I’ve started listening to a podcast series examining Walt Disney’s Song of the South (You Must Remember This from fall of 2019), which presents a revisionist rosey depiction of plantation life. It has me musing about the dynamics surrounding black actors from the earliest days of film and how these relate to a black actor’s filling the role of Scrooge. When a black actor could not be seen straightforwardly as a person but as a statement, that statement would have interfered with the production. The statement might be “supporter of whites,” (Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” Uncle Remus in “Song of the South,” eccentric goof (Mose in “The Searchers”), magical guru (“Bagger Vance”) or “resistor of rconstraints (“In the Heat of the Night”), but not just “blank slate carrying individual characteristics.” In film productions, only white actors could be “default humans” about whom you know nothing until you see how they behave. Literally, only they came without pre-judgment: prejudice.
Scrooge of Color
As I search for productions or versions of “A Christmas Carol” with Scrooges of Color, I am coming across (or being reminded of) other versions that certainly stretch the role. He has been played by Scrooge McDuck, Bill Murray and in this version, a woman (Eleanor Scrooge).
I came across
This article discusses criticism of the 2019 BBC production of “A Christmas Carol” that included Vinette Robinson, an actress of color, as Mrs. Scrooge.
Robinson had the perfect response to the accusations of ‘political correctness.’ On Twitter, she shared a thread from the very informative account ‘Whores of Yore’ which gave a detailed breakdown of the many mixed-race couples that would have existed in the time of Dickens’ novel and why the latest adaptation of the novel was factually accurate.
I found this article and inserted thoughts in caps to push myself toward and help activate a non-white perspective, and a progressive perspective. I know that this text could appear mocking of these perspectives and could be taken out of context and misinterpreted. I also know that I am “trying on” this point of view–letting myself say (write) these things so that I can find my own voice and thoughts–the same process that I went through in becoming a writer in the first place. I am “going out there” and letting the pendulum swing so as to know where I am on the arc. I have not pushed myself in this way, ever. Feeble as they might be, these are my attempts to exercise a challenge I have recently seen phrased along these lines: It’s not enough to not be racist. Be anti-racist. If I do nothing to explore my own behavior related to race–to seek it and uproot it–then I am not anti-racist. I do not just dislike weeds, I take action to prevent and destroy them in our patio.
I feel the effect on my perspective, and I see the effect on my behavior.
Here’s an example: I heighten my awareness that white, male actors never have to take into consideration their white maleness when seeking the role of Scrooge, as opposed to nonwhite actors who do. That heightens my awareness that a white male such as myself never has to take into account his white maleness for anything. For instance, I never have to fear being an angry white man, which I am more often than I care to admit. Today, I got irritated at the doctor’s office. This was an appointment for Janet. Before the pandemic, I could freely accompany her on doctor’s visits (even though I crankily often resent having to accompany her) as her aid in memory and comprehension, a role that I serve due to her cognitive impairment. During the pandemic, understandably, I have repeatedly been excluded from visits, but some venues are better than others at doing this–I encounter a range of methods, systems and bedside manners. This office was at the bottom of the range in sensitivity and courtesy. I say that recognizing that I am insensitive and courteous in the same types of situations–when I am trying to keep control of something chaotic–and also that healthcare workers are indeed heroes, as so many signs proclaim–doing their jobs under tremendous stress. Nevertheless, this was my struggle, and it again brought out the worst in me: resentment, impatience and stridence. As they were bubbling up, the perspective just expanded that morning by my article alteration reminded me: You would not have the same freedom to express anger if you weren’t white. That would file you into a stereotype and put you in danger. I still got angry, because I’m an immature idiot, but this perspective certainly tamed me.
Below is the article with my insertions:
Becoming Scrooge — what does it take to play Dickens’ iconic miser?
Nov 22, 2017
By Meredith Moss, Staff Writer
If you’re a WHITE MALE actor in search of a juicy part, chances are you’ve had your eye on Ebenezer Scrooge. The iconic misanthrope has been a popular character since 1843 when author Charles Dickens penned a “ghostly little book” in which the miserly businessman learns the true lessons of the Christmas holiday.
Over the years variations of “A Christmas Carol” have been captured on stage and screen with the tightfisted, cold-hearted Mr. Scrooge portrayed by WHITE MALE actors ranging from George C. Scott and Albert Finney to Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks. Among those bringing Scrooge to life in our area this holiday season are Wright State University acting professor Bruce Cromer and Atlanta-based actor Andy Harvey. Cromer, who lives in Yellow Springs, has played Scrooge at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park for the past 13 years and is currently on stage at the Playhouse through Dec. 30. Harvey will appear in a Victoria Theatre Association production of “A Christmas Carol” staged by the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, the professional touring wing of the Omaha Community Playhouse. That show will be at the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton on Tuesday, Nov. 28 and Wednesday, Nov. 29.Cincinnati Playhouse director Michael Haney has directed Cromer for many years and says he’s an ideal Scrooge, STARTING WITH BEING WHITE AND MALE. “He brings pathos, power, inventiveness and ultimately joy and humor to his characterization,” Haney says. “Bruce is tireless and never stops working on the role. His Scrooge is a marvel to behold, endearing himself to audience members of all ages and all levels of sophistication, WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION OF NON-WHITE AUDIENCE MEMBERS WHO NOTE THAT IT WOULD BE QUESTIONED IF A NON-WHITE ACTOR FILLED THIS ROLE. His performance is frightening, funny and always true to Charles Dickens.
Kimberly Faith Hickman, a director for the Nebraska production, says their current Scrooge — Andy Harvey — has an unusual way of looking at the world. “Andy is very open-minded and empathetic to others, which allows him to bring a sense of humanity to the roles that he chooses to play, particularly characters that are often seen as mean,” she explains. “He brings a genuine heart and soul to Ebenezer Scrooge, which allows the audience to discover that Scrooge isn’t really mean. He’s actually a man who experienced a multitude of losses, which resulted in a broken heart and loss of love for others. Because Andy has a huge heart, he is able to put Scrooge’s heart back together again, and the audience’s hearts as well.
We talked to these two Scrooges about the fun and the challenges of this special role.
Q: What early memories do you have of Scrooge and the Dickens story?
Cromer: I loved Charles Dickens’ novels since the sixth grade. I saw the Alastair Sims movie version and the Mr. Magoo cartoon regularly with my family when I was growing up. I never dreamed that I would eventually play Ebenezer because I could never conceive of being that old, stingy and mean. I identified with Bob Cratchit and the ever-cheerful nephew, Fred.
Harvey: I was raised on the story. It was read aloud to me when I was young, and I remember watching the George C. Scott version that was made for television.
Q: When did you first appear in a production of “A Christmas Carol”?
Cromer: I’ve appeared in three different versions. The first was at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 1989, where I played Young Scrooge. Then I played Charles Dickens for three years — and Marley’s Ghost and other characters — with the Human Race Theatre in the early ’90s at the Victoria. My wife, Carol, and our two sons, Charlie and Toby, were in that production as well. Ed Stern, the former artistic director of the Cincinnati Playhouse, asked me to audition for Young Scrooge in 1996. I landed the role of Bob Cratchit, which I played for eight years before becoming Scrooge.
Harvey: I started doing the show with the Nebraska company six years ago in the role of Jacob Marley. Last year I began playing Scrooge.
Q: What appealed to you about this role?
Cromer: The breadth of the role: two hours, never leaving the stage, with a fabulous arc of the character and such a demanding emotional, vocal and physical challenge. When the sweat is dripping and you’re ready to plop over, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come ushers you back for Christmas morning and then Ebenezer becomes like a child again — redeemed, joyous, bouncing all over the place, singing, doing funny little dances.
Harvey: I was a little bit afraid of Scrooge when I first saw the film. He’s so strong and very dark and then in the end is so joyful. I’ve always loved that transition; it goes hand-in-hand with the Christmas season. As an actor you always want to play a character that goes somewhere and you can’t have a bigger character arc than Scrooge. “The old sinner” starts off angry and sullen, WHICH IS OKAY EVEN IF YOU ARE AN ANGRY BLACK MAN, only caring about money and then ends up giddy.
Q. What are the challenges of playing Scrooge?
Harvey: THERE’S NO CHALLENGE OF ACCEPTANCE BASED ON SKIN TONE. The challenge is going through that transition, trying to step into the character’s shoes and realistically take a look at his life. To remember things he hasn’t remembered in years and make the decision to change. The ghost gives him that option; otherwise he would die in torment. As a human, I know what it’s like to have evil and negative thoughts and feelings and as a Christian, I understand what redemption means. Our show doesn’t mention God but Scrooge goes through a conversion. It’s a very rewarding experience.
Cromer: We perform the show at the Playhouse eight to 10 times per week, 40-plus performances per year, and over 840 total shows by the end of this 2017 version. I’ve read all of Charles Dickens’ books, some twice, to get back into the Dickensian frame of mind, over the years. I watch all of the BBC adaptations of his works, read biographies, as well as annually enjoying his 1843 “ghostly little book.” While doing the run, I watch only comedy films, stay away from depressing news reports, drink lots of water, eat well, and sleep tons. You have to be in not only good physical and vocal health, you must be in a suitably happy state of mind: Scrooge has to go to dark, unhappy, searing places nightly, before the Spirits induce him to experience the joy of Christmas.
How has your perception of the character changed over the years?
Cromer: WHILE NEVER GIVING THOUGHT TO SCROOGE AS AN EMBLEM OF DOMINANT WHITE CULTURE WHOSE “USURPATION” BY AN ACTOR OF COLOR COULD CAUSE UNCOMFORTABILITY, I originally played Scrooge as more of a physically comic role, trying to make him lovable despite the harsh, cold, businesslike way he deals with humanity in the early scenes. But my maturity has made Ebenezer less humorous and more heartfelt. He’s slowed down as I’ve aged — I began playing him when I was 47 and am now 60. He’s gotten a bit more frightening, I think — and is really hit by the terrible mistakes of his life, when the Ghosts force him to relive those times. Few of us would like to step back into the moments when we might have done good and are powerless to change the harm we’ve inflicted on others.
Harvey: Audiences are always surprised to learn I am actually 30 years old but play Scrooge in his mid-60s. Make-up and a character voice go a long way. I start low and nasty and end up giddy, and audiences like to take that journey with me.
Q. What lessons can we learn from Scrooge and this story?
Harvey: As a country and nation and world we’re going through very interesting times. A lot of this is not caring for your fellow man, being selfish. That’s such an important part of this play: choosing to live and experience life instead of shutting down and only thinking of No. 1. England was struggling in Dickens’ time. There was a lot of poverty and so the story rang true and it continues to ring true for every generation.
Cromer: Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” give us hope that we can change. ON A META LEVEL, IT TIES TO CHANGE AS RADICAL AS LETTING GO OF HISTORICAL MAJORITY PRIVILEGE. We can peel off the layers of hurt and pain and emotional scars we’ve experienced and start again. We can look at how we might help, rather than harm, and have the courage to change. We can take advantage of the life we’ve got and aid others, not cause them to suffer. And we can find the fulfillment of kindness, family, caring. With the current climate of our nation struggling with hatred and divisiveness, Scrooge is an example of making amends, showing we are all connected in this world — and perhaps beyond it.
Project background is in this post.
I heard back from the first theater that I researched. The email noted that they don’t produce plays and have no actors. I had not looked closely enough at the website. Sigh.
I can’t let this be a time suck. I’ve already spent over an hour on it. I’ll set my alarm for 15 minutes per day.
Does this simply come down to being about color-blind casting? Is there nothing more to say about it than that? For instance, Ford’s Theatre’s website shows color-blind (inclusive?) casts for Guys & Dolls, Death of a Salesman, and other productions.
Here is a relevant article. Excerpts:
WCP: How often are you accessing your own life when you’re on the stage or you’re building a role?
CW: I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare and of course, you know, most of Shakespeare’s characters are European. And so when I play a European character I think to myself, “OK, what of me, what of Craig, and who Craig is, can I bring to this character, this traditionally white character?” So in that regard, yes, I pull from me all the time. Also, you know, imagination is another thing that’s so great. Like, there are parts of Troy that are reprehensible to people that I enjoy playing because it’s like, how often do you get a chance to go there or say those things or take that risk.
WCP: And it’s not just in Shakespeare that you’ve played what people think of as traditionally white characters, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Is it the same process there?
CW: Same process. Willy Loman had to be Willy Loman from me, not Brian Dennehy’s Willy Loman or Dustin Hoffman’s Willy Loman, the traditional Willy Loman. It’s the same words, but it has to motivate from who I am and through my lens. Like Torvald in A Doll’s House, Part 2. I heard many people say “there weren’t black people in Sweden,” and I thought “Well, OK, but the play and the character are universal. There’s nothing specifically in the play that says he has to be European.” So now that we’ve taken care of that. Let me figure out who this guy is. And then let me present that guy, as part of the story. And of course that guy comes from me.
WCP: And are there parts of you in Scrooge also?
CW: Laughs. Yeah. Absolutely. In order for me to embrace the character I have to find things in the character that I relate to. And so, you know, Scrooge, at least my Scrooge, is very practical. Scrooge compartmentalizes because of hurts that he’s had in his life. And who can’t relate to that. There is a safety blanket in shedding parts of yourself off so that you’re not exposed to hurt. And I’ve experienced that. Who hasn’t? So then when he does it, I relate. I’m like, “Yeah, I know why he’s doing that.” Because he doesn’t want to feel. I don’t think that drives me in life, but I can certainly relate.
These posts are my notebook of research for a book exploring the connection (or lack of it) between persons of color and the stage role of Scrooge, typically portrayed by an older white man such as myself. This is an effort to expand perspective.
Current phase: Seek a Scrooge of Color in every state, proceeding alphabetically
Email sent 6/9/20
Subject line: Seeking actors of color who have played Scrooge
I am conducting research for a book exploring the connection (or lack of it) between persons of color and the stage role of Scrooge, typically filled by an older white man such as myself. (Note: I am not an actor.) This is an effort to expand perspective on art that is considered universal. The working title is ”Scrooge of Color.”
The first phase of my project is seeking a Scrooge of Color in every state, and Alabama comes first. I found your email address via Google. I am posting my research notes publicly, but I will not use your name. My posts are at www.thisis.red/blog and our project social media @thisisdotred. Our web site shows my plan to produce 20 Christmas-related books in 2020 to benefit our public library.
I would like to hear from any actor of color who has played Scrooge … or who would like to … or who actively avoids this role … or who illustrates any other dynamic related to the role. I have the classic types of questions, along the lines of: Who are you? Why did you seek the role? When was the production? What are some details about it? Where was it? How did it go?
Can you point me toward anyone regarding the above? Or will you speak to me about this yourself? My email is below for corresponding and for setting up phone calls or texts as needed.
Thank you and best wishes,