In For a Penny: Eyes without a Face

Charles Lewis III weighs in on some recent controversy.

Can you spot the Oscar-winner under all that shoe polish?

Can you spot the Oscar-winner under all that shoe polish?

“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.

Same role, no shoe polish.

Same role, no shoe polish.

Charles Lewis III can’t wait to see Chris Rock tear into Hollywood about its own hypocrisy.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: On Prejudices

Dave Sikula free forms his way into controversy.

I’d been struggling to come up with a topic for this week’s entry, and, frankly, I kept coming up blank.

Some of this was due to having been out of town this last week; some of it was due to dealing with some weird Eustachian tube thing I’ve got (it alternates between plugged-up ears and vertigo; it’s much better now, thank you, but still a nuisance); some of it was due to being in rehearsal.

The result is, this will probably be more free-form and scattered than usual.

So, what’s bugging me? What’s my beef? What’s sticking in my craw?

The first thing that comes to mind is an episode from my recent trip. While driving through the wilds of southern Illinois, I was listening to a podcast featuring an interview with Michael Chiklis. While I’m not particularly a fan of his, I was interested enough to listen to the program. I didn’t watch either “The Commish” or “The Shield” (though I always heard good things about the latter), and my only real exposure to him was through his portrayals of Curly Howard (in a TV biopic of The Three Stooges) and Ben Grimm (in the dismal “Fantastic Four” movies). He’s one of those actors whom I’ve found likeable enough, but who never really made an impression on me.

From the interview (and Wikipedia), I learned he has (surprisingly to me) classical training, having gone to Boston University, but overall, he came off as something of a blowhard and goofball, but in an innocuous way – sort of a “Hey, I’m an LA actor who had a notable TV series” vibe.

I could have left it there, but the interviewer asked him about Shakespeare, and Mr. Chiklis launched into a combination condemnation of Shakespeare and defense of Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, that had steam coming out of my ears. I was literally yelling at and arguing with a two-year-old interview playing on my iPhone

Let me state here my firm status as a Stratfordian. It’s not even a belief. I’ve studied the Shakespeare “authorship” question to a great degree, and there’s not a shred, not a smidgen, not an atom of evidence that anyone but William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote those plays. Not to name call – oh, hell, let me go ahead and name-call: anyone who believes that Oxford, or Bacon, or Marlowe, or Queen Elizabeth – or anyone else – wrote the plays is an ill-informed idiot (though, mind you, I’m not eliminating Shakespeare collaborating with other writers; there’s plenty of evidence for that).

I have no idea why these people so piss me off. It’s not an anti-elitist thing; I’m certainly an elitist in a lot of things. But there’s something about this topic that just pushes my buttons. In a way, it’s kind of how I feel about the Kennedy assassination, although in that case, I’d be willing to listen to conspiracy theories, even if they all fall apart of their own weight. On matters such as these, I side with Occam’s Razor and believe the simplest theory is the right one.

The takeaway from all of this is, if you really want to get my goat, try to bait me on Oxford vs. Shakespeare; I’ll bite every time.

Moving on.

In trying to come up with a topic for today, I asked my long-suffering wife if she had any ideas. She mentioned she’d seen a Facebook post that took a Minneapolis reviewer to task for alleged racism. Personally, I found the review poorly reasoned and written, but far from racist.

My feelings about reviews and reviewers have been expressed here before; basically, I don’t have a lot of use for them. But this case proved interesting to me. The review is of a production of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid.” While the reviewer (I refuse to call him a critic) seems not to understand Moliere’s dramaturgy and style, he begins by criticizing the director’s “highly questionable choices, one being the use of colorblind casting.” A phrase like that can easily act as a red flag to some readers, but beyond objecting to Asian, Latino, and African American actors playing French characters, he doesn’t go into a lot of detail. It seems he’s mostly puzzled why the director would cast actors of color while the Theatre avoids producing plays by writers of color. (though, admittedly, there is a tone of “people should only do shows wherein they’re cast ethnically appropriately”).

I have to admit that I’m torn on some cross-cultural casting. When I direct, I try to do it and have indeed done so more than once. I do have trouble wrapping my brain around casting family units of different ethnicities – and let me speedily add that it’s not a matter of having a problem with interracial relationships; I’m thinking of, say, a “Glass Menagerie” with an Asian American Amanda and a white Tom and Laura, or a “Long Day’s Journey” with a white James, a Latina Mary, and African Americans as Jamie and Edmond. I fully admit that the “problem” is my own; if I can accept that any actor is pretending to be someone up on that stage in the first place, I should be able to blind myself to differences in race. I mean, I’m able to see beyond something like an Irish American actor playing a Swede or a Canadian, so why not stretch my own limitations?

And let me hasten to add again, that this prejudice really only applies itself mostly to “realistic” plays or productions. If I see a farce or a deconstruction or something epic (such as Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata”) with an interracial family (whose ethnic differences are incidental to the plot), I have no problem with it – nor do I have a “problem” with cross-casting in general. One of the best things I’ve ever seen at ACT was their production of “Tartuffe” with an almost-exclusively African American cast, and I’ve seen a few productions of Chekhov that used multi-racial casts.

I realize that, in bringing this issue up – let alone admitting to my own limitations – I may be opening a can of worms and opening myself to criticism, but I don’t think I’m alone, and I think it’s a topic worth discussing (or I wouldn’t have spent a few hundred words on it) – though I’d hope it would be an open discussion, without either side shutting down the other for misunderstanding.

Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s my background, maybe it’s my cultural “training.” Whatever it is, though, I’m ready to be educated and enlightened.