Apparent Revival of Nontraditional Casting Puts Spotlight on Race in Theater World

Nelson Pressley, Washington Post, March 19, 2011

A few days before opening in “Sabrina Fair” at Ford’s Theatre last fall, Susan Heyward found herself bawling in front of the cast.

“At first I didn’t understand why I couldn’t stop crying,” Heyward says in an interview from New York. Heyward was playing the lead–the Audrey Hepburn part, if you think of the movie “Sabrina”–in Samuel A. Taylor’s 1953 Cinderella romance. Chauffeur’s Daughter Captures Heart of Rich Employer’s Son, goes the story, only Ford’s made the play about race by isolating Sabrina and her father as black figures in an affluent white milieu.

The script itself remained unchanged. But even though the characters did not mention the new theme, it was blatant.

“It hurt so much to be in a world where something so elemental to your being was ignored,” Heyward says, explaining her sudden eruption. “I had to acknowledge that for Sabrina.”

There may be power yet, then, in an idea that last seemed vanguard a couple of decades ago: nontraditional casting. Latinos, blacks and whites in Arena Stage’s “Oklahoma!” last fall, and now an African American version of Horton Foote’s 1953 “The Trip to Bountiful” at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. The concepts don’t necessarily seem fresher than Arena’s “Pygmalion” with an African American Eliza Doolittle 20 years ago or an all-black “Waiting for Godot” on Broadway in 1957.

But Timothy Douglas, director of “The Trip to Bountiful” (best known as the 1985 film that won Geraldine Page the Academy Award for Best Actress), suggests that nontraditional casting is enjoying a renaissance. The flurry on Broadway in recent seasons has included Morgan Freeman in Clifford Odets’s “The Country Girl,” S. Epatha Merkerson in “Come Back, Little Sheba” and an all-black “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”–all 1950s plays, curiously, like “Bountiful.”

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The gambit is never wholly free from controversy, though. “Sometimes,” suggests actor Howard Overshown, who plays the son of the aging woman who longs to return home in “Bountiful,” “I feel nontraditional casting is in lieu of doing black plays.”

Indeed, the theater world still has to contend with the long shadow of August Wilson’s 1996 speech railing against colorblind casting as a form of “assimilation” (his word) to be resisted. When Arena convened a national panel of black playwrights last winter, Wilson’s speech was handed out as the starting point for the conversation.

“It is an assault on our presence,” Wilson thundered, complaining of a theoretical all-black “Death of a Salesman,” “an insult to our intelligence” and “our playwrights. . . . We do not need colorblind casting; we need some theaters to develop our playwrights.”

Edward Albee, who has long been outspoken about sticking to the playwright’s intentions, issued a general caution on nontraditional casting as the current festival of his works was being put together at Arena. When Ford’s director, Paul Tetrault, told the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” author about his concept for “Sabrina Fair,” Albee replied, “Do you think that black people and white people are completely interchangeable?'”

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“That had not come into my consciousness,” Douglas says in response to the assertion that doing a “white” play with black actors often takes one of the limited programming slots that might have gone to a black playwright.

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Race frequently stands for little in contemporary productions of European classics; just check your most recent Shakespearean playbill, no matter where you’ve been. “Colorblind” is the term for casting in those cases, and Tetrault uses it to explain the policy of his theater’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol”: “We’ll cast anyone in any role,” he says.

Lizan Mitchell, who is playing the homesick Carrie Watts in “Bountiful” at Round House, has appeared in Greek tragedies in which race was immaterial. It’s the American plays that up the ante, she says.

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Thus black dramatists have been known to hold up a hand and say: Hey, if you want to send a less ambiguous message, we have a couple of scripts you could look at.

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Still, Wilson’s complaint about white-run theaters picking the plays and seldom drawing deeply from the black repertoire remains a problem. Smith and Tetrault are comfortable pointing to their companies’ track records producing black writers, but Mitchell–who says she often participates in readings of promising new plays that never get produced, to say nothing of the rarely touched canon of African American works–is troubled.

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