Last week, Clarion University in Pennsylvania was forced to cancel its planned production of Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India. The reason: casting. Three of the characters were written as Indians, and the predominantly white school had cast two white actors and one mixed-race actor in the roles.
Earlier the same week, Katori Hall objected passionately in The Root to a production at Kent State University in Ohio of her two-hander The Mountaintop, in which the role of Martin Luther King Jr. was played by a white actor*. Though she wasn’t able to stop the production, director Michael Oatman’s decision led her to officially stipulate that the characters in The Mountaintop be played by African-American or black actors, unless approval has been granted. Writes Hall:
The casting of a white King is committing yet another erasure of the black body. Sure, it might be in the world of pretend, but it is disrespectful nonetheless, especially to a community that has rare moments of witnessing itself, both creatively and literally, in the world.
Many may read Hall’s op-ed, or Suh’s statement on his Facebook page, and wonder: But why can’t the best actor get the role? Two reasons: playwrights’ rights and white tears.
1) The rights of the playwright trump the rights of the directors/producers.
Neither Suh nor Hall was informed of the productions’ casting choices—in Suh’s case, in fact, there was never a licensed agreement in place to produce the work. As Suh wrote on Facebook:
On November 9, after confirming that a fully executed license agreement did not exist, I sent an email to [professor of theatre and director Marilouise Michel] insisting that she either recast, or cancel the production. I absolutely understand that this has caused anger, confusion, and disappointment among the actors and crew that had been hard at work on the piece. I do not take that lightly. The students are victims, and the timing of this mess has raised many questions. But the timing was never in my control.
Clarion University did provide Suh with a $500 royalty check, but that does not excuse its failure to procure a signed contract (which is illegal when mounting a production) or from failing to get Suh’s permission for changing the race of the characters in Jesus in India.
There are a number of playwrights who do not mind cross-cultural casting in their works, even when certain characters are described as white. East West Players, an Asian-American theatre in Los Angeles, has managed to procure rights to cast Asian/Pacific-Islander actors in roles explicitly written for white actors, such as Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years or Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music. In all cases, the authors approved the casting, as it has been the norm in the theatre (American theatres, at least) that the intentions of the creators trump the vision of the director unless the work is in the public domain.
There are telling precedents to this latest controversy. In 2005, a high school production of Big River cast Huckleberry Finn with a black actor and Jim, the runaway slave, with a white actor. This was met by protestations from the rights holders, R&H Theatricals.
“That’s taking a liberty that one could argue is not appropriate to what the authors of that musical are trying to convey about the novel,” said Bert Fink, spokesman for R&H Theatricals, in a Washington Post article. “To ignore the racial component of Huck Finn does a disservice to the story.”
Let this be a lesson to any production—professional, university, or amateur—looking to license a work not in the public domain: If you are looking to change the race of a character in any direction, ask the playwright first. Changing a character’s race should be given the same level of consideration, procedurally speaking, as abridging or otherwise adapting a published work. The authors created the work, they should be allowed a say.
Which brings us to our next point: Why does race-specific casting matter?
2) Now ain’t the time for white tears.
The familiar protestations against Lloyd and Hall’s decision to not allow white actors to be cast in these plays—that everyone worked so hard, that this is “reverse racism,” and so on—amount to another case of “white tears,” that unfortunate phenomenon that sees any questioning of long-standing white privilege, in this case the right to play any role of any ethnicity, as an inequity on par with institutional racism, as if the playing field were level. An op-ed at The Root succinctly defines white tears as “what happens when certain types of white people either complain about a nonexistent racial injustice or are upset by a nonwhite person’s success at the supposed expense of a white person.”
No, these playwrights’ objections to white-washed productions of Jesus in India and The Mountaintop were not about excluding white actors and artists. Their plays were meant in part to provide opportunities for artists who are still too often left out of the room. And when actors of color are not available to play the roles, to ask that the production not go on is taking a moral stand against racist traditions that are still hurtful to communities still vastly underrepresented in the theatre. As Suh put it:
The practice of using white actors to portray non-white characters has deep roots in ugly racist traditions. It sends a message, intended or not, that is exclusionary at best, dehumanizing at worst.
Knowing this fact, what are theatre artists to do when they want to cast cross-culturally but can’t because of the demographic of their community? Three suggestions:
1) Pick another play where the playwright will approve the casting. As Hall pointed out in her editorial, she has been working on a London production of her play Children of Killers, about the aftermath of the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, and she said she has “urged the directors to cast for diversity within their youth groups, providing the caveat that casting must drive home the major theme: that lines of identity were arbitrarily drawn by colonial powers, rendering signifiers of ‘racial’ identity unreliable.”
2) Pick from among many new plays in the American repertoire that deal with race but don’t require white students to practice blackface/yellowface/brownface/redface in school: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men**.
3) Have a white actor play Martin Luther King Jr. or do monologues from August Wilson but only in the classroom or in a workshop setting. Make it a teaching moment. Discuss that while the best actor for the role may not always be of the race specified, in the real world, it is not yet possible nor desirable for any actor to play any race. The phrase “the best actor should get the role” is a noble sentiment, but it is far from the norm. Make it a conversation not just about the play but also about the unfortunate racist traditions that have been perpetuated in the theatre and continue to be perpetuated to this day. Speaking of which, here’s a bonus suggestion: If your student body isn’t diverse enough to do plays featuring people of color, maybe you should start by addressing that problem.
In short, teach your students, empower them to change the inequities in our field, and society at large, for the better. Make them see that they are not victims of missed opportunities but victims of a system that continues to judge everyone by their skin, their class, their sexuality, their ability status.
The theatre field is not perfect, in short, and any educational institution that doesn’t address that should refund its students their tuition.
*A previous version of this article claimed that the part of Martin Luther King Jr. was double cast with a black actor and a white actor. In an article from the Akron Beacon Journal, it’s revealed that a white actor played the role for the entire run of the show after the black actor dropped out. Thanks to Howard Sherman for pointing it out.
**A previous version of the article listed Jacqueline Lawton’s The Hampton Years as an example. That has been removed. The play actually requires three African-American actors and two white actors.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!