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TBA Online: News & Features: Top News

From Blindness to Consciousness: The Shifting Debate about Inclusion in the Theatre

Wednesday, August 16, 2017   (6 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Lauren Spencer

Stephanie Ybarra, the Director of Special Artistic Projects at the Public Theatre recently called out theatre-makers on Facebook in response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her post, widely shared by Bay Area theatre artists, reads in part: “Every time you hire a predominantly/all white creative team because they were the best 'fit,' every time you cast an all white cast because you 'don't think a person of color makes sense in this world,' you are unwittingly reinforcing white supremacy and systemic racism.”

A certain Danish prince once remarked that theatre is a mirror held up to nature. But the predominantly white image often seen on Bay Area stages seems to many members of the theatre community to be in stark opposition to the region’s diverse demographics.

As the conversation around equity, diversity, and inclusion continues to evolve, increasingly complex issues arise for artistic leaders and theatre-makers around conscientious, responsible representation specifically with regard to casting.

“Colorblind casting,” a practice in which an actor’s race is not taken into consideration during the casting process, has been proposed as a solution to theatrical whitewashing. In recent times however, proponents of a more inclusive theatre practice have begun calling for something else: “color-conscious casting.” I spoke with a cross section of Bay Area theatre artists and administrators on their understanding of how these different practices can either promote or inhibit theatres’ engagement with communities of color.

Mina Morita. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Mina Morita, artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre Company, eschews colorblind casting as part of the fallacy of a post-racial America. “How do you ignore all the experience of an entire culture, ethnicity, what an audience brings in with them?” she asks. Velina Brown, an actor and San Francisco Mime Troupe collective member agrees. “I’ve never felt comfortable with it...If I’m playing a character, that character for the viewing audience is black.”

Actor Safiya Fredericks points out, “The problem with colorblind casting is that you are not thinking about the historical context in which that person is being represented on stage and your our own stereotypes/oppressive mentality are going to come into play since we live in a white paradigm.”

For this reason, playwright and SF Mime Troupe collective member Michael Gene Sullivan explains that he doesn’t practice open casting. “When I write, I always try to justify the choices [of characters’ ethnicities]. Otherwise, it can get in the way for the audience. What story do you want to tell the audience?” Interrogating how race factors into a specific play and what effect an actor’s race or ethnicity will have on the overall story is a central tenant of color-conscious casting.

Sarita Ocón. Photo by Stephanie Brown.

Latinx actor, Sarita Ocón points out that if theatres are not actively making space for non-white narrative, then casting their seasons non-traditionally is necessary to address that inequity. She speaks enthusiastically of the ways in which reimagining classics with actors of color can “reinvigorate the landscape of theatre” citing her experience with PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of The Crucible in which she played the traditionally white role of Elizabeth Proctor. However, both she and Fredericks warns that even well known classics cast without color-consciousness can reiterate the marginalization of minorities. "You have to look for traps,” Fredericks says, “For example, you cast an actor who you think is the best for the servant role but he is black. Then you realize the only black actor on stage is a servant.”

Rebecca Ennals, artistic director of San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, agrees that color-conscious casting is deeply necessary to classical plays. The actor playing Hamlet in their current touring production is mixed race and for Ennals this was a very deliberate decision, “We thought Hamlet is someone who feels outside of the mainstream and what is going on in his country and who is having that experience in the United States right now?”

Ennals points to Merchant of Venice as an example of a classical play that requires dedication to the specificity of a cultural experience. “I would never cast Shylock as anyone but a Jewish actor,” she says. Ocón heartily agrees, saying “We’ve been going decades as theatre artists of color seeking out opportunities to tackle compelling, challenging roles so we can grow artistically as well. Our communities deserve opportunities to tell those stories.”

Dori Jacob, Marin Theater Company’s casting director, believes this level of color- consciousness in theatre “starts with supporting and creating opportunities for writers who are telling non-white/binary/hegemonic stories. Then it's about producing those plays and sharing the work as far and wide as we can through our various networks. We have to use our position as casting directors to get as many different artists represented on our stages with every season as we possibly can.”

As a company whose 2016 season featured 100 percent playwrights of color, Crowded Fire is working diligently on addressing the latter half of Jacob’s mandate for casting responsibly. Company member and director, M. Graham Smith recently organized an actors’ audition intensive focused on breaking down the power dynamics of the casting process. The intensive was offered to a diverse pool of twenty-five actors and provided free of charge to ensure accessibility.

Director Evren Odcikin stresses that casting and season selection are only one part of the issue. “I am interested in who is in the room,” he says, “ Do they have agency and decision making power? Who is telling the story? What is their reason for doing so? These things are as essential for theatre companies to question as casting decisions.”

Safiya Fredericks. Photo courtesy of Ms. Fredericks.

Fredericks, who is currently performing in Cal Shakes’ production of Black Odyssey emphasizes the value of having a black costume designer (Dede M. Atiye): “This person sees me and understands my body and my hair. Theatres need to think about who is going to be in the room, besides the actors, who can speak from the community so that we are not the only ones advocating for ourselves.” Meanwhile, Ennals zeroes in on the need for diversification of senior staff and Morita discusses the importance of diversifying the Crowded Fire board of directors beyond financial and networking value.

It’s clear that there is a daunting amount of ground to cover.

Nevertheless, all agree that no one-size-fits-all policy or solution exists given the idiosyncratic nature of each play and each theatre company. “Each play is different in terms of what it is trying to address,” Brown says. “If race is specifically being discussed and you cast it in a way that undermines that conversation, that’s not a good idea. Ask why am I choosing this play right now and then cast accordingly, being conscious of how the aim of this piece of art intersects with this moment in history.”

Morita offers that it’s about being strategic. “How do we build a stronger community with intersectional support, acknowledging that we are all working with limited resources? At the end of the day, how do we lift each other up?”

Lauren Spencer is an actor, activist, and teaching artist based in San Francisco.

 Editor’s Note: Theatre Bay Area will be hosting a forum on colorblind vs. color-conscious casting in late September. Look for more information on that convening soon.


Posted Thursday, August 24, 2017
Thank you to TBA for discussing this issue - I'll be using this article and the comments in my "Multicultural Perspectives in American Theatre" course up at Santa Rosa Junior College. Should be a lively discussion! I'll share any great comments my students come up with!
Valerie Weak says...
Posted Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Comment pt 2 - the full text of Fredericks' quote reads “This person sees me and understands my body and my hair. Theatres need to think about who is going to be in the room, besides the actors, who can speak from the community so that we are not the only ones advocating for ourselves.” I would invite anyone who bristled at this concept to think about the times they've been in a creative process and been the 'only' member of a particular group represented. And if this has never happened for you, I would ask that you imagine what it might be like to be the one person outside the default - whether that is gender/ethnicity/religion/sexual orientation or beyond.
Valerie Weak says...
Posted Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Thank you Lauren and TBA for putting all of these voices together in this article. I greatly appreciate hearing all of the voices and perspectives that are included here. I am frustrated to see reactions in these comments from people who have not fully absorbed what is written. Early in the piece, Spencer states '“Colorblind casting,” a practice in which an actor’s race is not taken into consideration during the casting process, has been proposed as a solution to theatrical whitewashing. In recent times however, proponents of a more inclusive theatre practice have begun calling for something else: “color-conscious casting.” ' and most of the citations in her article are from theater makers who advocate for a form of color-conscious casting, not color blind casting.
Dean Starnes says...
Posted Friday, August 18, 2017
In my opinion, color blind casting is not always ideal nor does it serve the piece. For example, would you cast a white Coalhouse Walker? Or African Americans to portray Tateh and his daughter? Or white Jews to play Mother and Son? What would that do to RAGTIME? Remember, as Velina says, the audience sees what it sees, no matter how "noble" the casting people feel about being "socially relevant."
Marjorie B. Crump-Shears says...
Posted Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Thank you, Lauren for marshalling and recording the voices in this article. It's topic is an essential one. I would add one more voice to the thoughtful discussion: the iconic August Wilson. In the July/Aug., 2016 issue of "American Theatre" magazine, a speech which Mr. Wilson wrote and published (1st copyright ~ 1996) is included in its entirety. It is, what else, articulate.........brilliant. In it he supports the need for black theater companies and for "other than" colorblind casting. Check it out! It's worth the effort! Marjorie Crump-Shears
Richard Slota says...
Posted Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Fredericks says she appreciates the value of having a black costume designer. " This person sees me and understands my body and hair." Really? That's simply not true. Can only black directors direct blacks? Can only black lighting designers light blacks? Etc.