Harry Lennix (1992)

From what I can tell, there has not been much change in Chicago in the last few years regarding non-traditional casting or the employment of actors of color in general. Chicago theater has not been very progressive in this area with the exception of a couple of directors, namely, John Carlisle and Eric Simonson. For the most part, mainstream theaters have provided opportunities for black actors only in a token fashion, such as in The Christmas Carol, or occasionally in plays written for black characters, or what are supposedly black characters.

The black theater community’s response to this situation is to do for ourselves, to create our own work. There has been a mini-movement of black actors, writers, and directors recently producing for themselves. Many of us feel we can no longer rely upon the existing structures to let us in. At the same time, we continue to demand that these institutions let our voices be heard. This may seem like a contradiction. But so long as the larger theaters claim to be doing work for all Chicagoans and so long as they continue to receive state and federal monies for their work — including our tax money, in other words — then they must be held accountable for making us part of that work. For now, these institutions remain mostly white.

I have frequently sought out non-traditional roles. If you look at the whole body of dramatic literature, these are often the most substantial characters. They simply make more demands of an actor. For instance, there are not too many roles like Henry V, a part I’d love to play, in the black theater. In large measure, this is because theater is something that black people are still new to. Though there was Lorraine Hansberry, whom I consider one of the best dramatists in American history, there aren’t a lot of black writers trained to write from an actor’s perspective. Of course, this has been changing in the last few years with the rise of August Wilson, Charles Fuller, Cheryl West, and others.

To be honest, I must say there are times when I think non-traditional casting doesn’t work. Non-traditional casting is at its best when it doesn’t get in the way of the purpose and message of the play, but adds a new and more compelling interpretation of the playwright’s intent. It also can come off silly sometimes when there is only one person of color in an otherwise all-white production.

I’ve had mostly good experiences with non-traditional casting, though. Last year, I played Jay Gatsby in an adaptation of The Great Gatsby at the Wisdom Bridge Theater. More recently, I was Othello in a production that included a black Cassio. This was an interesting choice, as it made both characters objects of Iago’s racism.

Of course, I approach a role differently from a white actor because I am black. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a lower middle class neighborhood. Any process I would bring to a role would draw on all of that. For instance, when Olivier played Othello, he first had to become a black man. That is my starting point. I can concentrate instead on the dynamics of the character himself.

For a role like Jay Gatsby, I don’t think there was anything different I could do from a white actor in terms of preparation. At the same time, I felt there was a lot of skepticism I had to overcome with that role from the point of view of the audience. A black man as Gatsby? Though it wasn’t the purpose of the performance — I had just wanted to play Gatsby, a character I had loved since reading the novel in high school — I think I changed a lot of minds through my portrayal.

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