Mary Lee (1992)

Sure, there’s been much talk about multicultural theater the last few years. There are grants encouraging theaters to establish second stages and workshops for “the ethnic performer.” For many, we are experiments! Nevertheless, this has provided more opportunities for the minority actor, in both race-specific and non-traditional roles. Sometimes the roles are stereotyped as written, sometimes not. Sometimes roles that have depth and dimension are directed as stereotypes. This is especially true for culturally-specific roles.

I prepare for all roles by delving into the personal world of the character: time, place, environment, circumstances, goals, obstacles, relationships, dreams, textures, sounds, sense, feelings. I don’t see any shortcuts around this, so it doesn’t change my approach or expectations if I’m a Chinese court concubine or a Russian aristocrat, a cartoon femme fatale or a sci-fi survivor, an English schoolgirl or a Communist revolutionary.

We can cut through much p.c. rhetoric in casting if we simply ask of any role: Is race (age, gender, physical ability) germane? If yes, simply cast it so. If no, give all actors an equal opportunity. It’s hard to keep to a single standard, though.

Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific should consistently be cast white (and usually is) because the play deals with racial conflict and his role is racially specific. Bloody Mary should consistently be cast Asian (but is she?) for the same exact reasons.

In David Hare’s Fanshen (about China’s revolution) I performed with two other Asian Americans, one Irish, one Greek, two Hispanic, and two African Americans. The director felt race was not germane, since all the characters are the same race, and their conflicts involve personal and class power, not racial issues. I do not object. But I do object to directors not having the same imagination and vision to see that in Hamlet the conflicts are personal, also, and not racial. In Hedda Gabler, they are not racial. In The Crucible, they are not racial. If we can be open-minded enough to envision a society of Chinese in all colors, what is our problem with envisioning a society of Danes or Norwegians or North Americans in all colors? Double standard?

I think for the American theater scene to permanently change so as to reflect the American mosaic, we depend on authors, and producers willing to present their work. When there are more ethnically specific lead roles out there that command attention and respect, there will be much more respect for non-white actors in all roles, traditional or not. It is not enough for the black or yellow or brown actress to have played Hedda or Juliet or Nina dozens of times. I used to think it was. But that only changes the look of the American theater. To change American theater itself, there must be black and brown and yellow Ninas in the American repertory. Blanches that are not blanche. To a large degree, we depend on the authors plugging at their computers and banging on producers’ doors for the future of integrated casting. What may, optimistically speaking, one day be known as American casting.

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