Tuesday, June 18, 2013

colorblind casting

My friend, Mahalia, a wonderful actress who student-taught one of my high school drama classes in Tallahassee, Florida many years ago, recently shared this article on Facebook: 3 Things Actors Should Know About Race on Stage. Mahalia's posting comment suggested that she was sharing the article because of the race-based limitations she faces in her acting career. Here's how she introduced it:
I wish that directors did cast with "absence of color". As a black stage actress....I know that I will NEVER be allowed to play Katarina, Maggie the Cat, Glenda, or any other of my dream roles, unless it's an all-black version of the play. Just the simple reality. Color hinders me....but I try and navigate this crazy theatre world nevertheless.
Certainly, any actor or actress's work prospects are limited by thousands of talent, personality, and physical characteristic factors, but race is a special and particularly tricky barrier for many actors, because in the U.S. most film, theater, and television productions are white people stories, produced mostly by white people, mostly for white people. Yes, they find ways of adding in racial diversity, but whiteness tends to be the original ingredient.

Even when screen writers and playwrights attempt to "take race out" of their stories, or create stories without race at all, this easily lends itself to more race inequality in casting, as the 3 Things Actor Should Know articles explains in the form of a warning to actors, and a little chastisement to directors and writers:
Absenting characters of color, absents artists of color. Aspiring playwrights and screenwriters are generally taught not to specify the race of their characters—unless a character’s race is consequential to the dramatic narrative. The aim is to create the greatest flexibility in casting and to increase the odds of the work being produced.
Since it’s impossible to imagine a person as being race-less, the default assumption is that most unspecified characters are white. Although producers, directors, and casting agents have discretion in the person who they hire to work on a production, they frequently begin with a script that absents people of color.
For the past couple of years, I've been thinking about this topic, especially since, as a playwright in Utah, my current interest is creating works about LDS (Mormon) Pioneer history--there are very few characters of color in that segment of history, and very little written by them or about them. This has been a bit of an internal conflict for me, as I am interested in putting both early LDS Church stories and racial diversity on stage. Last year, while writing the play I produced about Wilford Woodruff, I considered including a scene based on his journal's detailed description of a conversation he had with a Ute chief, but then I realized that it didn't really fit into the rest of the story and that I was only trying to squeeze it in, because I was bothered by the prospect of creating a show with an all-white cast. I decided not to include the scene. But then when I held auditions, I discovered that a friend of mine, David, a Columbian with a dark complexion, was clearly the best actor for the supporting role of Wilford's brother. 
In the facebook discussion below Mahalia's posting of the 3 Things Actors Should Know article, someone commented that a little progress has been made where racial diversity in casting is concerned in New York, in particular,
classical Greek and Shakespearean plays are cast with broader racial diversity, including casting members of a family with actors of different races. I've often seen that casting philosophy used in local Shakespeare, and Fairy-Tale themed plays here in Utah. For example,  two weeks ago, I attended a Grassroots Shakespeare production outdoors at Salt Lake City's Liberty Park in which a mixed-race man played a romantic lead, Bianca's wealthy suitor, Lucentio. But I think it's easy for directors to make less-traditional casting choices for classical plays, because the stories are so well-known. Whereas, for most post-renaissance pieces, directors prefer casting with historical accuracy and realism in mind. There are many historical or fictional plays in which race is a significant part of character identity or expression of the historical setting. There's also the obligatory logic that says characters in the same biological families should be of the same race. And let's face it, directors are afraid of getting the audience confused about the setting and characters.

Before I cast David as Wilford's brother, I considered my own concern about confusing the audience. My main objective was to teach my audience about some historical events--but I reminded myself that as the author and director I can communicate with the audience any way I want. It was easy, I simply made sure that in the dialogue, David's character was introduced clearly as Wilford's brother, and POOF! disbelief suspended!

As an afterthought, I have to remark to myself that David was one of only 2 actors of color who auditioned. Why were there so few auditioning actors of color? Probably because of the topic of the play. There are many pioneer history plays and film productions here in Utah, and it may be that actors of color commonly don't bother auditioning for shows like that because they suspect all the roles are white.

I would never suggest that out-of-historical-context colorblind casting is right for every production, but I'd love to see it done more often in mainstream theater.

Here's my list of progressive changes I hope to see in the future of theater, film, and television:
  • more people of color creating scripts,
  • more producers using those scripts, 
  • more producers of color becoming influential leaders in theater and media arts,
  • greater variety of racial perspectives represented in stories told on screen and stage no matter who writes it (too often"racial diversity" looks like this: a white protagonist with white-person problems, he or she has one or more "side-kick" friends of color, but they are relatively flat characters.)  
  • more directors willing to take out-of-historical-context casting risks, and
  • fewer directors assuming a character's race is white if race is not mentioned in the script.