Dan Sullivan (1992)

“Now, wait a minute. Clytemnestra’s black, Agamemnon’s white, Electra’s Asian American? Who are they kidding?”

This wasn’t some country bumpkin talking. It was my friend, the New York super-agent, on the horn from 57th Street. She had heard about the Guthrie Theater’s latest go at Greek tragedy and she was convinced it had to be some kind of politically-correct stunt. Because everybody knows the Greeks were white.

Where have you been for the last twenty years? I asked her. Jack Jackson did an interracial Our Town at the Inner City Cultural Center in L.A. in 1969. Joe Papp started using mixed casts in Central Park in the Fifties. Get used to it!

And yet, I admit, my own silent alarm had gone off last summer when Harry Lennix made his first entrance in The Great Gatsby at Chicago’s Wisdom Bridge Theatre. Harry Lennix is black. Now, wait a minute, I thought. Colorblind casting is terrific, but it simply doesn’t work for some roles. Jay Gatsby has got to be a Nordic type. Think blond. Think cold. Think Robert Redford.

But from the minute Lennix said, “old sport,” he owned the part. Obviously, this was a young prince, the talk of the party circuit from West Egg to East Egg, with an air of command and his confidential smile, meant for you and you alone. Obviously, too, there’s something unexplained in his background. Most important, we grasped Fitzgerald’s central point, the point that eluded Robert Redford, old blue eyes, in the movie. (Which is why the movie didn’t work.) Gatsby is a self-made prince, playing out a poor boy’s dream of how a “great man” lives. His faith is his downfall.

Gatsby in Chicago was the best example I’ve seen of the energy and the insights that can come with “colorblind casting,” a phrase we need to use with care. Not for a minute did we forget we were watching a black actor play Gatsby. But never, either, did we see Gatsby as a black man. The distinction between performer and character was perfectly clear.

This is what turns me as a critic on about “color-blind casting” — as distinct from the other varieties of non-traditional casting (conceptual casting, societal casting and so on.) It’s so theatrical. It illustrates so well the double nature of theater. Mask and face. Sign and signified. Eye and inner eye. “Think, when we speak of horses, that you see them,” Shakespeare tells us, and it seems the most natural thing in the world to do.

Not only are we good at suspending our disbelief in the theater, we enjoy the game, and we never forget it is one. The bolder the shorthand, the more we relish its aptness — if it works. The most convincing stage image of a hanged man in my experience turned up at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference this summer: an actor standing on a bench with his head tilted. No gallows, no rope. Got it.

As the Elizabethans used to say, a play is a “suppose.” Cultural conditioning aside — a huge factor, I grant you — it’s no great strain on the brain to imagine a black actor as Jay Gatsby, and certainly no stretch to see a black actress as Clytemnestra. How do we know what Clytemnestra looked like? What we do know is that back in Aeschylus’ day she was played by a man. That didn’t set off any silent alarms at the Theatre of Dionysus.

Because they knew how to watch a play in those days. If theater is about pretending, it’s also about watching this particular team of actors taking us through this particular story, on this particular stage, at this particular matinee. Not only can we enter into the story without losing sight of how beautifully the relay is being passed from one performer to the next, our appreciation of the skill involved heightens the pleasure.

My theatrical dream team, therefore, needs to be uncommonly well-matched in terms of performance skills, particularly vocal skill. Given that, it’s of little consequence whether their skins and the racial backgrounds match. In fact, it may be contraindicated, if we’re after storytellers who know a lot of stories. Who would provide a richer account of The Mahabharata, the Royal National Theater Company of Great Britain, or Peter Brook’s troupe?

Not only is theater “here,” it is “now.” No old tale survives unless it says something to the present, and watching Lennix’s Gatsby, you had to think of a generation of sharp, young black men, making their way up the ladder on the same combination of guts, smarts, and self-enchantment. No white actor could evoke that particular resonance in the role, and Lennix knew how to leave it a resonance. His job was to play Fitzgerald’s character and he did it, forever changing this critic’s attitude towards colorblind casting from “yes, but” to “why not?”

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