Holly Hill (1992)

In London, during the summer of 1989, my British colleagues advised me that the “must see” production was Declan Donnellan’s staging of Fuente Ovejuna at the National Theatre. My esteem equaled theirs, as I told an American colleague also visiting London. “Terrible, terrible,” he disagreed. “When Queen Isabella came on played by a black actress, the production lost all credibility. Isabella couldn’t have been black.” My colleague wasn’t as bothered that the young romantic and comic leads in the British Fuente Ovejuna were also played by black actors — Moors might have inter-married with peasants during the Moorish occupation of Spain — but it was unthinkable that a Spanish Queen could be black.

I was stupefied that one actress’ color would spoil a magnificent production for anyone and my colleague’s comments haunted me as I began to consider their implications. Had I once had reservations about non-traditional casting? All I recall is being introduced to it at the New York Shakespeare Festival and LaMama in the Sixties, and realizing somewhere along the way that non-traditional casting was a new theatrical convention for which I could suspend disbelief as I did for so many others.

It isn’t that I didn’t, and don’t, notice that Hamlet is wearing a turtleneck, that Theseus and the Athenians are speaking English and Oberon and the fairies are speaking Chinese, that Harpagon is on roller skates, or that Queen Isabella is black. I notice, and my usual response is “Oh? Okay.” The “okay” may sometimes be half-hearted, and will be rescinded if I feel that the performer or production is terrible, but I think the chance is worth taking. In fact, I have come to look forward to the excitement and illumination that non-traditional casting can bring.

The contretemps with my colleague over Fuente Ovejuna jolted me into contemplating how fortunate I was to be able to embrace non-traditional casting, into wondering how wide a diversity of opinion existed among critics, and into wanting to create a forum for critics to share our views with each other, with members of the theater community, and with our readers. The result was the Subcommittee for Cultural Diversity of the American Theatre Critics Association, founded in the summer of 1990, just a month before the Miss Saigon controversy brought the issue of non-traditional casting to international attention.

The American Theatre Critics Association began in 1974 at the O’Neill Theater Center and is the only national association of theater critics in the U.S., with some 250 members working in both print and broadcast media. ATCA holds two national gatherings yearly, a winter weekend mini-meeting in New York and a spring/summer conference in a regional setting. In addition to marathon play-going at these gatherings, numerous panels, guest speakers, and ATCA committee work are aimed at helping us become more enlightened and enlivened critics.

The Subcommittee on Cultural Diversity, or the CD’s (as I call us), work to inform our members and the communities which we address on issues of multiculturalism in the theater. Our first major activity was a panel at the 1991 New York mini-meeting — “Miss Saigon and After: Non-Traditional Casting.” Panelists were Benny Sato Ambush (Associate Artistic Director, American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco), Dennis deLeon (Chair, New York City Human Rights Commission), Bernard Jacobs (President, Shubert Organization), Mary Lee (Resident Ensemble Member, Pan Asian Repertory and founding member of APACE), and Abel Lopez (Associate Producing Director, GALA Hispanic Theatre, Washington, D.C.), and their discussion was lively indeed. The CD’s also arranged for representatives of the Non-Traditional Casting Project to give a seminar to the Fellows of the National Critics Institute at the O’Neill Theater Center in the summer of 1991, and that was so successful that the NTCP has been asked to do a presentation every year.

Many ATCA members wrote or broadcast information about the panel and/or the NCI presentations, and these first responses reflected a range of ideas and feelings as broad as that over Fuente Ovejuna. Most important to those of us who had already embraced non-traditional casting on stage, backstage, and in theater management is that some members who had not thought or at least not written much about it before are now doing so. And independent of the CD’s, members are organizing multicultural activities: at our Chicago meeting last spring, conference organizer Jonathan Abarbanel scheduled a panel of physically-challenged actors and artists of color at an African American cultural center.

ATCA is an almost exclusively white organization, though not by design. Crucial to the Cultural Diversity Subcommittee’s mission is identifying and recruiting critics of color.

We have sent correspondence to organizations of journalists of color, and attempted some personal contacts. Our success in these initial attempts has been varied. On the down side, for example, the Artistic Director of an African American theater told an ATCA representative that she knew many African American critics but would not give him their names or encourage them to join us, because she thought that they would be corrupted by associating with us. On the up side, among the Critics Fellows at the O’Neill last summer, was Sandra Dillard-Rosen, a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists. The newly appointed theater critic of the Denver Post, Sandra has joined ATCA and at our national meeting in Cleveland this May she will become co-chair of the Subcommittee on Cultural Diversity.

The immediate future challenges us to find more ways of enlightening our members about multiculturalism and to make our membership culturally diverse. The immediate past makes me hopeful. When I joined ATCA in 1979, there were few women theater critics in major positions either in New York or across the U.S. Today, women are more widely represented in theater criticism and this development is reflected in the membership. My hope is that what has happened with women will happen with critics of color. The ultimate goal of the CD’s is to become obsolete some time in the future when what is now called non-traditional casting and minority hiring has become the norm rather than an exception in a truly integrated theater and society.

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