Fanni Green – Actor/Teacher/Playwright (2003)

The question: With respect to diversity and inclusion, as a professional actor and a teacher, would I say there has been a growth or decrease in non-traditional casting in recent years? As an actor I’ve been given the opportunity to play Shakespearean Earls, a Japanese Samurai Grandfather, a Russian male police officer and wife and sister in interracial families. As a matter of fact, I’ve probably played as many male characters as I have female characters. I’ve been cast non-traditionally; I’ve been cast ‘blindly’. With regard to the question, I would say I’ve witnessed a steady gradual “coloring” (my word) in the casting of productions in regional theaters and on New York stages.  I continue to see less inclusion of actors with disabilities in productions where disabled characters have not been originally written.

This “coloring” has not only made room for superbly gifted actors of color, able bodied and disabled, but in doing so the many gradated skin tones within our global village are revealed. As a teacher/director, to cast non-traditionally, as well as blindly, makes the student actor immediately aware of the unending depth and specificity of character exploration. This diverse and inclusive casting endows us, as artists and audience to create and to see characters embodied not as we presumed or even, as was written. It opens onto new avenues by which we investigate multi-faceted human experience. It rubs away ingrained suppositions and points of view. For example, a black sword-wielding, Shakespearean Earl with braided hair, is not a far flung idea, nor should it be perceived as a daring casting choice. But the presence of a dark skinned man in a predominately white skinned environment will always render historical context and revelation within the world of the play.

At the same time, it only takes daring and a willing imagination to perceive of me, a black woman, as a sword-wielding, Shakespearean Earl with braided hair, period. But more importantly, what do you learn about the world and yourself as you follow the journey of Warwick, the Kingmaker  (in Shakespeare’s Henry VI)  as portrayed by this black woman, me?  What resonates in you about the historical and current landscape of world politics, the brutal expense of war, the dizzying, fervent clamor for political power?—as you watch me as this character in this play? When the final bows of the evening have been taken the most significant questions must always be: What did I learn about the world and myself from this play? How am I reaffirmed, enlightened, challenged or convicted by what I’ve experienced in this play?  Therefore the goal of diverse and inclusive casting is not to ‘not see’ me, but rather to see me as the character, and to allow me as the character to bring you into the world of the play.

My perception of the current climate, attitudes, and opportunities is that the theatre community and its artists are seeking to revolutionize themselves. The current state of the world has us eager to re-engage with the notions of sexuality, gender, race, and class.  I am witnessing a return to griots and jesters. The faces and shapes of the actors telling the stories on our current stages are not your grandmother’s Juliet nor your great-grandfather’s Uncle Vanya.  The intention is not to obscure, but rather to re-enter that which is known in search of a more revelatory answer.  Or to enter that which is unknown, in order to discover a connection/disconnection, error or solution.  Think Metamorphosis, think Def Poetry Jam, think Topdog/Underdog, think Homebody/Kabul.

Regarding the workplace, I am still hoping to work in more regional theatres where there are fewer minorities on the janitorial staff than on the artistic and administrative staffs.  Sorrowfully, I have worked at theatres where the Hispanic woman who cleans the bathroom doesn’t even come to see the plays. Also, I’ve worked at theaters that are located in ethnically diverse neighborhoods and still, the audience is predominantly white. I want to work at more regional theatres where the company manager is prepared to meet my specific interests and needs – say, perhaps, a black Baptist church on the black side of town if I choose to go there, or a natural hair-care salon if I need one. I want to work at more regional theatres where the marketing department is not at a loss as to how to get the black audience into the seats to see Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill. Sadly enough, the primary barriers to achieving more diversity and inclusion are tradition, audience perception, and whether or not the show will sell. Hopefully, the mechanisms to increasing the growth of diversity and inclusion are bold, committed producers, casting directors, talent agents, directors and playwrights and funding (that continues to support such initiatives). In the academic arena, more plays by and about people of color must be read in classrooms and performed on stages. Teachers must initiate discussions about how diverse and inclusive casting in Romeo and Juliet, Angels in America, The Death of a Salesman may or may not render richer revelations.

Dare we say to casting directors the following: “unless a role is defined by race, age, gender, ethnicity and/or physical disability, all roles are open to all actors”?  Dare we encourage more talent agents to enlarge their client’s auditioning territory? Are talent agents really calling up casting directors and suggesting, “the breakdown doesn’t specify – therefore, would you find out if the director would consider …?  My client, ______ , would fulfill this character phenomenally.”  Dare we ask directors to say “yes” to diverse and inclusive casting when the circumstances of the play deem it possible? Dare we empower actors to require that their talent representatives always seek out these casting possibilities? Should we suggest that producers offer more talkbacks wherein the question of diversity and inclusiveness is discussed in relationship to their productions, to the story of the play, to our world?   One need only honor the story of the play and then open his/her mind to the possibility of what such casting may render in the riveting telling of it.  Herein lies the journey called diversity and inclusion.

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