Month: June 2020

Fruitful union

I want the kind of wife
who is picky about bananas
and finds a perfectly good one
and so sets it aside
and then is reckless enough
to try another one,
also unimpeachable, though
also unacceptable,
and rather than discarding them,
seals them for consumption
by her less discriminating

Scrooge of Color – 16 of 40 – book research

I’m searching for other perspectives related to color-blind casting, and I quickly found this article by a black author active in theater in many ways: actor, director, producer, teacher. The text is below.

I’ll be mulling this. Below in red is a reference to an idyllic past free of racism. I was musing about this to my wife just yesterday. If there had never been exploitation based on discrimination, then we would not even distinguish people by biological differences based on ethnicity. They would be as irrelevant as eye color. In another of these research posts (I think), I spoke of feeling robbed of that past. We all were, and we have reaped the mistake and sin that occurred in earlier generations. Of course, idyllic is just that–not rooted in the real world. But when a play is rooted in the real world, this author is arguing (and I can see the point), it’s uneven in saying “accept this part, but not this other part.” And that can be confusing, because it might not be obvious which parts matter and which don’t. (This author refers repeatedly to confusion.)

In the case of “A Christmas Carol,” the world of the play is, of course, very much rooted in the actual world, in which greed condemned the poor to misery. A black Scrooge would suspend the greed that condemned nonwhites as well.



Omari Newton: “Colour blind casting” is an absurd and insidious form of racism

I’ve been a professional theatre actor for more than 20 years and yet – somewhat inexplicably – I’d never made the trek to New York to see a show on Broadway before this year.

So when I had the opportunity to spend a few days in New York, I was determined to immerse myself in as many plays as possible. I wanted to see living legends live on stage, performing critically acclaimed work, in historic theatres. My first Broadway visit was no time time for artistic gambling.

This criteria made the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s classic All My Sons an easy choice. The cast of the play’s revival was anchored by the legendary Annette Bening, and critically acclaimed playwright and actor Tracy Letts. The production was predictably solid from the standpoint of craft, enough so that I was in tears as the piece careened into its tragically inevitable end.

Despite all of the above, there was something that bothered me about the production throughout, so much so that it pulled me and numerous other audience members right out of the play, leading us to whisper questions into the ears of the people we came with. The issue in question was the inexplicable decision to employ the tactic of “colour blind casting.”

For the uninitiated, “colour blind casting” is the theatrical practice of casting actors from different racial or ethnic backgrounds in roles haphazardly, regardless of the very obvious implications this may have on the story being told. I have always loathed this practice in theory, but had never viscerally experienced just how absurd and distracting it can be before seeing this production of All My Sons on Broadway.

Before I continue, I have to explain a bit about myself to properly contextualize my gripes with the practice of “colour blind casting.” I am a 39 year old Black man and a long-time theatre professional. I earned my full union card at the age of 19 thanks to a Montreal company called Black Theatre Workshop. The vitality of diverse representation in professional theatre was ingrained in me from the very start of my career, so much so that when I evolved from an actor to professional playwright and director, I gravitated towards stories that placed the lived experiences of people of colour at the very centre of the narrative.

In my personal life, I have volunteered countless hours as an activist, educator, and union rep championing the cause of diversity in the arts. I see it as a personal calling.

I express this to make it abundantly clear, I want nothing more than to see diversity on every stage in the world.

I just don’t want to see it done blindly.

“Colour blind casting” is rooted in systemic racism. It is a form of erasure. It is the theatrical equivalent of ignorantly telling your Black friend “I don’t see colour” when they try to engage you in a conversation about race. It is passively dehumanizing in the way that it dismisses the racism that is embedded in the very fabric of how colonized countries were founded. Never had I seen this more on display than I did in this otherwise impressive Broadway show.

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons was originally produced in 1947, a mere two years after the end of World War II. It is set in a gorgeous backyard in Ohio that is connected to the equally beautiful home of a well-to-do family.

The drama in the play is centred around a dark secret with roots in World War II. A man who owned a shop that made airplane parts sold defective pieces to the American military. His negligence led to the death of 21 American pilots, which leads to one of the play’s central questions: Were these faulty parts sold knowingly, and if so, who made this fatal decision?

When the play starts, we meet a wealthy man named Joe Keller. He is the owner of the beautiful home where the play takes place. We learn that both he and his employee Steve Deveer have done jail time in connection to the sale of these defective airplane parts. It is unclear who in the neighbourhood, including members of Keller’s own family, knows who is culpable for the sale of these defective parts that led to the deaths of 21 America pilots.

All of the above makes for a gripping setup for an exploration of the complexities of capitalism, honour, loyalty, family, and community. What it did not deserve or require was the imposition of the completely unexplored dynamics of racial politics in the late 1940s tacked onto it.

Inexplicably, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word, we learn that one of Keller’s neighbours, a white man, is married to a Black woman. They even have a beautiful mixed race child. As a Black man who has been married to a white woman for nearly five years in the year 2019, interracial marriage is obviously not a big deal in and of itself. However, as a man with even a perfunctory understanding of American history, I realize that this would likely be a very big deal in late 1940s Ohio.

While an interracial marriage may have been possible in 1947 Ohio, it would have been very difficult due to the complicated history of miscegenation laws that made interracial marriage illegal in many states, including Ohio. While many states repealed these racist laws, this was an issue in America until the 1967 Supreme Court decision – Loving v. Virginia – determined that all state anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional..

This was all I could think about for quite a while when this interracial relationship was first revealed in the production. It raised many questions that pulled me right out of the play – questions which were never meant to be answered, because in the original play, the married couple were both written as white.

The resulting effect of this act of “colour blind casting” was forcing audience members to make a subconscious decision to accept the fact that this play takes place in a fictional, idyllic America where racism never existed. Slavery? Never happened. The Civil War and its far reaching ramifications? Non existent, I guess. I went from watching a well acted and produced classic of American Theatre to an insulting episode of Black Mirror.

As if this first act of “colour blind casting” wasn’t distracting enough, later in the play we learn that George, the brother of a character named Ann, who in this production was played by a white actress, is played by a Black man. Not only was this simply confusing on a basic level, but the implications of this dynamic raised even more profound questions about the exceedingly progressive politics that must have existed in the world of this play – questions that by definition could not be explored because they were never meant to be in the original script that saw the entire cast as white.

I felt insulted by all of the above. I was also one of many audience members who were confused and distracted by all of this. I, like many others, leaned over to a person I came to the theatre with to double check if I had heard correctly, that this Black man who just entered was the brother of the white woman I had been watching on stage the entire first act of the play.

What made matters worse is the fact that the father of George and Ann was still in jail after taking the fall for his boss. Instead of following the rich drama, I found myself wondering if the father was a Black man. This could be a poignant statement about racial bias in the legal system, only I was reminded that there was no such statement being made in this play, as the characters were intended to be all white. It all felt lazy at best, distracting and insulting at worst. It simply didn’t work for me. I found myself wondering how and why such a half baked decision could be made at the highest level of theatre in North America. This prompted me to do some digging, and the results were revealing.

It turns out this production was steeped in racial controversy from the very beginning. The original director of the revival, Gregory Mosher, a critically acclaimed Broadway director, originally wanted to cast both the roles of George and Ann with Black actors. He quit the production in protest after Arthur Miller’s estate, overseen by his daughter Rebecca Miller, objected to his concept making an argument that is the theatrical equivalent of #AllLivesMatter, saying:

“When Gregory suggested casting the Deevers as African American, I wanted to be sure the concept held water historically and thematically,” Miller said in her statement. She added that she worried Mosher’s casting “was in danger of white-washing the racism of 1947 suburban Ohio.” When she suggested that Mosher adopt a true “colorblind” approach — meaning opening all the roles to actors of any colour — “Mr. Mosher rejected that idea and chose to leave the production.”

In my opinion, the original director was right. While his concept of making both the brother and sister Black would have raised difficult questions, there would have at least been some form of logic at play. The director understood the optics of presenting the Deevers family as Black in the late 1940s. A lot of subtext can be added between lines of dialogue by a thorough director with a firm hand and clear vision. It may not have fully worked, but it would have made more sense and been less distracting than haphazardly placing Black people into a time period rife with racial discrimination and pretending it was non-existent. Instead, what we got was an unnecessarily messy, confusing, absurd fantasy play that demanded audience members ignore their own eyes and a basic knowledge of America’s history of racism.

A thorough explanation of the initial casting controversy can be found here.

“Colour blind casting” is insulting. It is confusing. It is a form of erasure rooted in white guilt and systemic racism. I encourage directors and producers to cast roles non traditionally, but not “blindly.”

What we need is “colour conscious casting.” If you want to introduce characters of colour into your story as a writer, director or producer, please do so in ways that encompass our complex history and our lived experiences.

Race matters. Race is not interchangeable. Pretending that it is irrelevant diminishes the struggles many of us still face today. If your concept can not account for the inclusion of our bodies on stage or screen in ways that actually integrate us into your story authentically, in ways that are honest, real, and humane, then don’t bother to include us at all. To do otherwise is asking performers to further diminish ourselves to appease white liberal guilt, and asking audiences to continue patting themselves on the back for living in a fantasy world where racism never existed. “Colour blind casting” is the theatrical equivalent of #AllLivesMatter. It needs to be retired from the theatre like its ideological relatives “Black Face”, and segregation before it.

Scrooge of Color – 15 of 40

Below I bolded sections of this article.

In red is something I am mulling. I have to agree that colorblind casting, by definition, ignores identity. But does that actually alienate an actor? Doesn’t acting itself ignore identity? Because I, the actor, am not actually the person portrayed, in age, circumstances, experience, time period, whatever the factor might be. Isn’t colorblind casting merely an additional facet of identity-ignoring on top of these?


Authenticity in casting: From ‘colorblind’ to ‘color conscious,’ new rules are anything but black and white

JULY 13, 2017
When Edward Albee’s estate denied permission for a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” because the director had cast a black actor to play a character Albee had specified as white, social media boiled over. How can the theatrical canon remain relevant if creative casting isn’t allowed? Why shouldn’t a black man play a white character? Actors are actors, storytelling in the search for universal truths.

But discord also erupted when a white man played a Dominican American in a Chicago production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s early musical “In the Heights” — and, conversely, when an open casting call for Miranda’s “Hamilton” specified “non-white actors.”

Casting in theater, as well as in film and television, has always been met with criticism. Everyone knows someone who was better for the part. But lately that criticism has taken on an unapologetically political — and often contradictory — bent that reflects both a need for diversity and a new demand for “authenticity.”

Even as audiences celebrate the “Hamilton” multiracial vision of the Founding Fathers, some actors and advocates argue that certain types of characters should be played only by actors who share those characters’ essential experiences. Just a week ago, an advocacy group for the disabled admonished Alec Baldwin for taking the part of a blind man in an upcoming film. Before that, protests decried the “whitewashing” of Asian characters through the casting of non-Asian performers in high-profile films.

The increasingly fraught and emotional dialogue pits the progressive ideals of inclusion not just against historical business practices but also the definition of acting itself.

If a role is written for a particular ethnicity, sexual identity, gender or disability, how far should the creative community go to find an actor who checks that particular box? And should the fact that many traditionally marginalized groups are fighting for better representation be taken into consideration? Who has the right to tell what stories? And who gets to make that decision?

Actors love to act. And they can get Oscar-size accolades for showing their reach. Think Leonardo DiCaprio’s nomination for playing a developmentally disabled teen in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Or Al Pacino’s Oscar win for his depiction of a blind man in “Scent of a Woman.” Or Jeffrey Tambor’s Emmys for his role as a transgender woman in “Transparent.”

Isn’t that the point of acting: to suspend audience disbelief to the point of personal reinvention?

Still, rising tension over the authenticity question could be felt in Tambor’s 2016 Emmy acceptance speech:

“Please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story,” he said. “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a transgender female.”

His words signaled a shift from the days when actors like Tom Hanks (who played gay in 1993’s “Philadelphia”), Jake Gyllenhaal (who did the same in 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain”) and John Lithgow (who played a trans woman in 1982’s “The World According to Garp”) were celebrated for their bravery in bringing mainstream visibility to overlooked and often denigrated groups.

The sentiment that, say, transgender, Latino or deaf actors should be given a fair shot at portraying transgender, Latino or deaf characters seems to be growing as producers, directors and others try to balance artistic goals with social responsibility — and the expectations of an increasingly diverse, empowered audience. This is writ large in the American theater, where the term “colorblind casting” — selecting actors without taking ethnicity into account — is no longer in favor. The ascendant norm is “color-conscious casting,” which implies an understanding of the profound implications of skin color. The shift carries potentially radical implications for the art form.

A study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition found that white actors were cast in 78% of the roles on New York stages between the years of 2006 to 2015, whereas the U.S. Census estimates the white population of the city to be about 44%. Such discrepancies worry activists who note the slowness of change, even after incidents such as the 1989 London opening of “Miss Saigon,” in which a white actor wore prosthetics to change the shape of his eyes. The resulting protests, partly spearheaded by playwright David Henry Hwang, called out the practice and spurred Hwang to write the satirical play “Yellow Face.”

“For a decade or so I was thinking we sort of won the war even if we lost the battle, because we put producers on notice that there was going to be so much trouble if you cast a white person as Asian that you just wouldn’t do it,” Hwang said. Not so anymore, he said, noting the casting of Emma Stone (in the 2015 film “Aloha”) and Scarlett Johansson (in this year’s film “Ghost in the Shell”) as characters originally written as Asian or part Asian. “For some reason white people really seem to like playing Asians.”

Still, the discussion about who should be cast in which roles has evolved, Hwang said. As the theater grows more aware and diverse, the authenticity discussion has evolved with nuance.

“These debates are healthy,” he said. “I think it represents a society that is attempting to come to grips and move forward into uncharted territory.”

Each play or musical must be considered on a case-by-case basis, said Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for Miranda’s “In the Heights.”

“The danger of creating one hard-and-fast rule is that it diminishes the conversation,” she says. “And, yes, it’s absolutely OK to say this role calls for a specific actor, and if you’re telling me you can’t find that actor, you’re not equipped to do the play.”

Many of the roles in Hudes’ work call for a particular ethnicity, and that should be honored, Hudes said. If it isn’t, then the play is not being produced as it was meant to be produced. It doesn’t convey what she intended the work to convey.

She doesn’t write roles for minorities as a form of political activism, she said. The playwright, who is of mixed heritage and grew up in a diverse Philadelphia community, is simply writing about the world as she has experienced it.

The shift from “colorblind” to “color-conscious” may be attributed partly to the growing diversity of stories being produced. In eras past, when the vast majority of tales unfolding onstage were written by white playwrights about white characters, it took colorblind casting for an actor of color to be seen.

But now we’re in the era of “Hamilton.” A better term is “color-conscious,” said Diep Tran, associate editor of American Theatre magazine, who writes a monthly column on equity, diversity and inclusion. “Color-conscious” means “we’re aware of the historic discrimination in the entertainment industry,” she said, “and we’re also aware of what it means to put a body of color onstage.”

Snehal Desai, artistic director of the Asian theater company East West Players in Los Angeles, the longest-running theater of color in the United States, agrees.

“The thing about colorblind casting is that it denies the person standing in front of you,” he said. “It ignores identity, and for people of color, that further alienates us.”

In the recent case of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in Portland, Ore., casting a black actor in the role of Nick was a color-conscious choice, director Michael Streeter said by email. He believed the decision would add depth to the play.

“The character is an up-and-comer,” Streeter said. “He is ambitious and tolerates a lot of abuse in order to get ahead. I see this as emblematic of African Americans in 1962, the time the play was written.”

The estate of Albee, who died last year, countered that the role was written specifically for a Caucasian man. (The playwright’s character description is 28 and “blond, well put-together, good looking.”) To alter that would fundamentally change the meaning and message of the play, the estate said.

In the resulting social media firestorm, some pointed out that “Hamilton” had done the same thing, only in reverse — casting actors of color to play white historical figures.

Tran called that line of thinking nonsense.

“When you have something like ‘Hamilton,’ which was written to give opportunity to actors who would normally not get that opportunity, it’s different than taking a job away from a white actor, because that white actor has the entire American canon to play with,” she said.

Tran also argued that an audience should want to see a production from that canon, exactly as the author intended, only so many times. Inflexibility puts the work in stasis, whereas theater should be a living, breathing art form.

“What does this 50-year-old play say about the time we’re living in now if we don’t put it in a modern context?” she asked.

Casting plays in a modern context makes financial sense as well, Hwang said.

“If people like to see themselves on stage and screen, then our artistic fields aren’t sufficiently preparing for audiences of the future,” he said.

The conversation will change in two or three generations as the country becomes more mixed racially, East West Players’ Desai said. He added that when it comes to representation, people of color long for consideration that extends beneath their skin.

“There are regulations about asking people their age or race,” he said. “As a person of color, I want to be seen as a whole person and not just an Indian.”

The danger of seeing only color, sexuality or disability is that it can lead to a ghettoization. Take the example of transgender actors, said Jon Imparato, the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s director of cultural arts and education. Since Caitlyn Jenner went public as transgender two years ago, Imparato’s phone has been ringing with requests for recommendations of good transgender actors.

“I say, ‘Is she a hooker and does she get murdered at the end? If so, we want nothing to do with it. We’ve heard that story,’” he said.

In this day and age, Imparato believes all trans roles should go to trans actors — although the same doesn’t hold true for gay roles. Why? First, it’s illegal to ask about sexuality when casting. Second, plenty of gay actors now play straight roles and vice versa, he said.

“For me it always comes down to who’s going to serve the play better? Do I have enough diversity in my cast?” Imparato said. “And are they the right actors?”

Scrooge of Color – 14 of 40 – book research

Further notes as I am reading the book “So You Want to Talk About Race.”

Opening the chapter “Check Your Privilege,” Author Ijeoma Oluo tells a striking story about helping organize an event in a public park for people of color, and the group was composed mainly of professionals. A handful of young black men asked what was going on and ended up asking to join in. There was a pause before they were welcomed. The pause lingered in Oluo’s mind until she realized, “When we built our community, we had in mind people like us.”

Building, or even just belonging to, a community is a matter of pride. When the community is crashed, it is a blow, and there is fear of loss, and there can be bitterness toward the usurpers. I mused about whether this would be the feeling that would underlie discomfort if I observed an actor of color playing Scrooge. Would I feel some kind of fear at “community violation”?

Scrooge of Color – 13 of 40 – book research

Further notes as I am reading the book “So You Want to Talk About Race.”

I admire those who are throwing themselves into protesting. I dislike and question my own reluctance to take part, but I don’t expect to change. I am fighting my own fights with This is RED. I don’t want to have a life of social crusading or being a cultural warrior.

But I recognize that I have the luxury of not having to fight for my rights. I can rest in privilege.


Author Ijeoma Oluo speaks of racism as a lie told to justify exploitation, and inventing a servile class. It is striking me as if for the first time how slavery was a dastardly social and financial innovation. It was hitting upon a way to materialize elves–a separate order of being made only to serve and (in some points of view) only happy serving. Or derivations of view points, including an arrogant conviction that minorities are blind to the fact that they are made to serve. They don’t know their place.


I struggled at first to understand this refrain by Oluo: It’s about race if a person of color says it’s about race. But this illustration helped a great deal. Say that you are regularly punched on the arm for no reason, by any and all individuals. If someone accidentally knocks your arm, that still fits within the maddening pattern.

Another excellent point: A white person might dismiss a person of color as misjudging a situation. But that assessment is on the basis of the white person’s own experience. Why is the experience of the person of color not as valid?


I have started to perceive an alternate history without discrimination, in which it would not seem odd for any older man to play Scrooge. I feel a loss in not living in that world, for myself and for everyone. We were all robbed. There is something of a correspondence to Oluo’s noting that so many movies have white-only casts. She was painfully aware that her children found themselves erased by films “making up entire universes where people like them do not exist.” Look at the erasure of worlds.

I was also reminded of an anecdote from Robert Duvall. He says a “very successful English actor” saw A Streetcar Named Desire was initially embarrassed because “he thought a stagehand had wandered onto the stage accidentally.” It’s striking that he used the word “embarrassed.” How painful in regard to a stage presentation. It speaks of being excruciatingly aware that the way of things has been upset.

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