it but Middle Easterners. I don’t want you moving it to New Zealand. I don’t want you messing with my work because you can’t find actors for it (you’re not looking hard enough) or because you can use my text to make a statement about something with just a few tweaks here and there. I am sure my bank account would love the royalties, but please support another fellow playwright who probably has an amazing play that already does what you’re wanting. I appreciate your support but my work is not here to fulfill your soapbox mission that runs counter to my play’s world and to my characters’ lives.
I don’t want to be your gimmick so an audience can say: Oh my God it’s an all Arab Oklahoma let’s go check that out. What am I? A side show freak? Elicit the same reaction by producing an all-Asian play with all-Asian actors that or may not have anything to do with them being Asian. It’s a stronger political statement.
I say NONE of the above to mean we should not be diligent and call theatres out when they need to be called out. Because they still stupidly make the same mistakes. We should NOT stop blowing whistles. But we can’t treat every moment as the same screw up.
You don’t see TV networks reviving old TV shows and simply replacing them with actors of colour. They’re producing new shows for today with actors of colour in lead recurring roles. And, no, I am not saying there aren’t issues in TV land either. That they are doing it better (in some small ways) than the Theatre should be more cause for alarm. This would launch me into a tirade about our obsession with doing classics ad nauseum but that’s for another post.
We’ve got bigger fish to fry than this play, folks. Hold producers and organisations accountable. Make them produce the new work. Make them find the relevant plays and the actors of colour. Make them change the landscape and shift the paradigm. But let’s not resort to using Classics as the panacea. It’s not enough. Let’s create the new classics. The new roles actors are dying to play.
Let’s not resort to minor drawbacks for the sake of intriguing opportunities.