Color-Blind Casting vs. the Playwright’s Intent
Anthony J. Piccione
The topic of race in theatre is certainly not a new topic of discussion in theatre. However, there has recently been a lot of talk about the need for a color-conscious approach to casting in theatre. This is opposed to the idea of color-blind casting, which calls for actors to be cast in any role regardless of his or her race. This topic has especially gotten attention after recent controversies such as those highlighted in the American Theatre Magazine’s article Standing Up for Playwrights and Against ‘Colorblind’ Casting that surrounded productions of plays by Katori Hall and Lloyd Suh.
I felt that this issue was a particularly interesting topic, as a few years ago – during my freshman year of college – I was cast in a production of a relatively-obscure Japanese play written by Hotta Kiyomi called The Island. The play dealt directly with the way in which families in Japan dealt with the aftermath of the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima, so it was clearly a play that was intended for Japanese actors. Yet as anyone who has at least seen a photograph of me knows, I am clearly not Japanese. Furthermore, there was only one Asian actor that participated in the production, and even he wasn’t actually from Japan.
I’ll admit that at the time, I did not give too much thought to the fact that I was acting in a play such as this, even though I was white. When I was in the show, it honestly never crossed my mind that some people might take offense to the idea of Caucasian actors portraying characters who are clearly Japanese. However, not too long ago in one of my theatre classes, our professor – the same one who directed the production The Island – asked our class what our opinions were on the issue of color-blind casting. I will not divulge all of the details of this class discussion in this column, but I will note that the discussion included color-blind casting not only for plays intended for Asian actors, but also plays which were intended specifically for black or Hispanic actors, some of which the playwright himself had made perfectly clear how he intended for the plays to be cast.
After this class discussion and after seeing and hearing the opinions of others on this topic, I have to say that I have had a bit of a change of heart. Looking back on it, I can’t help but wonder if it right for me as a Caucasian actor to have participated in this Japanese play. It’s hard for me to look at this production from early in my college career, and think that productions such as these aren’t part of the same issue that has been discussed recently in the wake of this controversy surrounding productions of works by Katori Hall or Lloyd Suh.
Having said that, I will say that I remember when The Island was produced at my college, there didn’t seem to be much controversy – if any at all – in terms of the way our production had been cast. I had invited many of my non-theatre friends to go see the show on the opening weekend, and nobody seemed to even notice that there were mostly non-Asian actors all playing characters in a show set in Japan, and who were clearly intended to be Japanese. Although then again, this could just be because the majority of the people who saw our production were students, faculty or family members, and there weren’t that many Japanese people who I went to college with.
So with all of this in mind, I do think it’s worth asking for the sake of discussion: Which side is right? The people who say that it is racially insensitive to cast actors of any race in any play, or the people who essentially seem make the case that the color of an actor’s skin is irrelevant to telling the story of the play.
Now I don’t believe that any reasonable person would argue the extreme case that color-blind casting – or as the Actors’ Equity has put it, “non-traditional casting” – is always bad. Obviously, many scripts contain characters that are – for the most part – very ambiguous when it comes to the color of a character’s skin in the story, hence why after the casting of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was released, a black actor portraying Hermione was met with approval from J.K. Rowling. Plus, for all the diehard fans of musical theatre reading this, it’s worth noting that we would never have had the chance to see the late Kyle Jean-Baptiste deliver such a strong performance of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. If there were absolutely no such thing as color-blind casting, it would be even more racially insensitive that suggesting that any play could be performed by actors of any race.
Nonetheless, I have personally come to the conclusion that it would be equally absurd to say that color-blind casting is an acceptable practice in all cases in theatre. Sometimes, there are stories in plays that are intended to be performed by actors of a very specific race – due to the specific kind of story in which it is – and there are no other ways in which they can be told. Otherwise, the theaters producing them can run the risk of being disrespectful toward not just the playwright, but also toward the racial and cultural history behind the plays.
In the past, white actors would wear make-up to portray black characters. Today, that old practice is widely considered to be racist. (Personally, the one modern exception I can think of in mainstream entertainment would be Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in Tropic Thunder, which was largely poking fun at that exact practice.) To me, it’s hard to see how casting a white actor as a black character, a black actor as an Asian character, or anything else along those lines shouldn’t be considered wrong for similar reasons.
Furthermore, especially as a playwright, I am personally very sensitive to whatever specific intentions the prime artist behind the original version for a play might have had, including the specific way in which it was intended to be cast. So when August Wilson stated that color-blind casting was “an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection”, that is not something that a director can simply ignore if they choose to direct his plays, whether they fully agree with his views or not.
To be clear, I am not saying that all theaters that are guilty of this are necessarily racist, at least not in their hearts. Most of them, if not all of them, I’m sure have good intentions. If someone were to come to me and argue that my college Theatre Department – and the people in charge of it – were racist for putting on that production of a Japanese play, I would tell them that I know that it was not their intention to be racially insensitive, but rather to try their best to honor those Japanese families that lived through the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombings with the actors that they had. However, regardless of their intentions, the fact of the matter is that this practice by certain theaters of color-blind casting in all kinds of plays runs the risk of being disrespectful to the wishes of the playwright, and yes, it can be taken by some as a form of racial insensitivity.
So my opinions on this subject, at least when I was just starting out in theatre, weren’t always as fully formed as they are today. For a time, I was torn between supporting the desire to be (or intention of being) inclusive of all races in all kind of theatre and supporting the rights of the playwright to be as specific as he wants, in terms of whether or not actors should be required to have the same race or ethnicity as the characters that they are portraying. However, after past discussions with others who have different views on this subject and having been through certain experiences of my own as an actor, I have fallen firmly on the side of those who believe that theaters absolutely must take a color-conscious approach to casting. I hope as time goes by more people will realize what I have realized, and that they will see the need for this approach to casting as well.
This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Student, playwright, actor, poet and blogger currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Anthony and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione).