Scrooge of Color

Scrooge of Color – 25 of 40 – book research

Below is a mix of online items about Zoe Kravitz’s playing Catwoman. The line in red helps me understand the difference between this kind of case and Ebenezer Scrooge: I love the idea of a black James Bond. I figure the name is more a title than a name, so anyone can play the role. This could also help explain why Miles Morales was easily received as Spider-Man.

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https://comicbook.com/dc/news/the-batman-zoe-kravitz-casting-fan-reactions-robert-pattinson-matt-reeves/#10

In a role nearly as coveted at the Caped Crusader itself, Batman fans have been waiting to find out who would be cast to play Catwoman in the upcoming The Batman, with Zoe Kravitz having officially secured the role. The actress is no stranger to starring in massive franchises, having previously secured roles in Mad Max: Fury Road and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, while already having a comic book pedigree after starring in X-Men: First Class and voicing Mary Jane in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. More recently, the actress earned acclaim for her role in the HBO series Big Little Lies.

Kravitz has big shoes to fill, with Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal of the character in Batman Returns being considered by many to be one of the best performances in any comic book film, with Anne Hathaway also having played Selina Kyle in The Dark Knights Rises. Halle Berry also played the villain in the solo Catwoman, which became a disappointment to both audiences and critics.

Scroll down to see what fans are saying about Kravtiz joining The Batman!

October 14, 2019

zoë kravitz went from being considered “too urban” for a role in nolan’s batman, to getting the role of catwoman. that’s justice!

Zoe Kravitz IS Selina Kyle. The Catwoman. We are so blessed.
ZOE KRAVITZ IS GONNA BE CATWOMAN, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! WHAT A WIN!
Zoë Kravitz really went from playing Catwoman in The LEGO Batman Movie to playing Catwoman in The Batman, huh?
ZOE KRAVITZ has reportedly been cast as Catwoman in Matt Reeves ‘THE BATMAN’ Yeah, I’m so here for this
zoë kravitz as selina kyle and robert pattinson as bruce wayne. we won. we really won.

https://www.cinemablend.com/news/2549262/how-the-batmans-zoe-kravitz-was-supported-by-all-the-other-catwoman-actresses

Comic book movies are everywhere, but there are a few superheroes that stand out as fan favorites. Batman is one of the most beloved characters of all time, and has therefore been adapted for the screen a variety of times. Next up is Matt Reeves’ The Batman, which will introduce a new cast of actors to occupy Gotham City. Joining Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is Big Little Lies actress Zoe Kravitz, who will be playing Selina Kyle/Catwoman in the highly anticipated blockbuster. Kravitz is the latest in a long line of iconic Catwomen, and recently spoke to the warm reception she received from her colleagues.

Catwoman has a fascinating love/hate relationship with Batman on the comics, and that dynamic has been adapted for the silver screen a variety of times throughout the years. Zoe Kravitz has been proceeded by the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Anne Hathaway, and Halle Berry (although the Catwoman movie left much to be desired). Kravitz revealed how her predecessors made her feel welcome in the role. In her words,

I spoke to Michelle. We sat at the same table at the Golden Globes, and I’ve met her a bunch over the years because of David E. Kelley. She’d always been so nice. I had just gotten cast so I was really nervous to be around her, and she was so sweet. She just gave me a big hug and said, ‘You’re going to be great.’ That was really just amazing. Both Halle and Anne [Hathaway] were really sweet on Instagram and Twitter. [They] sent really sweet, encouraging messages when that was announced. So I feel supported by my girls.

It looks like Catwoman actresses travel in packs. Because while each star brought something unique to their version of Catwoman, the most recent three Selina Kyle actresses have put their support behind Zoe Kravitz. We’ll just have to wait and see what the Mad Max: Fury Road star brings to the character once The Batman finally hits theaters.

Zoe Kravitz’ comments to Variety should make longtime Batman fans happy, especially those who were enamored with the most recent versions of Catwoman. While there’s no telling what Matt Reeves and Zoe Kravitz have in store for Selina Kyle in The Batman, her predecessors seem to have full faith in her abilities. And considering how iconic those previous performances were, that’s saying something.

Michelle Pfeiffer is arguably the most iconic version of Catwoman, playing Selina Kyle with vulnerability and seductiveness in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Meanwhile, Anne Hathatway’s Catwoman appeared in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises as a more realistic thief and eventual ally. Finally, Halle Berry played the title character of Catwoman, to somewhat disastrous results. But all three stars are eager to see what Zoe Kravitz brings to the table alongside as the rest of Matt Reeves’ stellar The Batman cast.

The Batman is currently expected to arrive in theaters on October 1st, 2021. In the meantime, check out our 2020 release list to plan your next trip to the movies.

 

Quora answer:

Rob Swanson, Publisher at Prevail Press (2006-present)
Answered October 15, 2019

Originally Answered: How do you feel about Zoe Kravitz portraying Cat Woman?
Remember Eartha Kitt from the Batman series? While Merriweather will always be my favorite, Eartha rocked it.

Zoe looks likes she in shape, and so much of the role is athleticism that she should be fine. I haven’t seen her in anything, but it works for me.

I admit to struggling a bit when a major character is recast for diversity points, but minor roles? Have at it. If she can make Catwoman a major role, like Michelle Pfeiffer did, more power to her.

I love the idea of a black James Bond. I figure the name is more a title than a name, so anyone can play the role, even a woman, and it would be a fun addition to the lore.

Scrooge of Color – 24 of 40 – book research

I cycled back to read more about Eartha Kitt’s playing Catwoman after musing that in the 60s, Catwoman would not have been as valuable a property because she was a secondary character in a secondary genre. Comics were still fringe. So there would not have been uproar of that nature. The outrage would have been more about interracial mingling – on the level of Eartha Kitt as a person rather than as a usurptress of a white role. And perhaps racial identification would actually have worked in the opposite fashion, if she were scene as an exotic, forbidden animal.

This article also points to the practice of treating casting lightly and flexibly. The producers casually replaced actors as the need arose and even looked at it as a special opportunity. A new portrayal did not erase or assault a former. There is a powerful parallel to the flexible casting (and flexible characterization) in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series – Batman uses a gun, Robin is a girl, The Joker is (apparently) gay. This kind of approach seems to avoid/subvert a “grounded” argument about casting. The same flexibility continues into “Batman: Year One,” where Catwoman (or pre-Catwoman) is black.

I also gained a new tributary to follow: The casting of Zoe Kravitz as the latest Catwoman. What has been the reaction? Is this now a part of tradition or canon that comic book geeks will defend? If so, is that what is missing here: A history of Scrooges of Color that gains its own following and traction? And/or a breakthrough portrayal within an inspired overall approach? The equivalent to “Into the Spider-Verse”?

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http://www.thegeektwins.com/2019/10/eartha-kitt-brief-history-of-first.html

EARTHA KITT: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FIRST BLACK CATWOMAN

Everything you need to know about Eartha Kitt’s portrayal of the Batman villain Catwoman.

News broke that biracial actress Zoe Kravitz has been cast as Catwoman. She stars opposite Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne / Batman in Matt Reeve’s prequel movie. The reason why it’s big news is she’s black. The character has been played by caucasian women for decades. Most recently by Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises.

While it’s big news that the “Big Little Lies” star is playing The Cat opposite The Bat it’s worth noting that the racial barrier was broken over 50 years ago. Eartha Kitt, the biracial actress, singer, and writer played Catwoman in the Batman 1960s series. Here’s how it went down.

EARTHA KITT BECOMES A “SEX KITTEN”

Eartha Mae Keith was born in South Carolina on January 17, 1927, on a cotton plantation. Her mother Annie Mae Keith was Cherokee and black. Eartha was born to a white man who she never knew and spent her life looking for. It’s rumored that she was conceived by rape. Her mother remarried and Eartha’s stepfather rejected her for her light skin. She and her sister were sent to live with relatives. Eartha Kitt was rejected by her black peers as “that yella’ girl” and white people only saw her as a poor black girl.

But despite her harsh upbringing Eartha Kitt prevailed. Excelled even. By 16 she won a full scholarship to study ballet with the famed Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. She continued dancing, singing and performing gaining greater fame. Soon she was named as a “performer to watch”. In 1946, at 20, famous director Orson Welles called her “the most exciting woman in the world.” Then, her singing career took off.

In the 1950s she had a breakout hit with her album RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt. She had hits like “Monotonous”, “I Want To Be Evil” and “Santa Baby”. Eartha Kitt cultivated the image of a sultry seductress and self-mockingly called herself a “sex kitten”.

EARTHA KITT TAKES OVER FROM JULIE NEWMAR

ABC’s live-action 1966 television show Batman was a campy sensation and Adam West became a household name. One of the biggest villains on the show was Catwoman. She was played by Julie Newmar and starred in 12 episodes for the first two seasons. Over time the character became defined by the unrequited romance between them and she took on a less villainous role.

When the third, and final, season arrived in 1967 Newmar was unavailable to reprise the role. She was contractually obligated for a role as an Apache woman in the western Mackenna’s Gold. Not racist at all by the way. The producers looked for a replacement.

By this time Kitt had become a worldwide sensation. Her stage performances were getting international acclaim. Her songs were playing on the radio in regular rotation. But her acting also took center stage. She had won an Emmy for her guest spot on the Robert Culp, Bill Cosby show I Spy (1965). She was honored with a star on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame” in 1960. She was cast as the new Catwoman, but it wasn’t easy.

EARTHA KITT BECOMES CATWOMAN AND THE SOUTH IS MAD

The show had changed actors before. It didn’t take itself too seriously.

Frank Gorshin played the Riddler in ten episodes of the series as well as the theatrical movie. But Gorshin wasn’t available in season two. So John Astin, well-known for The Addams Family, stepped in. George Sanders played Mr. Freeze in season one. But Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach both played him in season two. Lee Merriweather had already played Catwoman for the movie. No big deal. But this was something different.

Producer Bill Dozier picked Eartha Kitt to play the new Catwoman. “We felt it was a very provocative idea,” producer Charles B. Fitzsimons said. “She was a cat woman before we ever cast her as Catwoman. She had a cat-like style. Her eyes were cat-like and her singing was like a meow. This came as a wonderful off-beat idea to do it with a black woman.

“I was about nine years old when she played Catwoman on Batman, and that was a really big deal,” Kitt’s daughter Kitt Shapiro later told Closer Weekly. “This was 1967, and there were no women of color at that time wearing skintight bodysuits, playing opposite a white male with sexual tension between them! She knew the importance of the role and she was proud of it. She really is a part of history. She was one of the first really beautiful black women — her, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge — who were allowed to be sexy without being stereotyped. It does take a village, but I do think she helped blaze a trail.”

When her casting was announced television network affiliates in the Southern states were outraged. Fitzsimons and the other producers didn’t care. But they did agree that the romance between Batman and Catwoman had to end. They were progressive but not stupid.

When did Eartha Kitt play Catwoman? Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman debuted on Batman on December 14, 1967, in the episode “Catwoman’s Dressed To Kill”. In the episode, Catwoman attacks high-society fashion icons.

There was clearly sexual tension between Batman and Catwoman. But without the need to cater to Batman she was free to become an even greater villain. She manages to capture Batgirl and threatens to kill her. It’s a bold move and one she could have never pulled off before. Catwoman became more an equal to Batman with a “Catlair”, a “Kitty Car” and even hires a lawyer.

While Kitt had appeared on dozens of movies and stageplays she was unused to the rigors of a scripted television show. Alan Napier, who played Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, said, “Julie Newmar was the best Catwoman, but Eartha Kitt was kind of marvelous. She did complain a lot on the set though.”

Kitt appeared in two more episodes of the show “The Funny Feline Felonies” and “The Joke’s on Catwoman” respectively. Her signature move is to say everything is “perfect” while rolling her r’s. It comes out as “purrfect” and it’s wonderful. The New York Post is quoted as saying, “Eartha Kitt was born to be Catwoman.” Newmar herself later said Kitt was her favorite Catwoman. “She had the voice and that purr,” She later told 13th Dimension. “She could purr while talking. I could never really get that. She had that from years of singing, I think, and being a sultry woman herself. She was wonderful. I just flipped when I saw her do it. I thought she was great.”

After the show, she went on to an even more amazing career before her death. “Oh! I loved doing Catwoman!” Kitt told The Austin Chronicle in 2006. When asked if she would reprise her role she said, “Why not? But I probably would do it now as the mother of the cat. I love doing the character. I didn’t have to think about it: I didn’t try to be a cat, I am a cat!”

Eartha Kitt died December 25, 2008, in Connecticut, U.S.A. at 81-years old. While many Catwomen have come and gone Eartha Kitt’s was the most purrfect.

The next woman of color to play a live-action Catwoman was Halle Berry in the box office bomb of the same name. Zoe Kravitz is no stranger to Batman though.

Back when they were casting The Dark Knight Rises Kravitz said she was turned down for a role because she’s a woman of color. “In the last Batman movie [The Dark Knight Rises], they told me that I couldn’t get an audition for a small role they were casting because they weren’t ‘going urban,'” she told Nylon. “It was like, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ I have to play the role like, ‘Yo, what’s up, Batman? What’s going on wit ‘chu?'” Plus, she is the voice of Catwoman in The Lego Batman Movie.

We’ll see how Zoe Kravitz does.

What do you think of Eartha Kitt’s performance? Are you excited for Zoe Kravitz? Let us know in the comments below!

Scrooge of Color – 23 of 40 – book research

The articles below highlight Naomie Harris, the first black actress to portray the James Bond character Moneypenny. It was striking to recall this as another case of “black replacing white,” especially since the dynamic of the moment was not racial–it was pure surprise that this person was that character, not because of her color but because of her prowess. It is in keeping with the updating of prominent characters such as Alfred Pennyworth (nice surname parallel there) to be much more active and dynamic in the past. I bolded a phrase below that is another subtle tie to topic at hand: “The reveal wasn’t until much later in the film, by which time I’d kind of got under people’s skin and they’d accepted that character.” What a lovely example of what would be ideal: Meet a person and get to know that person before categorizing them. Don’t pre-judge.

The final article concerns Harris first leading role, in the film “Black and Blue,” in which race does matter. In fact, her character is racially profiled by police, even though she is an officer herself. So those two films capture the nature of colorblind versus color-conscious casting.

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https://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/james-bond-spectre/naomie-harris-black-moneypenny/

The public did not object to the new Miss Moneypenny being black because they were not told until the film was already out, the actress Naomie Harris has suggested.

Harris, the first black actress to play the James Bond character, said she had been “very lucky” her casting had been kept under wraps until Skyfall was in cinemas.

“I think I was very lucky that it was never revealed I was Moneypenny until the movie was already out,” she told Town & Country magazine. “People didn’t have a chance to say, ‘Oh no, we don’t want a black Moneypenny,’ because they didn’t know she was coming.

https://www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/news/a34424/naomie-harris-spectre-interview/
Harris is also the first non-white Moneypenny (she’s the sixth total since the character was introduced in1962’s Dr. No). The diversification of the character, however, was predicated more on the actress than any predominant cultural shift. Director Sam Mendes cast Harris in Skyfall after seeing her in Danny Boyle’s London theater production of Frankenstein. “I have no idea what he saw in me, and I’ve never asked him,” the actress admits. “But I do know that he called Danny Boyle and asked him what I was like to work with.” Furthermore, Harris was never preoccupied with making history: “I never thought about it like that,” she says. “I just thought about there being pressure for what people’s expectations about what Moneypenny is like, who should play her, what kind characteristics she should have. The great thing about the way I was introduced in Skyfall is that you didn’t know. The reveal wasn’t until much later in the film, by which time I’d kind of got under people’s skin and they’d accepted that character.”

https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/1192483/James-Bond-auditions-Moneypenny-Naomie-Harris-Daniel-Craig-No-Time-to-Die

Powerful women is what Harris is all also about. In 2012, she rewrote film history by becoming the first black Miss Moneypenny, the first to get a first name – Eve – and the first to get out of her office and become a MI6 field agent.

“That’s incredibly important to me. As I grew up with really strong women, my mum raised me on her own. I was part of a community of very strong women. And I felt growing up there was this disparity between what I was living as my reality and what I saw on screen. And, so from the start of my career, it was incredibly important to me that I played strong, powerful women or empowering women. And that I offered a role model to other girls growing up,” insisted Harris, whose parents separated before she was born.

https://www.bpr.org/post/what-naomie-harris-had-do-be-so-black-and-blue#stream/0

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The new movie “Black And Blue” is an action thriller about a woman who tries to straddle a divide between two groups of people – African Americans and the police who are supposed to be protecting them. The New Orleans police officer who tries to bridge these worlds is Alicia West, played by the actress Naomie Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “BLACK AND BLUE”)

NAOMIE HARRIS: (As Alicia West) Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Up against the wall.

HARRIS: (As Alicia West) What’s the problem?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Up against the wall.

HARRIS: (As Alicia West) Hey, take it easy, all right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Against the wall.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the movie’s opening scene, she’s going for a run. She’s wearing a hoodie. Cops stop her for questioning, and it turns rough. While they’re searching her, they find her police badge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “BLACK AND BLUE”)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Sorry about that. We’re looking for someone that matches your description. You know how it is.

HARRIS: (As Alicia West) Yeah, I know how it is.

CORNISH: This is a very American story. And the actress who carries the film is British. Our co-host Ari Shapiro spoke with her about how she relates to the themes of police violence and mistrust.

HARRIS: I mean, I’m – I was definitely very aware that it is a uniquely American story. And so, you know, I had deep dive and do all of my research and so on so that I honored that experience and could play it as authentically as I possibly could.

But sadly, you know, the American experience is not exclusive to America. We have the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.K. And we have a breakdown of relations between the police and the black community within the U.K., as well, and many unexplained deaths of black people – perfectly healthy black men in particular – that have been arrested and then ended up dead in police custody and all the issues that you have in America. I think they’re much more extreme here, but we have them in the U.K., as well, for sure.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Yeah. What kind of research did you do?

HARRIS: I was incredibly lucky because Tyrese, who obviously, you know, co-stars in the movie, is from South Central LA. And he was like, the experience that Alicia had growing up and the kind of community she came from is exactly the community that I came from. And so I’m going to help you, and I’m going to be there for you and explain any sort of cultural differences that you don’t get.

SHAPIRO: Can you remember something specific that your co-star Tyrese Gibson told you about his experience growing up as a black man in LA that was very helpful to you in understanding your character in this movie?

HARRIS: I mean, one of the moments that really stuck out in my mind was when he calls the police for help in the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “BLACK AND BLUE”)

TYRESE GIBSON: (As Milo ‘Mouse’ Jackson) I called y’all.

HARRIS: And they come, and they actually kind of handcuff him…

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “BLACK AND BLUE”)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Back up.

GIBSON: (As Milo ‘Mouse’ Jackson) What?

HARRIS: …And harass him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “BLACK AND BLUE”)

GIBSON: (As Milo ‘Mouse’ Jackson) I’m the one who called y’all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Police, if there’s anybody…

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Turn around, hands on the counter. Spread your legs. Spread your legs.

GIBSON: (As Milo ‘Mouse’ Jackson) I’m the one who called y’all, sir.

HARRIS: And he was saying that that is an experience that he’s seen happen many times before and how frustrating, belittling, anger-inducing that is as a black man who’s, you know, called for help and then actually ends up being treated as though they are the criminal.

SHAPIRO: These themes that we’re talking about seem like they could fit into a very dower and heavy movie. And this film is anything but (laughter). So…

HARRIS: Yes. Deon says that this movie is candy with medicine in it.

SHAPIRO: This is the director, Deon Taylor.

HARRIS: That’s right, yes.

SHAPIRO: It’s a big step for you because even though audiences have seen you over the years in “Moonlight” and the James Bond films where you play Moneypenny – I first noticed your performance in the zombie film “28 Days Later” back in 2002 – but this is the first time you’ve played a leading role.

HARRIS: That’s right, yeah.

SHAPIRO: What did it take to make that leap?

HARRIS: So I always said I didn’t want to play a lead because I always – I’ve always found it quite stressful.

SHAPIRO: So it was a choice?

HARRIS: Yeah. I always said, you know, I don’t want the weight of a whole movie because it’s kind of stressful enough coming in and doing your part. And I just enjoyed this kind of collaborative experience of being a part of this whole process. I didn’t want to, like, have the entire spotlight on me. I mean, it’s very typical of my kind of personality because I’m much more of an introvert than an extrovert, bizarrely enough, given…

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You’re on screen seen by millions, yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah, exactly (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Except it’s funny. You say even without playing a lead, playing any role in a film is stressful. You chose to play a lead in a movie that is so stressful.

HARRIS: Oh, my gosh, it’s so stressful (laughter). And it was – it’s funny because, you know, you read the script, you think, oh, that’s great. Oh, my gosh, it’s so exciting. It’s brilliant. And then it’s not until you actually start filming it and you realize, what, I’ve got to be running every single day. I’ve got to be scared every single day. I’ve got to be jumping through windows – you know what I mean? It’s like…

SHAPIRO: And is that what filming is like? Like, every day, you’re running and jumping through windows?

HARRIS: Every day – running, jumping, terrified. I actually signed a contract which said that they weren’t even going to get me to run. So…

SHAPIRO: Really?

HARRIS: Yes. So I did no preparation – physical preparation – for the role because I was like, you know, someone else is going to be doing all the hard lifting for me. And I’m just going to act it. And then you get there. And you are confronted with the amazing Deon Taylor, our director, who just smiles at you and just says, hey, Naomie, would you mind just running from here to there? And then that’s what we’re asking. Would you mind? And you go, yeah, sure, Deon. And then the next day, it’s like, would you mind running from here to two miles down the road?

SHAPIRO: So you did no preparation and suddenly you’re sprinting on camera with blanks being fired at you?

HARRIS: No. Suddenly I’m, like, sprinting, jumping out windows, you know, jumping off things, being hit, thrown across the room in choke holds. I mean, it was – yeah, it was rough.

SHAPIRO: But it sounds like…

HARRIS: It was an intense experience.

SHAPIRO: …Maybe you proved to yourself that you can do something that was a little intimidating that you hadn’t done up until now.

HARRIS: I did. You know, that’s really interesting. Actually, that’s a really interesting point. And I really did because at the end of the movie, I was like, I love playing leads. I want to play leads all the time now (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So what did you have wrong about it? Like, what was your misconception?

HARRIS: My misconception was that it was actually more stressful playing a lead. But actually, it’s less stressful because you’re on all the time so you don’t have time to kind of wait around in your trailer getting nervous and worrying about like, you know, the scene and getting all head-up about it.

And also, because you are the lead, you get to set the rhythm for the whole piece and the tone and, you know, just the vibe on set. So it becomes like your family, your thing that you’ve created. And it just feels really special. And I’ve really just got over my nerves because usually before I’m acting, before any scene, I’m nervous, you know? But I wasn’t nervous during this because I was there every day. These were my friends.

SHAPIRO: You’re in the swimming pool.

HARRIS: You know, these were my family.

SHAPIRO: You’re used to the of on the water, yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: One of the themes of the movie is that while there are dirty, corrupt cops, there are also a lot of cops who just kind of go along with the corruption because…

HARRIS: I think that’s the majority, to be honest. I think the bad apples are very few and far between. I think most people are – engage in criminality by turning a blind eye because – and actually, I think that’s one of the strong themes of the movie, that actually by doing nothing, you do a hell of a lot because you’re not standing up against what is wrong.

SHAPIRO: So what does that say about the challenges to actually making change?

HARRIS: I think it says that the real challenge is getting over apathy. You know, there used to be a time when, you know, when the Black Lives Matter movement first started where people were out marching and, you know, outraged. And now I think people are just like, this is just the way it is. And so the aim of this film is also to reignite dialogue and get people outraged again and hopefully get them active.

SHAPIRO: Naomie Harris, thank you for talking with us about your new film “Black And Blue.”

HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scrooge of Color – 21 of 40 – book research

This academic paper highlights the fact that the race of an actor matters when it matters within a production (when it is meant to signify something dramatically). But that’s not where it ends: Responsibly mounting a production with color-conscious or colorblind casting includes answering these questions:

If race does matter dramatically, is it bearing the appropriate amount of significance, or does it need to bolstered / supplemented by other production choices?

If race doesn’t matter dramatically, is it an implicit signifier if minorities have only minor roles?

Do we need to explain in promotions, programs and other materials how race does/doesn’t matter in this production?

How will we respond if an audience member objects in a way that disrupts the performance and disrespects the actor?

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To Notice or Not To Notice: Shakespeare, Black Actors, and Performance Reviews

Ayanna Thompson, Arizona State University

Abstract

This essay examines the 2006-2007 Royal Shakespeare Company’s performances of The Winter’s Tale and Pericles. Part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival, these shows employed an extremely diverse cast in repertory performances of the two plays. Through interviews with several of the actors employed and analyses of the published theater reviews, I highlight the challenges theater reviewers face when writing about non-traditionally cast productions. In the end, I advocate for a more progressive and responsible theater-reviewing style that takes into account the complexities of race in performance.

In the winter of 2006-2007 the Royal Shakespeare Company, as part of their Complete Works Festival, staged two of Shakespeare’s late plays in repertory: The Winter’s Tale and Pericles. The plays were originally staged at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, but then were re-staged in the United States as part of the RSC’s residency at Davidson College. The single cast used for both plays was comprised of twenty-five players, ten of whom were black. I am interested in analyzing the semiotic implications for the performances of race in this repertory company because the two plays seemed to utilize two different types of casting. While it was clear that Pericles was cast in a cross-cultural way — the play was explicitly staged and cast as if it took place in Africa — The Winter’s Tale seemed to offer a more traditional colorblind model for casting — the audience was not explicitly invited to notice the actors’ racial or ethnic differences. As I participated in Davidson’s symposium, “Like an Old Tale Still: Shakespeare’s Late Plays,” I saw both productions (more than once) and led a panel discussion with the actors about non-traditional casting.1 Earlier in the symposium, there also had been a panel on performance reviewing/reviewers. The splitting of these panels, it later occurred to me, symbolized the disconnect between performers and reviewers on the issues of race and performance. The performance reviewers did not participate in the discussion about non-traditional casting, and the performers did not participate in the discussion about performance reviewing.

This article seeks to begin a discussion that interrogates the bind that surrounds race in performance reviews: Is it better to notice or not notice race in one’s review? It may seem that actors of color give contradictory responses to the query. On the one hand, actors of color are often adamant about not wanting to be labeled as such because it can limit their opportunities. Why is it that actors of color are called “black actors” when their white counterparts are rarely (if ever) called “white actors,” many actors have quipped. On the other hand, actors of color are often adamant about not wanting their race, color, ethnicity, and culture to be completely whited-out of performances. Many actors feel that their race and culture are central to their life experiences, and, thus, are central to their acting abilities and styles. It is not always desirable, they intone, to be blind to that. So how exactly should race play into a performance review? For this article I conducted lengthy phone interviews with several of the actors in Pericles and The Winter’s Tale, and I read all of the available reviews of these productions. Although it may appear as if the bind is irresolvable — reviewers will be condemned both for noticing and not noticing race — I suggest that a more critically engaged type of noting might undo this bind. Performance reviewers must be more attentive to the way in which a production makes race semiotically (ir)relevant. Thus, it should never be a mere matter of noting an actor’s race in a review; rather, it should be a matter of assessing what and how a production renders the semiotic value and meaning of that actor’s race.

Old Tales Made New

Garnering almost unanimous praise — one critic went so far as to call them “the jewels in the RSC’s Complete Works Festival” — The Winter’s Tale and Pericles were applauded for the fact that they were staged in promenade style, with the actors and audience inhabiting the same space onstage (Gardner 2006). This required the audience to move physically out of/into the acting space in order to see the action of the plays. The Winter’s Tale was set first in a Sicilia that was marked by a type of cold formalism: The actors were dressed in tuxedos, and Paulina, at one point, donned a fur coat (it is a winter’s tale, after all). Bohemia, on the other hand, was marked by a type of warm informalism: The actors were dressed in casual, outdoor working attire, and the rustics, at one point, pranced around in only their “fruitful” skivvies.2 This is to say that the locations were less about place than “the relationship between time and one’s spiritual evolution” (Cooke 2006, response to question three). Sicilia and Bohemia, not referencing exact locations, were used to evoke the possibility of change and growth over time. In line with this interpretation of the play, the races, ethnicities, and colors of the actors were not semiotically relevant in the production. While the majority of the larger parts (Leontes, Polixenes, Hermione, Paulina, Perdita, and Autolycus) were played by white actors and actresses, two important roles were played by actors of color (Camillo and Antigonus). Their color, however, was not highlighted, questioned, or brought into the semiotic realm of the production; we, the audience, were not supposed to think about race and/or color in this production of The Winter’s Tale.

The RSC’s production of Pericles, on the other hand, made race extremely semiotically present and pertinent because of an emphasis on place: “Pericles is looking at place and the effect of place on self, or place as a metaphor, a journey through physical places as a metaphor for spiritual evolution” (Cooke 2006). Specifically staging Pericles’s journey as beginning in east Africa and moving north and west through the Mediterranean, the director, Dominic Cooke, evoked the way in which the issues of displacement, migration, and estrangement have become pertinent in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by casting many of the black members of the company in speaking roles for Pericles (Pericles, Gower, Antiochus, Thaliart, Helicanus, Cleon, Dionyza, Marina, Leonine, and Antiochus’s Daughter). As many of the reviewers noted, Clarence Smith’s performance of Antiochus, for example, seemed loosely based on the verbal and physical stylings of Robert Mugabe, the controversial president of Zimbabwe. The African-ness of the early scenes, then, was established through the use of black actors who were employing African accents and outfits. In addition, the white actors in the company (of whom there were roughly two for every one black actor) were not present in the early African scenes unless their bodies (and skin colors) were completely shrouded. In this semiotic realm, the color of the actors was highly invested with meaning: blackness helped to establish the African-ness of the setting.

It is important to note, however, that none of the production materials for the plays made references to race and casting and their relationship with the potential implications(s) for interpretation. While the beautiful thirty-page theater program included many color and black-and-white photos of the mixed-race cast, the synopses of the plays did not mention race or place. In fact, the program notes for Pericles did not even mention the fact that the play was being updated to a “non-descript African country” (Mydell 2007). While Lucian Msamati, the Zimbabwean-born actor who played Pericles to much acclaim, states that he knew “quite early on” about Dominic Cooke’s idea of setting Pericles “in an east African setting and mov[ing] on,” the other actors were not informed until after they had begun rehearsals (Msamati 2007). As Maynard Eziashi, who played Dion in The Winter’s Tale and Cleon in Pericles, explains:

It was only on the first day that I realized, “Ooh, there are a lot of black actors.” And I thought, “That is very interesting.” Having heard of Dominic Cooke but not really knowing him, I thought, “Well, he is very egalitarian. Go, Dominic, go.” I was really pleased. Then after about the third day, he said, “Right, the setting for Pericles is going to be in Africa.” And I was like, “I see, Okay, I get it now. Alright, fine. Fair enough, fair enough. . . . I see what my role is. It is to be an African.” (Eziashi 2007)

Likewise, Joseph Mydell, the Olivier Award-winning actor who played Camillo in The Winter’s Tale and Gower in Pericles (again, to much acclaim), offers that Cooke “very strategically did not want it to leak to the press that he was setting any of this in any part of Africa because he did not want people to get a spin on it” (Mydell 2007). The silence around the significance of the setting — and its relationship to the actors cast — continued: I have been unable to find any quotes from Dominic Cooke about this issue. While he has spoken about immigration and migration in general terms, he has not addressed how these issues conflate with or contradict constructions of racial identity. Furthermore, there were no materials or thoughts offered about the different semiotic performance lenses employed by this single repertory company for The Winter’s Tale and Pericles. And, not surprisingly, I have been unable to find any theater critics who have addressed this interesting and thought-provoking theatrical challenge.

This lack of attention, however, does not minimize or erase/e-race the semiotic challenges put forth by the RSC’s employment of a repertory company. Blackness signified two radically differently things in The Winter’s Tale and Pericles. In the former, the audience was asked not to see or notice blackness. More than an empty signifier, blackness — if noticed at all by the audience — became a false signifier. It did NOT provide any semiotic, performative, or interpretative lenses that enhanced, impacted, or even informed the production. In the latter, on the other hand, the audience was asked to see and notice blackness. More than a signifier of mere racial difference, blackness in Pericles became a signifier of geographical, national, cultural, and racial import. It DID provide semiotic, performative, and interpretative lenses that enhanced, impacted, and even informed the production. Thus, the audience was implicitly asked to move from not imparting color and/or race with any theatrical, performative, or semiotic meaning/value to doing just the opposite. One cast, two plays, and two semiotic implications for race. What does this mean for the black actor? By examining some of their critiques of both semiotic/performance systems, I postulate a new path for theater reviewing with regards to race and performance.

Do I Contradict Myself? “Black Actors”

What is it like, as a black actor, to be told implicitly or explicitly that his/her race will not be a factor in a production? This is, after all, one of the fundamental tenets of colorblind casting: that race, color, and/or ethnicity will not be taken into account for either the casting or direction of a production.3 Lucian Msamati articulates the frustrations of many actors of color when he says:

What does “black actor” mean? I’m an actor, and I will always be an actor. Of course, it became very clear quite quickly what it meant to be a black actor. Suddenly, with people’s best intentions and with the best will in the world, I might lack the opportunity, or be limited, or that I was not going to be automatically considered to play the romantic lead, not because of my ability but simply because of the color of my skin. (Msamati 2007)

Many actors of color have expressed similar sentiments; being labeled as a “black actor” has historically limited performance options. Colorblind-ness, the act of not taking race or color into account, then, might open doors that traditionally have been closed. Joseph Mydell explains how taxing it can be to have to play “black” roles, arguing:

I love the idea that as a black man I can play Shakespeare and express things about myself that I couldn’t necessarily express if I were limited to only trying to play my blackness, which is usually in relation to someone’s whiteness, which is so boring because then you are just reacting. (Mydell 2007)

Not only are actors of color potentially limited in the roles that are available to them, but also they are potentially limited by the range of the “black” roles. If these plays address the historically unequal power dynamics between black and white, then black actors are often forced to be more reactive than active, Mydell argues.

Yet, acting in productions in which one’s race, color, and/or ethnicity is deemed irrelevant is not without complications. Maynard Eziashi, who played the important role of Cleon in Pericles, only played a minor role in The Winter’s Tale. He stresses that many productions that claim to be colorblind in their casting often replicate the glass ceiling that continues to prevent actors of color from earning important roles. Thinking about the RSC’s use of black actors in The Winter’s Tale, Eziashi comments: “Apart from Camillo and Antigonus, the main characters, the main thrust, were white. So most of the black actors in that play were not helping with exposition: They were just there. There were only really two black actors who were storytellers. So everyone else were just fillers” (Eziashi 2007). Despite the fact that the casting for The Winter’s Tale aimed to be colorblind, with race not impacting the casting, direction, or production, the characters whose lines most affected the “exposition” of the play were played by white actors. So while the production aimed to render race and color irrelevant semiotically, one could re-inscribe a type of semiotic relevance through the employment of black actors as “fillers.” In other words, this production of The Winter’s Tale unwittingly rendered the black actors less important than the white actors, who were charged with delivering most of the “exposition” of the narrative. Instead of making blackness irrelevant, this production implicitly made it secondary to, supportive of, and less important than whiteness, which in turn enjoyed primacy. Not unique to this production of The Winter’s Tale, the invisible glass ceiling often emerges in ostensibly colorblind productions.

Clarence Smith offers a slightly different critique of not-seeing race, color, and/or ethnicity in performance. Smith, who played Cleomenes in The Winter’s Tale and Antiochus in Pericles, started his career playing the King of France in the RSC’s 1991 colorblind production of King Lear (directed by Nicholas Hytner). When Smith spoke his first lines, “This is most strange, / That she . . . / . . . should in this trice of time / Commit a thing so monstrous” (King Lear, 1.1.214-18),4 he was heckled by a French woman in the audience. Smith explains:

Somebody in the audience says, “Well, yes, it most bloody certainly is [strange]!” and shouted. And every time I spoke, I was being heckled. And you can imagine, you look out into the auditorium, and it’s just a sea of white faces, and I’m like, “This isn’t happening. Something else is happening, Clarence. You [just] think that every time you speak somebody is saying you should not be speaking.” And basically, there was someone in the audience who was French who said it was a disgrace that a black man was playing the King of France. (Smith 2007)

Despite the fact that Nicholas Hytner and the RSC intended the production to be a colorblind one, in which Smith’s black skin was either semiotically irrelevant or semi-invisible, this French woman could not be blind to Smith’s color; for her, it was always relevant, visible, and inappropriate for the role. While the original intent of colorblind casting was to make race irrelevant and/or invisible for audience members, audiences often come with biases that even the best productions are unable to alter. The interesting pull between production and reception is not my focus here, however. I am more interested in the way the RSC persisted in insisting that race should not be a factor for discussion, even when Smith wanted to initiate one. He continues:5

What happened is a bit like, you know Ralph Ellison? Invisible Man? He says, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.” And I went, “I’m not fucking invisible.” Because what happens is, within the company, it just wasn’t mentioned. . . . I said to myself, I’ve got to speak to Terry Hand, who was the artistic director of the company, and Terry’s the most wonderful man, the most wonderful man. I went to Terry and said, “Did you hear what happened?” And he went, “Oh, Clarence, yes, I know, it’s just terrible, isn’t it. You get small-minded people wherever you go in the world.” And I went, “I know, I know, I know. I just want to kind of know what the company’s policy is should that happen again, which is quite feasible.” . . . And he said, “Well, really, black actors have come on leaps and bounds. Actors like you now, they don’t even sound black.” And I went, “I beg your pardon? Terry, if that was meant to be a compliment, that’s kind of like the worst thing you could’ve said to me, because I am black, it doesn’t matter what I sound like, how I walk, what I wear, how I smell: I am that, and it’s kind of like you want me to be neutral, translucent.” It was such a shock to me that this man, who I had great respect for and still do, [should say this to me]. . . . “Well,” he said, “What can we do?” And I said, “Well, what you would do is, if someone was making a racist or anti-Semitic public statement, you would remove them.” And he went, “Well, Clarence, how do we do that? That would interrupt the show.” And I said, “What? You would compromise my position and who I am as a person for the show? I’m not prepared to do that, so if that were to happen and the company’s not going to do anything about it, then I will do something about it. And that means if it should happen again, I will leave the stage. That’s what I will do.” . . . And he went, “Well, I don’t know if that would be the right thing to do.” (Smith 2007)

The RSC was so wedded to the notion of colorblind-ness that the company made Clarence Smith feel like the invisible man. Although Smith was elated to be invited to act in the company, and although he had earlier dropped out of a drama school that wanted him to focus on what he could say theatrically as a “black man,”6 Smith did not want his race to be erased or to be treated as “invisible,” “neutral,” and/or “translucent.” If the audience was unable to be blind to his race, then Smith wanted the company to say something about its (in)significance. Both Eziashi and Smith, then, point to some of the inherent problems of treating race, color, and ethnicity as semiotically irrelevant in performance.

On the other hand, actors often critique casting directors, directors, producers, reviewers, and audience members for seeing, noting, and commenting too much on race in performance. All four of the actors I interviewed, for example, commented (without prompting) that Michael Billington’s review of Pericles mistakenly identified the repertory company as a “predominantly black company” (Billington 2006). They all noted that Billington failed to recognize that the company was the same for both The Winter’s Tale and Pericles and that this company was only one-third black. Several of the actors, however, speculate that this mistaken vision — seeing more color than is actually there — might have stemmed from some strains within the production itself. While all of the actors had high praise for Dominic Cooke’s vision, several wondered why Pericles was not staged “a bit bolder” (Eziashi 2007). Eziashi explains that he and several other actors had encouraged Cooke and his associate director Maria Aberg to represent Africa through more than just the black actors cast, noting:

Clarence [Smith] and I said that the opening scene was originally very weak: We felt that it had to be strong; you had to understand this country. For example, there wasn’t the use of drums; there wasn’t the use of the marauding-style. It wasn’t a large entrance. And we felt that compared to Pentapolis, which was very sophisticated, it just looked very watery: It just looked like a few people in the middle of the bush. So we tried to beef it up that way, and to give our input there. . . . Pentapolis is set up as this very sophisticated world, and the rest of world was very savage-like. I felt that wasn’t really right and that you had to show at least some kind of sophistication. This would come out in costume and the kinds of things they would want to put on me or have me do. For instance, I played Cleon, and, “Well, we want you to walk out and walk amongst the people and greet them and then sit on the floor somewhere.” And the guy’s a king! . . . There are certain behavior patterns that have to be observed: They are very, very important. These are the things that I tried, with Clarence and others, to put across. So that these kingdoms looked like kingdoms. (Eziashi 2007)

Eziashi intimates that the African-ness of the RSC’s Pericles was primarily being established through the black actors cast, as opposed to the staging, blocking, and/or costuming employed. While Pentapolis, as an all-white kingdom, was being established through elaborate stagings, the African kingdoms were left under-attended because there was the assumption that the race and color of the actors would semiotically convey place. Before Eziashi, Smith, Mydell, and others offered their input on the blocking and staging of the early scenes, the scenes in Africa looked much less magisterial than the scenes in Pentapolis because blackness was entrusted with conveying so much. It is no wonder, then, that Billington thought the company was “predominantly black,” for Pericles alone because blackness was invested with so much meaning.

Furthermore, because the actors’ blackness was initially entrusted with conveying a sense of place, the production did not consider the complex race relations that take place in Africa. Smith comments:

When you go to Africa, there are white Africans that speak with an African accent. When you go to Jamaica, there are white Jamaicans that speak in a Jamaican accent. When you go to the south of America, there are black Americans that speak with a real southern drawl, and there are white Americans [that do, too]. What Dominic didn’t do is he didn’t factor in the white cast, white actors, with African accents. Had he done that, he would have really opened up the whole debate about integrated casting and colorblind casting. That’s what he should’ve done because then we would’ve been in a real world. . . . What happens is that you have an idea, but can you really think it through logically to the final conclusion. . . . Dominic laid his soul out to a lesser degree, and he’s only human. The fact is that it needs black directors to be able to be in that position, to say, “I’m going to do this play and actually, I am going to research it fully.” At any moment it was just a good idea, but there’s something else that needs to take place. (Smith 2007)

Smith suggests that Cooke’s good idea to update Pericles by setting it in Africa was inventive and thought provoking, but, ultimately, under-analyzed because for Cooke, the blackness of the actors signified Africa and African-ness. Smith wisely challenges that this not only creates weak theater without equally inventive staging, but also does not reflect the reality of life in Africa. Blackness, Smith implies, should not be assumed to be able to perform a sense of place semiotically any more than whiteness should. Pentapolis, in Cooke’s RSC production, was a Grecian kingdom with elaborately staged rituals and rites of power (including the hilarious Pentathalon). The African kingdoms were not initially afforded the same attention to detail because the actors’ races and colors were thought to signify so much about place. Cooke, in this instance, perhaps was too color-sighted.

The Blind Leading the Blind: Performance Reviewers

Performance reviewers have, for the most part, backed away from focusing on the race of actors. None of the reviews of The Winter’s Tale mentions that the cast is racially mixed. And while Michael Billington’s is the only review of Pericles explicitly to mention the blackness of the cast, many reviewers focus on the African-ness of the setting in interesting ways. For instance, Ian Shuttleworth, writing in the Financial Times, claims that “Cooke envisions narrator Gower as a West African griot, but here all the city-states of the eastern Mediterranean are played as African. Almost the first person we see is the incestuous tyrant Antiochus, looking and sounding more than a little like Robert Mugabe” (Shuttleworth 2006). Likewise, Susannah Clapp sums up Pericles as all “heat, bullying, and riotous outbursts. Starting in an African dictatorship (severed heads, strutting soldiers), it makes a journey out of a play that can flop around as a string of episodes” (Clapp 2006). Clapp ends her positive review by arguing that Dominic Cooke will “put on plays that interrogate privilege and power, and have a kick at the laziness of liberal-left thinking. . . . He’s shown at Stratford that this isn’t just a ritual obeisance” (Clapp 2006). Simon Thomas, in one last example of the reviews, writes that “Cooke begins the play in an African dictatorship, complete with armed thugs and severed heads. Pericles’ painful travels through the heart of darkness bring him into contact with a wide range of peoples and manifestations of evil” (Thomas 2006). Unlike Billington’s review, which mistakenly identified the company as “predominantly black,” most of the other reviews side-step the issue of the actors’ races by focusing on the setting. Despite the fact that some get that setting incorrectly (the African-ness of the early scenes, for instance, seems to blind some reviewers to the fact that Pericles does move to the “eastern Mediterranean” as the play progresses), the reviewers write attentively about the staging elements that conveyed the setting as Africa: the severed heads, strutting soldiers, and Mugabe-style of Antiochus (“the heart of darkness”).
It seems as though theater reviewers today have been overly attentive to the notion that color should not matter semiotically in performance. Writing in 1991 about Clarence Smith getting heckled during the RSC’s King Lear, Benedict Nightingale forcefully articulates what would become the new code for theater reviewing: Race should not be a matter worth mentioning. Nightingale writes:

Resistance to black performers who take “white” roles is seldom so shameless [as the heckling Smith received] these days. . . . If black actors have yet to be fully accepted at the RSC, what are their chances of persuading more conventional producers and audiences to exploit their skills to the full? . . . Bluntly, what is to be done with all the able, black British actors who will be clamouring for work, fulfillment and recognition in their nation’s theatres? (Nightingale 1991)

Nightingale then goes on to quote two black British actresses who make very similar comments about not wanting to be identified as black actresses. Josette Simon, who made a name for herself playing classical theatrical roles in the 1980s and early 1990s, is quoted as saying, “I find critics calling me ‘black Josette Simon,’ as if there were a white Josette Simon knocking about somewhere. They wouldn’t dream of talking about ‘white Anthony Sher'” (quoted in Nightingale 1991). And Dona Croll, who played Cleopatra in the all-black Talawa production of Antony and Cleopatra, is quoted as saying that being identified as a black actress enables casting agents and directors to “put a limit on you, and you just cannot get any further” (quoted in Nightingale 1991). Similarly, the four actors I interviewed made almost identical statements, claiming that they do not want to be identified in reviews only as black actors.

What is revealing in Nightingale’s article, however, is his reliance on the Non-Traditional Casting Project’s (in 2007 renamed as the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts) four categories for non-traditional casting (societal, cross-cultural, conceptual, and colorblind).7 The Non-Traditional Casting Project’s admirable mission is to “promote inclusive hiring practices and standards, diversity in leadership and balanced portrayals of persons of color and persons with disabilities” in “theatre, film, television and related media.” It is clear that Nightingale is attempting to grapple with how reviewers should approach and write about non-traditionally cast productions, and he ends by lending credence to the notion that race should not be mentioned in reviews. Although he does not say this directly, his inclusion of, and dependence on, the quotations from black British actors, like the ones cited above, provides a profound critique of reviewers who write race into their reviews. It should not matter, the actors say, and Nightingale’s essay implicitly endorses this stance. This early essay (again, published in 1991 — well before the public debates in 1996 between Robert Bruestein and August Wilson about the merits and pitfalls of colorblind casting) seems to give voice to many fears, anxieties, and questions reviewers have about how to handle non-traditional casting in their published reviews, and Nightingale anticipates the virtual white-out of the mention of race in reviews. While there are still one or two reviewers who occasionally identify actors by race (“black Josette Simon”), most reviewers leave race, color, and ethnicity out of their reviews. Thus, the reviewers of The Winter’s Tale and Pericles do not mention race and, instead, focus on place and setting.

Is this progress, however? Does the white-out in reviews make race, color, and/or ethnicity less semiotically relevant in production? Does this help an actor’s ability to advance his or her career? Noting how infrequently actors of color in the RSC’s productions of The Winter’s Tale and Pericles were actually named in reviews, Joseph Mydell comments that this is not a new phenomenon, stating:

In one review of Angels in America [the original production was staged in London in 1994, and Mydell was the first black actor to win an Olivier Award for his role as the nurse, Belize], one reviewer referred to me as “the black nurse.” And he gave the names of the other actors. So I wrote back to him and said, “The black nurse is played by Joe Mydell: He has a name.” He certainly corrected himself after that. . . . A black actor does not get the same profile. (Mydell 2007)

Black actors have a much harder time establishing a profile, a reputation that immediately calls to mind the complete history and range of their performances. Time and again, actors of color comment on the difficulty they have establishing their profiles in published reviews. All too often actors of color go nameless, as in Ian Shuttleworth’s review of Pericles, in which he praises the fact that “we never forget here that Gower is steering things,” but never names Joseph Mydell as the actor portraying Gower, or they are praised as a “newcomer to watch.” Maynard Eziashi notes, “I studied a lot of history and black theatre, and what I found really incredible is that [they would say], ‘This person’s a newcomer!’ It could be their fifth film or their fifth play or they could have won awards, and it was always ‘the first time'” (Eziashi 2007). Newcomers, of course, do not have profiles; they are assumed to be blank slates who have yet to develop a performance history, style, and reputation. Clarence Smith likened this selective forgetting — under the guise of praise — to a “Jedi mind trick,” arguing:

I’ve had so many of those reviews: “Star of the 90s, la la la.” But that means nothing to me because I realize, if they go, “Oh, you’re the first black one,” and you go, “No, I’m not. I’m just another one that you’re kind of doing the Jedi mind trick with. That’s all you’re doing.” . . . There are countless [black] actors who have the force, and then the force moves to somebody else. So you’ve got to remember, they’re not in control of it. It’s like the dark side: somebody else is doing it to them. (Smith 2007)

The published praise that calls an actor of color the first, the newcomer, the one to watch, creates the “Jedi mind trick” that numbs the actor into thinking a profile will follow. Instead, the “force” is constantly moving to the next “first.” This, of course, stunts an actor’s ability to move up to more prestigious, challenging, and varied roles. As Joseph Mydell notes about his own profile, “So if it was Simon Russell Beale playing Gower, oh my God, they would be going on and on about him, saying, ‘Here he is yet again playing another role’— because I play all different types. . . . Economically it is not the same: it is different” (Mydell 2007). Treating actors of color as the first, the newcomer or the one to watch, performance reviewers highlight the actors’ color and/or race, but they erase/e-race their profiles. The “dark side,” Smith implies, does not just control the actors, however. Rather, it also controls the reviewers who may not realize the implicit biases that creep into their supposed praise. Nonetheless, these biases have real effects not only professionally (what jobs actors get next), but also economically (how much actors can command).

Although many actors of color, including many of those I interviewed, do not want to be called “black actors,” there is a real threat that their races, and the challenges they have had to face because subtle (and not so subtle) biases have not disappeared (even if the mention of their races in reviews largely has), will simply disappear from history along with their true profiles. Joseph Mydell, for instance, worries that his accomplishments will not be remembered because his profile often gets lost in print. He says:

I don’t want it to happen that 100 years from now [people will say], “Did you know Joe Mydell came from America, and he had the longest sustained career in Shakespeare performances [as a black actor] since Ira Aldridge?” . . . This kind of PC way of thinking has a very sinister undertone. They say, “Oh, well, it doesn’t matter.” And, “We don’t have prejudice.” But if it doesn’t matter, then we are not going to be included. . . . There is something very sinister about that. Yes, it is a double-edged sword. . . . If you are going to put me in your play, then you cannot ignore me or marginalize me [in reviews]. (Mydell 2007)

It is not simply that black actors have a difficult time establishing their profiles in print, but also that their profiles and the history of their accomplishments may be lost forever through this erasure/e-race-sure. While theater critics have for the most part followed what Mydell refers to as a “PC way of thinking” — that not mentioning an actor’s race is more egalitarian and colorblind, in the sense of not noticing/noting racial differences — this way of thinking may have unintended “sinister” side effects. Actors of color are too often being marginalized, which may result in their invisibility.

Promoting Clear Vision

A more progressive and responsible reviewing style would take into account the complexities of race in performance. It is enlightening to note that while all of the reviews of Pericles mention its updated African setting, not one actually explores or interrogates what that updating means, if it worked, or how it affected the reviewer’s understanding of the play. Susannah Clapp, for example, ends her review with enigmatic praise for Dominic Cooke. What does she mean when she claims that Cooke will “interrogate privilege and power” and “kick at the laziness of liberal-left thinking”? How exactly does this production of Pericles demonstrate these tendencies? Is it the fact that all his blacks/Africans are not virtuous and good, but instead represent a full range of human types (including the Mugabe-style of Smith’s portrayal of Antiochus)? Or, does she see Cooke interrogating the left’s beliefs in the benefits of migration and immigration? In this play, of course, there is real loss and pain associated with migration. And, if this is the case, does this production offer an interrogation of the related issues of racial politics, as well? Clapp does not ask or answer any of these questions, and her review is not unique. Rather, it is representative of the confusing — and, dare I appropriate her own use of the word? — lazy reviewing style when actors of color are employed. It is not enough to dance around the topic. Reviewers must engage more fundamentally, thoughtfully, and critically with the relationship between performance and race.

Part of the lacuna around race in the reviews of The Winter’s Tale and Pericles may stem from the RSC’s lack of promotional materials that address the updating: There is a clear need for companies, directors, and producers to explain their own philosophies with regards to race and performance.8 Yet, this does not excuse reviewers: It is their job to explain if, how, and why a production succeeds or fails, and the semiotics of race should not be whited-out of this analysis. Reviewers need to engage more critically with the semiotics of race in every production. As I have tried to demonstrate throughout this essay, there is a lot to be said about the potential benefits and costs both for noticing and not noticing race in performance reviews, but noticing race can be done in a responsible fashion that enhances a true assessment of any production. Of course, these types of reviews will require a longer time to research and write and will necessitate more space in print. We, as readers and subscribers, have to be willing to support this change. The pay-off, however, will be great. This type of critical engagement will encourage more wide-ranging discussions about where we as a society want performance to go in the future.

Notes

1. See Davidson College’s website for an overview of this residency program and special symposium: http://www2.davidson.edu/news/RSCresidency0607/RSCres0607_reside.asp.
2. For production photos of The Winter’s Tale, see the RSC’s website: http://www.rsc.org.uk/explore/workspace/winterstale_2532.htm.
3. For an overview of the history of colorblind casting, see Thompson 2006.
4. All citations to Shakespeare’s plays are from The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al. (1997).
5. Clarence Smith recited these lines from memory. See Ellison 1995.
6. Here is what Smith said: “Basically, I did a course where when I got there they said to me, ‘Well, what do you want to say as a black man?’ I went, ‘Well, what do you mean? Anything more than what I say every day of my life?’ I don’t have something specific to say as a ‘black man,’ I have something to say as ‘Clarence,’ who is black — something I don’t attempt to get away from — I’m not making a distinction. This was the first time at seventeen that I realized that somebody else made a distinction in this world I was in, and it didn’t happen at the youth theater, because we were just kids. It’s now when I moved into academia that these issues started coming out. And I decided, ‘Well, I don’t understand. If you’re giving me some work to do, show me what I have to achieve here to be able to say and create the character, my blackness — isn’t that secondary to me actually being able to do the job at hand?’ That’s what I thought” (Smith 2007).
7. The Non-Traditional Casting Project defined these categories in their 1988 book, Beyond Tradition, and film Breaking Tradition. Their history is available at: http://www.nea.gov/resources/accessibility/NTCP.html.
8. For an excellent comparison of the reception of companies who updated Othello with regards to promotional materials, see Pao 2006.

References

Billington, Michael. 2006. “Review: Two plays marching to a thrilling climax.” The Guardian (London). 16 November.

Clapp, Susannah. 2006. “Review: critics: Theatre.” The Observer (England). 17 December.

Cooke, Dominic. 2006. “Director Interview.” 14 November. Available online at: http://www.rsc.org.uk/explore/workspace/winterstale_2582.htm [cited 1 August 2007].

Ellison, Ralph. 1995. Invisible Man. Second Edition. 1947; New York: Vintage International.

Eziashi, Maynard. 2007. Tape-Recorded Phone Interview. 24 May. Published with permission.

Gardner, Lyn. 2006. “The Guide: Theatre.” The Guardian (London). 11 November.

Msamati, Lucian. 2007. Tape-Recorded Phone Interview. 28 May. Published with permission.

Mydell, Joseph. 2007. Tape-Recorded Phone Interview. 24 May. Published with permission.

Nightingale, Benedict. 1991. “Casting Couched in a Colour Code.” The Times (London). 18 May.

Pao, Angela. 2006. “Ocular Revisions: Re-casting Othello in Text and Performance.” In Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance. Edited by Ayanna Thompson. New York and London: Routledge. 27-46.

Shakespeare, William. 1997. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton.

Shuttleworth, Ian. 2006. “The Winter’s Tale/Pericles Swan Theatre.” Financial Times (London). 17 November.

Smith, Clarence. 2007. Tape-Recorded Phone Interview. 28 May. Published with permission.

Thomas, Simon. 2006. “The Winter’s Tale/Pericles.” musicOMH.com. Available online at: http://www.musicomh.com/theatre/rsc-winter-pericles_1106.htm [cited 1 August 2007].

Thompson, Ayanna. 2006. “Practicing a Theory/Theorizing a Practice: An Introduction to Shakespearean Colorblind Casting.” In Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance. Edited by Ayanna Thompson. New York and London: Routledge. 1-24.

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Scrooge of Color – 19 of 40 – book research

This article (text pasted below) nails a key question related to color-blind casting: Part of the difficulty has to do with whether we perceive theater as a collaborative form in which a play is made new each time a director and actors put it on, or whether plays exist as blueprints for a single ideal staging that each production will realize to greater and lesser extent.

It’s useful to remember that a given production of “A Christmas Carol” need not do what other productions do. Let this one do something else. Why eat the very same meal again and again?

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Diversity on stage: who’s afraid of color-blind casting?
The decision of Edward Albee’s estate to deny production rights over the casting choice of a black actor has reignited a debate over theater’s relationship with race

Alexis Soloski

Last week, a casting director in Portland, Oregon, posted a Facebook message saying the Edward Albee estate had denied him the rights to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? upon learning that he intended to cast a black actor in the role of Nick.

The estate’s decision echoes similar actions by the estates of Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams to deny rights when a proposed cast member did not match the race or gender that the playwright had originally delineated. Even the rights holders of fluffier stuff, such as Grease, have made similar refusals.

At a time when, for example, the Broadway lineup offers a Hispanic founding father, a black Russian countess, racially diverse rogues in Chicago and the occasional black Phantom, are we moving toward an era in which the actions of the Albee estate will seem retrograde? Yes. But just like the subways rumbling under 42nd street, progress is pretty slow.

Part of the difficulty has to do with whether we perceive theater as a collaborative form in which a play is made new each time a director and actors put it on, or whether plays exist as blueprints for a single ideal staging that each production will realize to greater and lesser extent.

If it’s the latter, then the estate’s decision makes a lot of sense. Albee was a fervently precise writer and likely would not have conceded the frequent references to Nick’s blondness as negotiable. During his lifetime he denied rights to productions that wanted to alter the gender and even the age of the characters as he’d written them. (Then again, Albee was not wholly doctrinaire: he approved the casting of an African American woman as Martha in an Oregon Shakespeare festival production and allowed non-traditional casting in several other plays.)

But if it’s the former then perhaps we can hope for a theater that respects the integrity of both new and classic plays while also using them to reflect on urgent contemporary questions of race, gender and sexuality, as in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare productions. And sometimes even these questions might yield to the excitement of thrilling actors taking on roles written for characters with dissimilar bodies, ethnicities and cultural identities. When Oscar Isaac plays Hamlet this summer, it’s difficult to imagine Shakespeare tsk-ing in his grave.

Yet for the most part, Broadway hasn’t taken this hint, despite the colossal success of Hamilton. Shows that adopt Hamilton’s hip-hop pastiche style will take years to build, but producers could have instantly embraced its color-conscious casting and its assurance that audiences will happily watch non-celebrity actors of color if they’re performing exhilarating work.

This hasn’t really been the case. Most plays were cast with actors who matched the ethnicity of their characters and even in parts in which no ethnicity was specified – as in supporting roles and chorus members – actors of color did not appear in any great numbers. (In Transit, Amélie and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 are exceptions, though the first two have already closed.) Still, audiences could at least enjoy Condola Rashad as Nora’s Daughter in A Doll’s House, Part 2 or Barrett Doss in Groundhog Day or Corbin Bleu as a hoofer in Holiday Inn. Revivals of Miss Saigon and Jitney have also ensured strong work for actors of color.

Why haven’t more producers embraced non-traditional casting when it comes to lead roles? Well, restrictive estates might be part of the story, but a reluctance to challenge audience perspectives and the fact that most producers and directors are white men are likely more important factors.

Besides, sometimes race and gender are at the heart of the material and will resist meddling. It would be difficult, though by no means impossible, to fiddle with the racial makeup of Six Degrees of Separation, say, or even A Bronx Tale. Same goes for gender in most of this season’s new plays.

And there are times when traditional casting should probably be adhered to. Grease can survive the appearance of a Pink Dude among the ladies, but it’s more problematic to oppose Katori Hall’s stipulation, following a controversy, that The Mountaintop’s Martin Luther King Jr should always be played by an actor of color.

There’s a further argument, one raised most cogently by August Wilson, that non-traditional casting is simply a Band-Aid on a much more grievous wound – the lack of stories produced by and about people of color. It’s one thing to cast an Asian actor as Oedipus or women as Didi and Gogo, but another thing to commission and present works that speak to the experiences of minorities and women. But a Band-Aid is better than nothing, and a stack of them might promote healing. And even Wilson eventually allowed a company in Beijing to produce Fences.

But as the demographics of the US continue to alter, as more works fall out of copyright, as Hamilton and its ilk make a case for dynamic casting as a means of storytelling, theater will change too. Who knows what Nicks we’ll see then.

Americans have had enough …
… and are marching for justice in unprecedented numbers. They are responding to generations of police brutality and systemic racism, a desperation fueled by a pandemic and an economic crisis that have hit black Americans disproportionately. A mass movement has come together to say: we’ve had enough.

It’s not just Americans. All over the world, citizens are protesting the marginalization of communities of color. Still, virtually nothing has been done to address racial and economic inequality in decades. Words, yes; action, not so much. Those who have the power to effect meaningful change have failed to do so.

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.

Hmm.

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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?

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

By JESSICA GELTSTAFF WRITER
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?”

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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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