The Play’s The Thing: Casting against color can be challenging, rewarding

By Ronald B. Hellman

I think of this now when I read about the new David Henry Hwang play, “Yellow Face,” playing at The Public Theater. Hwang, who as you might guess from his name is ethnic Chinese (or Asian-American, if you prefer), is best known for “M. Butterfly,” which won lots of awards in 1988, including the Tony Award for Best Play. That play is based on a true story of a French diplomat who had a 20-year affair with a Chinese opera singer, not realizing in all that time that his lover was actually a man pretending to be a woman. Talk about non-traditional!Anyway, “Yellow Face” has to do with the embarrassment suffered by Hwang, a character in his own play, when he mistakenly casts a white guy in the role of an Asian man. This is especially troublesome since Hwang had led a protest when a British actor, the white Jonathan Pryce, was cast in the lead role of the Engineer, a Eurasian (that's half European, half Asian, if you're keeping score) in the 1991 Broadway production of “Miss Saigon.” That show, by the way, was a modern adaptation of Puccini's opera “Madame Butterfly,” set in Vietnam and featuring a helicopter landing on stage.So, while Hwang explores stereotyping, racial and cultural identity and artistic and journalistic integrity, the issue of non-traditional casting remains. The late black playwright, August Wilson, was a strong advocate against such casting. To cast more black actors (or African Americans, if you like a lot of syllables), he said that there should be more black playwrights to write plays to accommodate such actors. When The Outrageous Fortune Company produced “Joe Turner's Come and Gone,” one of Wilson's and American theater's best, we auditioned for 11 roles, 10 black and one white. To cast any of those black roles with a white actor would have destroyed the integrity of the story and the playwright.These labels may make little sense in our international city of New York, but shouldn't an actor's appearance be a consideration in the casting process, much as age or gender would be? This becomes more of a problem when the characters are related. Sometimes a playwright will specify the color or ethnicity of a character, as in Outrageous Fortune's upcoming “The Moonlight Room,” or will show a preference for diverse casting, as was the case in its recent “Stop Kiss.” In that production, however, although our audition notices sought a multi-ethnic or multi-racial cast, only white people showed up.A few years ago I saw a wonderful revival of one of my favorite musicals, “Carousel,” at Lincoln Center. The roles of Carrie and Mr. Snow, who get married and raise a family, were played by an interracial couple. And at the end of the show, when the children appeared, half were black and half were white. It worked, but keep in mind it was a musical where certain artificial conventions exist. Shakespeare also seems to allow more liberties when it comes to non-traditional casting, maybe because his plays take place long in the past.But when it comes to modern-day realism, color and ethnicity are more of a concern. That's why you'll sometimes see a play that was written for all whites played by all blacks, such as in the soon-to-open-on-Broadway “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” The question remains: Will an audience see a character for what he or she is without noticing color, and should that be a factor? What do you think?Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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