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Let’s Talk about Race

Should dispelling stereotypes trump history?

You know that conversation on race we’re all supposed to be having? We’ve jumped into it in the midst of Black History Month from the unlikely springboard of a 1940 romantic comedy set in the whites-only high society of Main Line Philadelphia.
    This month, 2nd Star Productions tried The Philadelphia Story out on 2016 audiences.
    Cast as establishment tycoon George Kittredge, the groom-to-be, in a three-way competition for the love of the female romantic lead was Akili Brown.
    Brown happens to be African American. His race — in that role — was a key issue with Bay Weekly long-time theater writer Jane Elkin, who reviewed the play in our February 11 issue.
    “2nd Star Productions tries to update this classic with color-blind casting,” the review noted, in an edited sentence agreed on by Elkin and me.
    “Confounding credibility is the directorial concept of Tracy’s interracial engagement to George. For these characters, such a union would have been unthinkable,” she continued. “That scenario was the impetus for a different Hepburn blockbuster — Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — 40 years later.”
    Given the culture of The Philadelphia Story, Elkin could not will “the suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s two-hundred-year-old explanation remains the best we’ve got for how literature, and ­theater, affect us.
    In two of close to 100 reviews Elkin has written for Bay Weekly since 2007, she has made the same complaint.
    “In the past I have criticized Anne Arundel Community College for casting an African American in the title role of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (a tale that takes place in the antebellum South) as well as Colonial Players for casting an African American woman in the role of a blonde, fair-skinned Van Gogh model (a known historical figure who is the subject of a famous portrait) in their production of Inventing Van Gogh,” she explains.
    Is Elkin wrong? Is the color of an actor irrelevant in the 21st century? Should our suspension of disbelief fall on race?
    The pros and cons on that issue bring a lively debate to our pages one week after Elkin’s review was circulated in 20,000 papers and online.
    “We are quite concerned regarding the emphasis in the review regarding our updating of the story and color-blind casting rather than an analysis of the performance itself,” the officers of 2nd Star Productions wrote me.
    “It is a long-standing policy of 2nd Star to cast the best possible actors from our open auditions to fill the roles in a show. We pay little attention to ethnicity in this process as the community we serve is so multicultural. There may be shows such as A Soldier’s Play or Ragtime where race is an important aspect of the story that will demand us to consider skin tone, but beyond that we try to be as inclusive in our casting as possible.”
    Color-conscious casting is the contemporary term for inclusionary casting, and it is common practice in modern theater, explains Pam Shilling in another commentary on Elkin’s review. “Frequently the choice to cast a show in this manner stems from the theatre company’s or director’s dedication to expand opportunity to all actors and to engage the best performers regardless of ethnicity.”
    As an actress with 2nd Star, Shilling was nominated for a WATCH award in Hello Dolly! She was praised as “exquisite” by Elkin last March in 2nd Star’s Cabaret.
    “I am giving Ms. Elkin’s the benefit of the doubt,” Shilling continues.
    “I am asking Ms. Elkin to elaborate on her position on this,” Shilling concluded. “I look forward to her reply.”
    Here’s what Elkin had to say: “I am sensitive to the challenges that minority actors face, but that does not help me suspend my disbelief in such cases. Theater is about creating a credible illusion, and clear visual cues that the play is not entirely within the dimension it purports to represent are distracting to me. Give me an interracial Romeo and Juliet — no problem. But Phila­delphia society girls of the 1930s did not date men of color with their families’ blessings. That’s how it was, and wishing history to be otherwise does not change it.”
    What do you think?
    Should dispelling stereotypes trump history?
    Is it time that we go colorblind — suspending that last visage of disbelief at least in the darkness of our theaters?
    See 2nd Star Production’s The Philadelphia Story for yourself, and perhaps you’ll see things differently.
    Playing FSa 8pm, Su 3pm thru Feb. 20. Bowie ­Playhouse, White Marsh Park, Bowie; $22 w/discounts: 2ndstarproductions.com.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com