Geoffrey Owens (1992)

My perspective on non-traditional casting may be unique in some ways. I am an “inter-racial” actor who doesn’t consider himself black or white. I have always resisted the temptation to think — for the sake of identity — of myself as one or the other, and have discouraged others from labeling me — for the sake of convenience — as black.

Because I don’t personally identify with being black, I don’t have some of the inner obstacles and restraints that a black actor might have whose racial identity is so important to him/her. It takes an effort (whether aesthetic or spiritual) to identify with and feel at home in a play normally associated with another race and culture.

Because of my background and personal experience, I feel more at home in the plays and characters of Shakespeare, Moliere, and Chekhov than I do in those depicting the Afro-American experience. In fact, of all the many theater roles I’ve played, I can recall only one that is black: Carlyle, in a college production of Streamers. Because of Carlyle’s particular character, it was more of a stretch for me to portray him than to play Romeo or Richard III.

I suppose part of my point is that it isn’t race that is the deciding factor of accessibility or difficulty for me in playing a role, but the character’s particular experience and sensibility. I can more easily see myself playing Lear than Othello, Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest than many of the characters in August Wilson’s plays. (This is not to say that playing the black roles would be any less challenging and gratifying.)

Another aspect of my life as an inter-racial actor is that because I’m perceived as a relatively light-skinned black actor, I just don’t get cast in black roles. (In other words, if they want someone “black” — why cast me?) The industry wants its identifiable types and, physically, I don’t easily fall into any. (No wonder the only black character I ever played was in college.)

Since being a professional actor isn’t a matter of what you’d like as much as what you’re given, my frequently working non-traditionally has been more a matter of necessity than choice. Basically, I’m not “black” enough for black parts, not “white” enough for white parts. It makes sense, therefore, that I’ve been cast so consistently in either plays in which race isn’t an issue, or in roles where non-traditional casting isn’t particularly controversial: i.e., Puck (a creature), Hubert (a servant/soldier) in King John, the old Shepherd in A Winter’s Tale, Ossip (the servant) in The Inspector General, et cetera.

Only in college and low-exposure New York theater have I been able to play Leo in Design for Living, Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi, Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. Would a black actor ever be seen in any of these roles on the professional stage unless: 1) he were a star on the level of James Earl Jones, or 2) the production was all-black? Note: the instance in which I had the opportunity, professionally, to play Romeo and Orlando was when I was a member of a “multi-ethnic” Shakespeare company. My point is not that such companies aren’t legitimate or valuable, but that they’re usually the only opportunity for black and other ethnic actors to play significant non-traditional roles.

So, why does the professional theater, an industry, remain so hostile to the idea of black Romeos, Macbeths, and Lears? It’s afraid that audiences wouldn’t accept them. This may be partially true — but how is it ever going to change unless some courageous and enlightened producers and directors start casting more boldly and consistently? (And not just James Earl Jones.)

Someone has to take the responsibility to initiate and encourage the re-education of theater-goers who are distracted by a Puerto Rican Prospero or confused by a black brother and white sister in Tartuffe. Someone needs to rethink what theater is and what race is; and that someone is all of us. We must, as a people, stop identifying ourselves and each other racially. We must cease to be “black,” “white,” “Asian,” “Hispanic,” and “other.” These terms and labels are archaic, ridiculous, and harmful. Only when we abolish such thinking in our lives in general will we be able to abolish it in the theater. Jesus Christ understood and urged the necessity of there being no divisions between people, but only love and unity. We, too, need to understand that.

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