Acting While Black, Part 2: Casting
Thursday, January 15, 2015
By Rotimi Agbabiaka
Upon completing his formal training in theatrs, a young L. Peter Callender vowed to avoid getting pigeonholed into the narrow range of roles often afforded black actors. In the 30 or so years since, he has made good on that promise, performing classical and contemporary roles all over the country and becoming a fixture on Bay Area stages. But his journey has sometimes been a lonely one.
"Through the years I would perform at Cincinnati Playhouse [in the Park] or the Milwaukee Repertory Theater or Cal Shakes, and I would be one of the few [company] members of color" he says. "Sometimes I would be the only black person in the building."
L. Peter Callender, artistic director of the
African-American Shakespeare Company
Today he aims, through his work as artistic director of the African-American Shakespeare Company, to give young black actors the same kinds of opportunities he’s had to play a variety of classical roles—opportunities that are often denied them by the larger theatre community.
"A lot of casting directors, a lot of companies, just don’t think we have the chops," he says. "A lot of young black actors who are being trained at [drama schools like] NYU and ACT are getting good stuff, but I think when they come out of these schools, certain casting directors don’t think they can lead a cast or play major roles in these [classical] plays."
What Callender refers to is the assumption that the plays we consider Western classics (by such authors as Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, and Tennessee Williams) are "white" plays—and the failure of some casting directors to consider black actors for roles like Hamlet and Major Barbara
Callender views the situation as much better now than when he was starting out, but still sees a need among black actors for more exposure to the classics. And for the theatre community to include more black voices when telling these classical tales of universal humanity."The classics are not just for European actors," he says.
"The classics don’t just tell a European story. They tell a human story."
Callender remembers being asked by an audience member, after an African-American Shakespeare production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, if he thought the play could ever be done with a white cast—so convincing was this production of a Tennessee Williams play originally performed by an all-white principal cast in 1955.
Melissa Hillman, artistic director of Impact Theater, regularly attends AASC productions with her young son.
Melissa Hillman, artistic director of Impact Theater
"It was really cool for me to think that [my son’s] first and only Brick and Maggie [from Cat On A Hot Tin Roof] are black," she says. "His first Falstaff [from Merry Wives of Windsor] is black, his Medea is black."
Like others in the Bay Area theatre community, Hillman has responded to the AASC’s showcase of black talent. She is about to start rehearsing Impact’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III and has cast several AASC veterans in key roles."
I really like their work," she says. "And like anyone who works in casting, you go to a theatre and you steal their actors."
For Hillman, however, the challenge facing black actors is not just one of access to the classics but of access to a greater share of the theatre community’s resources. Smaller theaters like AASC and Impact may provide opportunities for black actors, but the same breadth of opportunity doesn’t necessarily exist at the larger theatres, which are better funded and provide more lucrative contracts for their artists."
There is a diversity in theatre. There are black artists doing work all the time, every single day." she says. "But what we’re talking about is distribution of resources. Who gets the big grants? Who’s doing the big money shows?"
This problem exists in a theatre climate where young artists must pass through certain gatekeepers—graduate schools, unpaid internships—to have access to more prestigious theatres. The financial toll collected at these gates often shuts out people of color. "
Because when you talk about the way African Americans in this country have been deliberately economically disadvantaged for centuries, then you see that there are more white people who can afford to go to grad school, who can afford to take a year off for an unpaid internship," Hillman says. "And so class is shutting people out too."
Some larger Bay Area companies are taking note and examining past cultures of exclusion. In 2013 California Shakespeare Theater launched a Diversity and Inclusion Initiative to examine the company’s workplace dynamics and create a more welcoming environment for underrepresented communities.
Susie Falk, managing director of Cal Shakes
"The most work we’re doing now is on our internal culture," says Susie Falk, Cal Shakes' managing director. "Our approach has been to go really deep because we want it to have a profound impact."
Still in its early stages, the initiative is currently more focused on internal examination than on specific action plans for programming and casting. However, recent seasons have seen plays like Zora Neale Hurston’s Spunk and Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, as well as diverse casts in the Shakespeare and Shaw productions on the Cal Shakes stage. It remains to be seen whether this reflects not just a passing fad but a continued commitment to greater inclusion.
Before most performances at the African-American Shakespeare Company, Callender brings up the house lights during his preshow speech, so that audience members can look around and see the cross-section of Bay Area theatregoers—not just African Americans—that attend the company’s shows.
"I want this theatre to be inclusive," he says. "I never want to be exclusive of anything or anybody, because that’s what [the situation in theatre has] been: we have been excluded from doing the types of plays that we have been trained for."
Rotimi Agbabiaka is a San Francisco-based actor, teacher, director and writer. He's performed at Cal Shakes, TheatreWorks and Beach Blanket Babylon and written an award-winning solo play called Homeless. He is currently a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.