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Reconsidering Color-Blind Casting

Actors shouldn’t be bound by stereotypes

Mediocre reviews happen. It is the nature of ­theater. Some works are hits; some are misses. Some misses even get reviewed as hits and, certainly, vice versa. In considering the February 11 review of 2nd Star Production’s A Philadelphia Story, it is safe to say the Jane C. Elkin offered a meh assessment. Again, it happens.
    But for now, let’s put aside her obvious love of the 1940 film. It’s one of my favorites, too. We can even put aside her seeming disappointment that ­community theatre actors miss the mark in reproducing the performances of the likes of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn.
    What I’m most interested in is Ms. Elkin’s position on color-blind casting. Clearly, I’m misunderstanding her. After all, she put the term in her review’s headline: The Philadelphia Story: 2nd Star Productions updates this classic with color-blind casting. With a lead-in like that, she must believe that in the 21st century, theater-goers have matured enough to witness a variety of actors taking on a variety of roles, perhaps not originally written for their race, and accept it.
    When you find out more about Ms. Elkin you will find that she is an accredited and well-respected poet and ESL professor. As such, I am determined to believe she has seen and is sensitive to challenges facing minorities, the lack of opportunities in fields they may be passionate about and the ongoing discrimination that non-white communities continue to face.
    Therefore, assuming the very best, I would like to ask Ms. Elkin to expand on her line of thinking behind this comment:

    “Confounding credibility is the direc­torial concept of Tracy’s interracial engagement to George. For these characters, such a union would have been unthinkable. That scenario was the impetus for a different Hepburn blockbuster — Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — 40 years later.”

    Perhaps Ms. Elkin is unaware of the reasons for “color-blind” casting. I would like to give just a bit of background. In the theater community, in general color-blind casting (now often referred to as color-conscious casting) refers to a choice in which actors are cast in roles traditionally played by or originally written for a different race. In my experience, frequently the choice to cast a show in this manner stems from the theater company’s or director’s dedication to expand opportunity to all actors and to engage the best performers regardless of ethnicity. There is a wealth of plays written prior to 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in which the playwright envisioned a caucasian person. Forgive me for not having actual statistics, but I believe that it is safe to assume that, historically, there are more plays written and produced (and made into films) for caucasian people than for minorities.
    If that’s correct, then a fair amount of roles would exclude all actors except white ones.
    What I fear Ms. Elkin is suggesting is that, unless the context is exactly correct, color-blind casting is a distraction. It “confounds credibility.” It confuses the simple-minded audience capable only of perceiving a story presented in another era if it exactly replicates the era.
    And thank goodness, for 2nd Star’s sake, they got one thing right by casting “the requisite black butler (Wendell Holland).” I’m truly unsure what Ms. Elkin was trying to say with this comment taken directly from her review.
    (I might note here that Wendell Holland has been in more 2nd Star shows than any other actor in the company’s 20-year history, frequently in roles that were not written for an African American man).
    I have worked with 2nd Star Productions. Like many of our local theater companies, they are a community of talented, dedicated and award-winning performers, designers and artists. And they don’t care about a person’s race. 2nd Star Production’s founder, Jane B. Wingard’s point of view is that she trusts her directors to have a vision and she is committed to casting the best performers she can find.
    She and her team have confidence that audiences are intelligent, thoughtful people — and that they don’t care either. And as intelligent, thoughtful people, when presented with a young African American man walking out on to the stage as the “lily white” 1940s’ main character’s fiancé, they will think Huh, he’s African American. Then, sit back, forget about it and enjoy the show.
    I am giving Ms. Elkin the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she wrote this review quickly and didn’t realize how closed-minded her comments at the end of her review made her sound. Perhaps, she wasn’t piecing together the number of roles her comment suggested should be barred to all actors of African, Indian, Asian, Hispanic or otherwise non-white descent. I am asking Ms. Elkin to elaborate on her position on this. I look forward to her reply.
    In the meantime, I invite the entire greater Washington and Baltimore area to show your support for 2nd Star’s commitment to equality in casting by coming out to see the show. According to Ms. Elkin it doesn’t live up to the movie. But 2nd Star is proud of it. And I am proud of them.