Color Vision

The first update or correction I would like to make to The Director’s Vision (Second Edition) relates to the section of Chapter Twelve, “Casting,” on “Open Casting” (pages 167-170).  On page 169 I used the term “‘color-blind’ casting,” which is a phrase I would no longer use.  “Color-blind casting” is an expression that has been used for decades to refer to casting decisions made without regard to ethnicity, and I used it with good intentions.  I now recognize, however, that attempts to be “color-blind” are misguided in the context of a society in which issues of race are important and volatile.

Before I explain further, let me say that I still strongly support the idea of keeping an open mind when casting any role for which ethnicity is not a germane issue.  Casting is always a matter of convention.  For example, the audience must suspend disbelief in order to accept that, in the context of the story of the current Broadway musical Something Rotten!, the central characters Nick and Nigel Bottom are brothers when we know very well that the actors playing them, Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani, are not related at all.  Some might argue that their similar complexion and dark hair color makes it easier to “buy” them as brothers, but their physical build is completely different with no apparent damage to the credibility of the story (which is admittedly fanciful in this case).  Couldn’t we still “get into” this story if one of the brothers were played by an actor with blond hair? by a Latino actor? by an Asian American actor? Then why not an African American actor?  Were Broadway audiences flummoxed and discombobulated when the renowned African American actor Phylicia Rashad replaced Estelle Parsons (who is white) as the matriarch of the family at the center of August: Osage County?  (They were not.)  And perhaps we serve the theatre and our diverse world by extending the boundaries of this convention, as director Liesl Tommy and the Dallas Theater Center did with their recent production of Les Miserables, in which young actors of different ethnicities played the same character at different stages of growth.  After all, if the performers had looked more alike the audience would not actually have been fooled into believing that a single actor had grown a foot during intermission (only to return to her original height for the next day’s performance).  The gloriously diverse cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical (directed by Thomas Kail and produced Off Broadway by The Public Theater) raises fascinating and exhilarating possibilities for the ability of open casting to contribute to the thematic impact of a play.

Making deliberate choices, however, to expand opportunities for talented and skilled actors, to allow the casts on our stages to resemble more closely the mosaic of humanity around us in our communities, and to challenge our audiences’ assumptions about ethnicity and race is not the same as pretending to be “color-blind.”  It is appropriately respectful of cultures and heritages to see and embrace differences in the backgrounds of the actors auditioning for our productions.  And, in the context of the United States, a nation still plagued by racism and still fraught by the horrible historic evil of slavery and the ensuing shameful facts of Jim Crow, lynching and white-supremacist terrorism, segregation, discrimination (in housing, employment, education, and much more), and mass incarceration, I think it is disrespectful, counter-productive, and cowardly to feign “color-blindness.”  I regret the use of the term in the The Director’s Vision and apologize for my failure to change it before the book’s publication.

I am very much a work in progress and I have learned a great deal about American history and society even in the past few days.  I appreciate patience as I work to improve my understanding and my vocabulary, and I appreciate feedback that will help me continue to learn.  Please feel free to post comments about this important aspect of our work.

One thought on “Color Vision

  1. In a happy coincidence, my copy of the May 2015 Theatre Journal arrived today with a fascinating and brilliantly balanced analysis by Donatella Galella of a “multiracial” production of Oklahoma directed by artistic director Molly Smith at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. I am more than intrigued by the incorporation of the word “multiracial” into my casting vocabulary (Galella offers it as an alternative to the “not-so-blind” “colorblind” and “the false binary of ‘nontraditional'”). Her essay celebrates the Arena’s “unusual and laudable” casting practices and points to the potentially salutary effect of depicting American diversity, but also warns of potentially papering over “historical racial segregation and…persistent segregation.” There is much, much more here so please read the whole article if you can, but here’s how she concludes her analysis: “Although Arena Stage’s multiracial casting decisions can reinforce troubling visions that occlude Native Americans, material difference, and ongoing fights for equality, they can also trouble visions of territory folks [Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory residents] as implicitly white farmers and cowmen, offering instead multiracial territory folks who ought to stick together. As scholars, spectators, and theatre-makers, we must attend to the implications of multiracial casting…and consider the progressive opportunities and symbolic violence of casting practices.” It’s complicated, and there is no un-complicating it, so indeed, “we must attend to” all this in our work. Please feel free to respond with your thoughts.

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