Race and casting on the Great White Way

30 Jun

Could an all-white cast ever pull off an August Wilson play?

It’s a provocative question that might not be answered for a few decades.

New Yorker theater critic John Lahr raised the issue last December when he set the blogosphere atwitter suggesting that black casts should not attempt Tennessee Williams’ work.

“And no more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson,” Lahr posted as part of his Christmas wish list on the New Yorker‘s culture blog.

The late Wilson probably would have agreed with Lahr, but for the producers and the multiracial cast of A Streetcar Named Desire currently playing on Broadway, Lahr’s comments were fighting words.

Blair Underwood, who plays the brutish Stanley in the production, said, “Having a multicultural cast is analogous to marrying some people’s daughters, because they don’t want it. But that’s OK. That’s what progress looks like, and progress is never easy.”

Nicole Ari Parker, who pretty well nails her Broadway debut as Blanche DuBois, said of Lahr’s comments: “I kind of respect his courage in a way. To come out in 2011 or 12, and say such a dismissive, kind of uninformed racial comment, he’s putting it on the table. The only way we can really affect any kind of change is if this white critic really tells how he feels, and he did.”

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Looking back on some old issues of my father’s paper, The New York Age, it seems like deja vu all over again.

In 1938, Wilella Waldorf of the New York Post, wrote that putting on the Mikado “with a cast of Negroes is just about as silly as it would be if the British Government were to revive Porgy and Bess in London’s West End with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the title roles.”

The editors of the Age called Waldorf’s column, an “asinine effusion.”

The irony is that the Mikado is set in Japan and the Japanese characters were played by white actors.

My father did not weigh in on Waldorf’s comments, but apparently enjoyed the 1938 Broadway production of Swing Mikadowith its “torso shaking of the beefy girls and the terpsichorean efforts of the more petite ones . . . ” In 1939 another all-black production The Hot Mikado opened on Broadway. Someone apparently liked the idea.

I think Ebenezer would have enjoyed this version of Streetcar. He often complained about the dearth of black casts on Broadway’s stages. He would have been pleased by the fact that several current Broadway hits have significant black casts  -  The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Memphis, Clybourne Park. In addition, James Earl Jones plays a former U.S. president in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, a play set in 1960. (Talk about colorblind casting!) Corbin Bleu is playing the role of Jesus in Godspell, and Raven Symoné has the lead in Sister Act.

My father also complained in the 30s and 40s that few black folks supported the theater, even in Harlem. I can’t speak for Harlem venues today, but black theater goers packed the house during last Saturday’s Streetcar matinée.

Streetcar is definitely worth the price of the ticket. I enjoyed seeing screen actors Underwood, Parker and Wood Harris bring their talents to the stage. The cast also included a number of Broadway veterans, including Daphne Rubin-Vega, Count Stovall and Carmen de Lavallade. Terrence Blanchard composed the music.

Knowing some of the history of Louisiana, it was not a stretch to imagine that the fair-skinned black DuBois sisters could descend from wealthy Louisiana landowners. I admit that I shivered reflexively every time Blanche referred to Stanley as an ape. I had to remind myself that Williams did not have a black man in mind when he wrote those words.

But back to my original question: Could/should an all-white cast ever perform an August Wilson play?

Wilson was an outspoken critic of colorblind casting. He advocated instead for more support of black playwrights.

“To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigation from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our present, our difficult but honorable history in America; is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large,” Wilson said.

I wonder, though, if there are not universal truths in Wilson’s examinations of the black experience that might someday resonate with others. Why not a Fences with a white family or an adaptation of Jitney featuring Puerto Rican or Dominican livery drivers?

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