Jeremy Gerard (1994)

Guaranteed true story from the trenches of non-traditional casting: At a dinner recently, I was introduced to a director whose work I’d long admired, one for whom casting had always been a matter of talent over convention. The conversation quickly turned to a production of a classic play that had featured an African American actor in the leading role. Many of the reviews had been admiring, including mine. But why, the director wanted to know, hadn’t any of us even mentioned the fact that the leading player was black, when, after all, the whole point was that the character was a social outcast? How, the director asked, could we have failed to mention race in a discussion of this staging when it was so obviously pertinent to the interpretation of the play being presented?

Here was a bizarre inversion of the traditional non-traditional casting debate. For if one of the ultimate goals of colorblind casting is colorblind theater-going (which the public generally perceives to be the major issue of non-traditional casting), the critic is caught in a kind of Catch-22: I can’t mention the race of an actor without risking offense; but unless I risk just such offense, I may end up looking foolish — something, believe it or not, that most of us prefer to avoid.

This bind is especially true for critics like me who never had to be persuaded of the merits of non-traditional casting; it’s been part of my view of the art from the outset. My formative years as a young theater-goer were spent as much in opera houses as in the theater; I’m as much a student of the Metropolitan and New York City operas as of the Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theaters in which I spent far more time than at their Broadway counterparts. My early pantheon included Joes Papp and Cino, Ellen Stewart, and Wynn Handman, producers who sought out the most exciting plays and presented them with the best young talent the theater had to offer.

Except for a very few narrow-minded critics who have built their reputations as the self-appointed protectors of non-existent physical ideals for the stage, non-traditional casting was an important part of what made theater-going in the ’60s and ’70s so exciting. Certainly this was the case in the burgeoning resident theater movement as well as in those New York City theaters outside Broadway’s boundaries. It seemed only natural that such casting would eventually find its way into the mainstream theater — as it had in the opera world.

This past season much has been made of the fact that an African American actor, Audra Ann McDonald, was cast as Carrie Pipperidge, the second female lead in Lincoln Center Theater’s Broadway revival of Carousel. Were there blacks in a 19th-century seaside Maine village, some critics wondered — missing entirely what I believe to be the point of non-traditional casting: that we in the audience may be trusted to see not a black actor out of place in white America, but a timeless musical-theater dreamscape in which race is no issue and in which an exceptionally talented young singer gives a warm and wholly convincing performance (for which, by the way, she won a Tony Award).

Would anyone dream of criticizing the Met for casting Kathleen Battle as Pamina in a production of The Magic Flute whose Queen of the Night is white? Of course not. Opera asks audiences to make all kinds of imaginative leaps, and not just that we believe a 300-pound tenor is a starving writer or that a white mother may have a black daughter. Yet we have no difficulty making those leaps to complete the experience, any more than we have difficulty picking up the thread of a dramatic television story that has been interrupted by a deodorant commercial. To expect realism in the musical theater is similarly ridiculous: this is, after all, a genre in which characters suddenly break out into song every few moments with generous help from an unseen orchestra.

What, then, about non-musical theater? A current Broadway staging of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler includes an African American in the role of Judge Brack. Up until the final moments of the play, the judge believes that in exchange for his silence regarding a scandal he has discovered, Hedda will become his mistress. How should we view a production in which the villain is a black man relishing, however fleetingly, his pending sexual triumph over a white woman? Ignore the issue of race and evaluate the performance solely on its merits? Accuse the director of racism for playing on stereotypes? Wonder about the likelihood of a black judge in this setting?

My own decision was, again, to ignore race and look at the production as a whole, and that tended to hold true for most of my colleagues as well. But after the experience described in the opening paragraph of this piece, I’m left uncertain. Mixing up race and gender have long been tools used effectively by politically-oriented directors, and some of the theater-going experiences that still stand out in my memory — Gloria Foster’s Mother Courage, Morgan Freeman’s Coriolanus, Raul Julia’s Petruchio, Diane Venora’s Hamlet, to name just four from the Papp legacy — were electrifying precisely because of the way race and gender were employed to force an audience to view a familiar work in a completely new social context.

It goes without saying that we are still a long way from a theater in which talent prevails over other casting considerations, particularly in the mainstream. But in those places where non-traditional casting, and especially colorblind casting, has long been established, audiences and critics alike are confronted with an interesting challenge. For if we suspend disbelief on matters of race and gender, we risk willfully ignoring a key point of a production. But if such casting prompts us to wonder about the political implications of a production, we must do so by putting aside the very notion of non-traditional casting. It’s a dilemma I haven’t fully worked out, and one I suspect stymies many of my colleagues as well.

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