Charles Lewis III weighs in on some recent controversy.
“In 1985, I’m sitting in the casting office of a major studio. The head of casting said, ‘I couldn’t put you in a Shakespeare movie, because they didn’t have Black people then.’ He literally said that. I told that casting director: ‘You ever heard of Othello? Shakespeare couldn’t just make up Black people. He saw them’.”
– Wendell Pierce, interview with The New York Times, 24 Feb. 2016
I don’t watch the Grammys. I mostly attribute that to growing up as a fan of The Simpsons, where both the ceremony and its namesake statuette were regularly mocked as being the most worthless of all celebrity milestones (the Golden Globes being a close second). I can also attribute it to the fact that as I grew up, the Grammys’ recipients rarely ever reflected my own tastes in music. Like the Billboard charts, the Grammys tell you what’s popular, not necessarily what’s good. Still, since the awards are a major celeb event, I wind up seeing the results on my timeline, even when I don’t seek them out.
One particular blurb caught my eye. Apparently one of the most-talked-about moments of this year’s ceremony involved a performance from the cast of Hamilton (a show which I’ve still neither seen nor heard). The show won an award, but apparently a considerable number of White viewers were put off by the multi-ethnic cast, leading to such condescending questions as “Do they know Alexander Hamilton was White?” In a country – nay, world – in which a whitewashed interpretation of Egyptian mythos is heavily promoted every 30 seconds and considered the norm, the idea of people of color dramatizing important milestones of American history is somehow taboo.
I’ve always been touchy about colorblind casting; as a Black man, I don’t have much choice but to be. One the one hand, I’ve done quite a few roles that were originally played by – if not specifically envisioned for – White actors, and I’m grateful for that. On the other hand, I’m not at all comfortable when I see all-White casts in Biblical stories or as Martin Luther King or… well, just look at that photo above. That sort of casting often relies on a flimsy interpretation of Occam’s Razor to infer that producers are simply casting the best actor available. What they fail to realize is that for people of color, all things in the universe are not equal.
This often leads to questions as to why people of color are allowed to be “forced in” (a term I’ve heard far too often) to traditionally all-White productions, but the reverse is discouraged. Yes, in 2016, people still have a problem interpreting the difference between “inclusion” and “erasure”. When a Shakespeare play – say, anyone that isn’t Othello, Titus, or Merchant (with the Duke of Morocco) – uses a diverse cast, they’re giving opportunities to actors who haven’t had them in plays for which ethnicity is not a factor – inclusion. When an all-White cast does Raisin in the Sun on the pretense that “they just want to tell a good story,” that’s erasure. (An odd middle ground would be an all-White version of The Wiz, something which does happen.)
And I get the impulse of moving ahead because of a “good story,” I really do. When I began writing and directing in high school, I was given the assignment to dramatize scenes from books being studied by the English classes. One of the scenes I chose was from Richard Wright’s Black Boy. As one of the few Black kids in the drama department – and the only one of those who was male – I had to either cast myself in the scene (which meant that I couldn’t look at it with the objective eye of a director) or cast someone else. I wound up casting a light-skinned, straight-haired Latino actor and got no shortage of mockery for it afterward.
In hindsight, I should have scrapped the scene and chosen one from another book. Ethnicity isn’t something that can simply being “up for interpretation by an actor,” as would a character’s religion or sexual orientation. Ethnicity isn’t just an interchangeable costume. It’s the interpretation of the life and culture of actual human beings. As such, a theatre producer is required to do all in his or her power to have the real kind of person represented in their production, or just scrap the production entirely.
I’ve spoken before about the first time I wrote and directed for the Olympians festival. One of the three lead characters was a half-Black/half-White teen, but limited casting options had me place an Indian actor in the role (as opposed to doing it myself, which, again, wasn’t gonna happen). Still, the idea of his character being an outsider amongst his fellow characters got through to the audience.
During last year’s festival, I cast a half-Latino actor in the title role of my play, with an Italian-American playing his son and a Latina playing his daughter. The latter was less about casting limitations (I hand-picked the title role actor myself) and more about a specific statement I was making about ethnicity in popular culture: the son was played by a White actor because he’d fully assimilated in a way his openly Latina sister had not. Both are their father’s child, but each differently interpreted the idea of “success in America”.
That’s not colorblind casting, that’s casting to prove a point. Kinda like Hamilton (or so I’ve heard).
Just like the Super Bowl, you can bet I’ll be watching the Oscars this coming Sunday. Yeah, yeah, I know: “It’s just a pageant of superficial glad-handing that has nothing to do with the genuine talent hiding within the industry.” I don’t care. I’ll be hanging out with other theatre artists as we cheer, jeer, and snarkily riff on the aforementioned pageantry. I’ll be with a diverse group of performers with whom I’ve shared the stage on many occasions as we drink ourselves silly laughing at the lily-white proceedings.
We’ll sit and enjoy ourselves because we know that this ceremony isn’t the end of the conversation about diverse casting; it isn’t even the middle. It’s the extension of a conversation that’s being going on before any of us were born and will hopefully continue after we’re gone. We’d just like to see a little more action to accompany all the talk.
Charles Lewis III can’t wait to see Chris Rock tear into Hollywood about its own hypocrisy.