I only write what I don’t care if the world reads. It’s sort of similar to a captain entering information in the captain’s log. Alas, I don’t have great sea battles and sunken treasure to write about, but an occasional anecdote does get entered if I’m feeling up to it. Check it out! Or don’t. I’m easy like that.
Latest Entry: Friday, August 25, 2017
Ah, theatre politics when it comes to casting…
Normally, I don’t say much. Not much point. People like to argue. It’s human nature. And often a huge time loss. But sometimes, there are important topics to ponder and consider.
For me, this one was pretty interesting, as my view changed about three or four times.
It started when I saw a petition online to Woodminster Theatre. The complaint (gripe?) was about their casting of a black woman in the role of an Asian Pacific Islander (API) role (Bloody Mary). The petitioners felt it should only be cast with API actor and no one else should get to play it.
I did recall when I first noticed the casting and yes, I too wondered why they didn’t find an API for it. It is the Bay Area after all. Diverse talent abounds. I had just done the show with an API as Bloody Mary.
I guess I somewhat agreed with the petition.
I read and responded to some of the arguments that were posted on a Facebook thread that quickly became very popular. Mainly, I questioned whether anyone API even auditioned for the role, and if so, were they qualified or better than the final selection. If so, then sure, red flags may go up.
The thread eventually blew up with comments coming in from about everyone and everywhere. Most were civil. Some were catty. One was fairly offensive and repeatedly so. But it was getting insane. I suggested it would be best if all roles were open for all people. That should be what we all desire, though some argued this was not true for this particular role.
Granted, at the present, a role like Bloody Mary would likely not be received well if played by a Caucasian actor, and understandably so. There are limited opportunities and to see the few roles that are literally scripted for API actors be given to others, that’s probably not in the best interest of the arts. This was actually the case during the first time I was in “South Pacific,” but it was in Pleasanton, and well, there are often difficulties getting enough diversity that far out. That said, I heard no gripes. We may just be getting too deep into political correctness these days to get anything accomplished. But that’s a different discussion and not the purpose of this article.
So my opinion was really that if we knew nothing about the African-American actor playing the role, why should we find it a problem, especially if she did a great job? Still, along with the rude comments, there were suggestions to just think about the effect it causes to have that happen in a field of few opportunities.
So I did.
It made sense. For me, I know I’m always competing against all backgrounds in almost every role, and rightfully so. Unless the script calls for someone portraying a Caucasian male of 30 years old (work with me here), it’s only right to allow it to go to anyone talented enough to perform it. And heck, that’s often someone besides meespecially if heavy dance is necessary.
Thus, I never have feelings of “Hey! That role isn’t written for you!” Not that I should. Again, tremendous amounts of roles are out there. Even if Shakespeare is open to all now, there are many places that are stuck with antiquated casting habits. That said, I’ll often have feelings of believing my interpretation would work better, but I’m completely biased by having witnessed most of my performances over the years.
But again, Woodminster was open to other ethnicities. They bucked the trend and cast non-traditionally for the role. This should actually be a good thing. (Yes, the casting for the original production and movie is noted.)
Though people were not pleased and the discussions continued and the thread grew and grew. I eventually hopped off the thread as it was getting too heated. (And I’ve little tolerance for online rudeness with strangers. “I only fight with my friends.”)
And that was that.
Yet, I did keep thinking about it.
During a recent long run, I still wondered what was best. I also thought about this question: “What percentage of the actor playing Bloody Mary was API?” I mean the assumption was zero percent I guess. I mean, she LOOKED zero percent, right? She appeared to audience members as a black woman, so therefore, it simply must be zero. Or wait. People can have mixed backgrounds. People can be anywhere from zero to 100 percent. Maybe below ten percent there are not many outward signs or physical traits, but it’s certainly possible that one could be API without it being apparent.
Heck, I know it’s possible. I know many people who are. Even another actress in the Woodminster show playing an API-scripted character was at 50%, but no one complained as I guess it was “enough.”
But Bloody Mary was not? How did one know? They simply looked at her and made the judgement. That was it. The interesting thing was that she was judged and ruled “not good enough” simply by her appearance. It was exactly the type of thing the show’s message warned about! The arts are supposed to be against these types of actions.
I sided with the theatre.
Though I still thought about it.
I still let it tumble around in my head. In most shows, it wouldn’t matter, but “South Pacific” is an interesting one because it specifically describes the negative experience about being an API and it certainly had some weight because of the unfair treatment during WWII, when the show takes place. (80 years after we stopped enslaving one set of people, we started up once again with a different set.) The lyrics describe exactly what physical features are prejudiced upon and the damage it causes. It would seem to be the type of show where you really do need to cast according to physical description. For this particular show, it’s as important as the setting being in the South Pacific. It’s about identity and how others react to it.
So I flipped and sided against the casting.
However, I couldn’t stop from pondering it more. “South Pacific” is a fine and fun show, but it’s around 60 years old and has been performed countless times in a manner directly according to the script. If there’s no variation each time, then there’s really no point in doing it once again for good measure. Might as well just rent the movie.
With another nationality that had faced heavy racism (and alas, currently still does) in the role of Bloody Mary, one can perhaps see the negative aspects of it in a different light.
But it’s somewhat early American musical theatre, not terribly deep in that area. It touches some important issues and shows some effect, but that was probably enough when it was writtenit just won’t likely make a lot of difference now. Modern shows can dive deeper and explore the subject matter to a much greater degree.
So the variation in casting is somewhat negated, leaving others to questions its legitimacy.
But I wasn’t at the casting table. I didn’t see the talent. I’ve no right or reason to say, “You fools! You erred!” My final comment was basically to suggest that if anyone desperately needed to cast it with someone who physically looked 100% API, then maybe buy a theatre, invest your time, sweat, and tears into it for decades and then cast it your way.
So back to siding with the theatre. I guess it ends (for me) there.
It wasn’t a total loss though. And maybe the petition wasn’t all bad. People were upset and expressed their thoughts using a freedom they had. The real issue was timing. It went out before the run was over. And that was in bad formand frankly quite tacky. Nothing would have changed from it and the only major effect was an actor had to now deal with knowing that a group of people were circulating petitions claiming she was not right for the role. There’s no way she didn’t know about this and there’s probably no way it did not hurt to some degree.
I’m okay with the petition, but NOT during the production where the tip of the spear landed on someone doing nothing wrong, and now facing yet another form of attack based solely on ethnicity.
Bad form and a bad step for the arts.
I did respect the ideas presented. I did think about it a lot, and that’s hopefully what we are all encouraged to do. Threads of varying opinions usually do nothing but galvanize people into digging in. The only real way to make a change is by presenting strong evidence or topics of consideration and then just asking people to think about it from both sidesto ponder it over and see what changes.
In the end, I do agree with the casting, but not by a large degree. Considering both sides did allow me to reflect on why such things matter to people and why we do theatre in the first place.
And therefore, even though I didn’t actually see that production, I actually got something out of it.