Stephen McKinley Henderson – Actor (2004-2005)
A Non-Traditional Experience
I first want to celebrate a few of the wonderful non-traditional experiences at which I have had the good fortune to be an audience member. While there have been hundreds more than I am aware of with honorable work being done all round, I single out Mabou Mines’ A Doll’s House which I saw in process at the 2003 Sundance Theater Lab, and The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s 2005 production of, Caligula with André De Shields. The films, The Station Agent, Maria Full of Grace, and Brother to Brother made profound statements from a range of perspectives often marginalized in society. They were brought into full focus through the independent efforts of non-traditional thinkers. The notion of something non-traditional is at the core progressive thought, of the creative impulse.
I am an African American from Kansas. I am freckled and light-skinned; I am also thick-skinned as one has to be in this business. The way one looks is always in play, either in your favor or against you. When looking for work in the acting profession it is best to focus on your actions, stay healthy and fluff yourself up as best you can. I continue to confront the obstacles particular to my appearance with humor, humility, and healthy rage.
The last six years have been the most exciting in my career. From 2000-2003 I was part of three August Wilson productions in NYC and one in London. In 2004 and 2005 I worked on and Off-Broadway in what would certainly be considered non-traditional casting, as Van Helsing in Dracula, The Musical and as Pontius Pilate in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Des McAnuff and Phillip Seymour Hoffman did not hesitate to consider casting non-traditionally nor did the authors, all involved in the entire process, give me anything but encouragement throughout the rehearsal and the run. I cannot say that this is typical, but it is factual, and I have wonderful memories of both experiences. The work with the LAByrinth Co. on The Last Days of Judas Iscariot was faith-affirming. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis somehow manages to write the soul of his characters first, making many socio-economic and cultural interpretations possible. The director’s casting possibilities are wide open. Guirgis is the most user-friendly playwright in that regard I have ever encountered. In the instances when a specific cultural identity and gender are organic to the work, the characters are not drawn stereotypically, and if they are, it is hysterical satire.
The LAByrinth Co. and The Public Theater are both examples of when a theater’s staff is diverse, there is more diversity on the stage. When there is diversity on the stage, there is diversity in the audience. If employment opportunities exist in the society at-large, it is reflected in the worlds created by playwrights and directors. Theater does not create our reality, it reflects it. By reflecting our world, the arts enable us to examine and alter it.
Box office and talent determine most casting decisions. Fortunately a majority of graduate programs practice inclusion in recruitment and casting. That represents progress. It is undeniable. Directors and playwrights nurtured in these programs tend to have a broader world view. Theater companies that address specific interest groups of race, gender, and sexual orientation tend to acknowledge disabled talent as well. The film industry can do much in this area. Most theaters now provide access to audience members in wheelchairs but the backstage areas are not similarly equipped for actors. Non- traditional casting requires non-traditional thinking. Independent filmmakers and project generating theater companies are the leaders in this.
September 11 caused a very visible change in the film industry. American filmmakers seem to have become ever more aware of the racial and religious diversity that makes up our citizenry. I think we have also been affected by the science of DNA tests and how they have been used to exonerate criminals as well as verify parentage. The long oral tradition among African Americans connecting the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings families is now scientifically documented. Soon after that occurrence, the double life of Strom Thurman was revealed. I imagine everyone can think of ways that 9/11 and DNA science have resonated for their particular ethnicity and cultural reality. I know I have heard many conversations concerning the 2002 Academy Awards when Mr. Poitier, Ms. Berry, and Mr. Washington were honored. There are those who said these artists would not all have been honored at the same ceremony had it not been an important time to show the world that our uniquely American tradition had matured since the years of Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge and Canada Lee. Others said that Mr. Washington and Ms. Berry would not have been honored for portrayals of less controversial and morally conflicted characters, TRANSLATION: “If she didn’t get naked and he didn’t get high, neither one would have gotten Oscar.” Personally I think the performances the Academy chooses to honor reveals more about Academy Voters than these artists’ work.
Digital video technology allows filmmakers new possibilities for independence. This gives access for many artistic perspectives without the involvement of the financial giants that were needed before. It poses new challenges for unions, but opens new vistas for artists.
It is not uncommon now to see non-traditional casting in the classics. It is very important to remember there was a time when this was rare. Those who pioneered in this area and those who continue in that great tradition are largely responsible for the diversity we now enjoy. Without choice there is no freedom. Seeing African Americans, Asians, Latinos, et. al. performing in European periods where their presence is historically hypocritical doesn’t strike me as the most profound expression of non-traditionalism today. Historical contributions of unsung heroes and untold events seem more meaningful to me now. An actor being cast in a role is not social progress. I am encouraged by Theater and Cinema that reveal the struggles, the positive alliances and revolutionary friendships among and between contemporary cultures. Fiction or non-fiction, these projects establish much needed “new traditions” in human potential. Amiri Baraka says, “Today is the history we must learn to desire.”
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