By Ron Hellman
The current controversy about the lack of diversity in acting nominations for the Oscars prompts me to revisit the subject of non-traditional casting in theater.
A person’s skin color or minority status should be irrelevant as a factor for an award, but having the opportunity to be cast is most definitely a consideration.
Most plays in the English-speaking world have been written by white playwrights for white actors. To cast a person of color or with some obvious ethnicity in one of those roles is deemed “non-traditional.”
In recent years, on stage, on screen and most notably on television, changes are taking place.
Musicals seem to lend themselves to more mixed casting.
A revival some years ago of “Carousel” at Lincoln Center had the roles of Carrie and Mr. Snow played by an interracial couple, and when their children appeared at the end of the show, some were black and some were white.
The play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was revived with an all black cast.
Shakespeare revivals take many liberties with non-traditional casting, including gender bending. “The Taming of the Shrew” production this summer at Shakespeare in the Park will have an all female cast – only fair I guess, since in Shakespeare’s time all roles were played by men.
The Broadway sensation “Hamilton”— can you get me a ticket? — features the Founding Fathers as racially diverse, but that’s the way it’s written. Contemporary playwrights tend to rebel when the text of their work is altered, as did the author of “The Mountaintop” in a college production with a white actor playing Martin Luther King, Jr.
Long gone are white actors performing in blackface, as well as whites playing Asians – Mickey Rooney as a Japanese character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” stands out as a cringe-worthy example. David Henry Hwang’s play “Yellow Face,” produced by The Outrageous Fortune Company a few years ago, deals with racial identity when a white man is mistakenly cast as an Asian. Hwang had protested the original production of “Miss Saigon” — soon returning to Broadway — because of the casting of the white Jonathan Pryce in the lead role of the Engineer, a Eurasian.
Traditionally an actor’s appearance has been a factor in the casting process, including age and gender. However, our modern theater is more sensitive to our cultural diversity.
And more plays are being written by women and minorities.
Perhaps the late black playwright August Wilson had it right. He was a strong advocate against non-traditional casting. What he urged was plays to be written for black characters and other non-whites. If more of these roles existed, to give non-white actors an opportunity to show what they can do, then the Academy Awards would be handed out more equally.
Contact Ron Hellman at rbhof