Color-aware, -blind or none of the above?

In the January/February 2013 issue of Theatre Bay Area, Melissa Hillman, artistic director of the kick-ass Impact Theatre in Berkeley, writes about color-blind and/or non-traditional casting. This blog post is not so much a response to that article, “In the Land of the ‘Color Blind'”, as my continuation of the discussion. And continue it must.


Before I get started, a journalistic ground rules. One of the things about writing on Bay Area theatre is that I have gotten to know people. If I’m on a first-name basis with someone, I’ll refer to them by their first name. If I don’t, I’ll refer to them by an honorific and their last name. So I’ll call Ms. Hillman “Melissa” from here on in but I’ll refer to August Wilson as Mr. Wilson since, although I love his plays, I’ve never met the guy (and never will since he is, regrettably, dead). And this is a blog, not a newspaper.

Anyway, Melissa’s article gives both her opinions on the subject as well as the views of a number of other Bay Area theatre folks, including Alan Quismorio; Alan has been very supportive of me through my playwriting career and is AD for Bindlestiff, a cool Filipino American theatre here in SF.

At risk of oversimplifying or misinterpreting the article, it boils down to this (any errors are mine and, Melissa, I welcome any corrections):

  • There are different views on the subject of white people playing non-white roles in theatre and vice versa.
  • There are different implications for white people playing non-white roles in theatre and vice versa.
  • What has set this off as a current topic of discussion is that for a long time there have been a lot of white people playing non-white roles in big theatres and it’s still happening in 2012, and there’s very little of it happening in the other direction.
  • This is an imbalance that is costing actors of color experience and money.
  • What, if anything, happening in the other direction, non-white people playing white roles, is happening at small theatres.
  • If you’re going to cast non-white actors into traditionally white roles, you need to be conscious of what you are doing and conciencious about it.

Anyway, read the article, I’ll post a link if Theatre Bay Area puts it online. Now we get into my continuation of the conversation:

The article defines or attempts to define the terms colorblind casting and non-traditional casting as they are currently used. I don’t necessary agree with the definitions, but, based on the article, it seems, imo, as if the larger theatres are abusing the definition. My understanding of “color-blind” was that white roles were assigned to actors of all colors, while a theatre in the article apparently used the term to justify the opposite. Gresham’s Law of Language: bad meanings drive out good meanings. So we retreat to the term “non-traditional” because “color-blind” has become white-washed.

As for Mr. Wilson, in The Ground on Which I Stand, his 1996 speech to the Theatre Communications Group annual conference, he talked about, and bashed, color-blind casting, I believe in the original sense I referred to. Go read the essay; it’s a fine piece of writing and I don’t dare to try to re-hash it as Mr. Wilson is no longer here to correct me if I get it wrong. I can say he expresses strong opinions eloquently. Read it as well.

There is a point in his article on which I disagree with him. And I saw my view of this point echoed in Melissa’s article. Mr. Wilson objects to white plays being done with all-black casts. (Mr. Wilson specifically uses the term “black” throughout the essay, although at one point he acknowledges the term “African American.”) He specifically raises as an example Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller.

And that’s where I got taken out of the essay for a moment, just as one might be taken out of a play – which happens to me, too, as in the moment in Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who is Silvia, when a character mentions that bestiality is illegal and I realized the play wasn’t set in Texas because, at the time, Texas had recently legalized bestiality but not gay sex. Actually, I had since heard that Mr. Albee had refused a production with an black father (I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard about it). When I heard of that, I though about what I’d call color-aware casting: black father, white mother, biracial black/white gay son.

But back to Mr. Wilson’s speech. I thought, no, Death of a Salesman could be all-black. But, it would change the characters’ subtexts. What would it mean that an African American father (because Death of a Salesman is an American play) calls his sons white nicknames like Biff and Happy? What would it mean that Willie Lomax’s African American boss won’t take him into the home office; is that boss trying to impress a white big boss? The subtext of what it means to be a middle-class black in America is deep and must be part of any such production.

Mr. Wilson’s stated objection to an all-black Death of a Salesman is that he rejects assimilation. And I agree that without the subtext it would be assimilation. But if it becomes a exploration of the price of assimilation it could work.

I agree with Mr. Wilson on the larger issue that there needs to be more work by black/African American playwrights by larger theatres and that there need to be more black/African American playwrights. But if plays by white males written about white people are going to continue to take up the majority of our stage time, blacks, Asians, Latino/as, and other actors of color need to have a shot at those roles.

And, on reading Melissa’s article, I read that she had wrestled with similar issues and I had that flash of recognition that moved me to make this blog post. And of course there are articles dealing with gender diversity issues as well.

I am a white, gay male. I can’t be a black, Asian, indigenous American or female playwright. What I can do, and have been trying to do since I started writing is try to be less white and more culturally embracing in my writing so that roles can be reasonably acted by actors of various colors. I’m not trying to erase race but to allow space for casting to affect the play’s subtext. I’m starting to learn how to do that for female actors as well. It’s a learning and growth process.

I do write specifically if possible. My first play, Rice Kugel, had several specifically Asian roles. Hemlock simply requires that the two main actors be of different races, but the play would be very odd if one of them didn’t have a Spanish-speaking background. My Visit to America requires three biracial actors, but the play is set in a very different world.

My Visit to America could also be cast all-male or all-female. A number of people have suggested that without significant script changes, an all-female cast would result in a very different play. But that doesn’t worry me, it excites me. Of course it would be a different play. That’s exactly what I want to happen. The last reading was all-female and it worked for me just fine.

I’m not saying I’m perfect at this. I’m sure I’m making lots of mistakes along the way. But I have to try.

I can vote with my wallet. I can avoid (and have avoided) productions that I know have been white-washed. And I can attend (and have attended) productions of plays by women and by racial minorities.

Please join the conversation. Because there is an issue and we need to keep talking about it.

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