Seeing Colors

Diversity beyond colorblind casting

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As a young actor in the early 1990s, David Hsieh racked up a hefty list of stage credits with the Northwest Asian American Theatre (NWAAT). It was good experience for the Chinese American actor, but—as evidenced by titles like Godzilla Comes to Little Tokyo and Yeb-Yang-Ah—the parts he landed were generally limited to characters of Asian descent. Like any actor, Hsieh wanted to branch out and try different kinds of roles, but he often found the process of auditioning in what he called the “real world” frustrating.  “I wasn’t getting to do the shows that I really wanted to work on,” he recalled. “Certainly, what I look like was a big part of that.”

I talked with Hsieh, along with two other actors and a director, about the challenges minority actors face in professional theatre. His frustration was shared by his fellow NWAAT performers, so they pulled together and did something about it. Rather than wait for opportunity to come knocking, the actors decided to produce their own production of John Patrick’s The Curious Savage, a funny family yarn written for an all-white cast. “It was a new challenge for us as actors,” said Hsieh. “We basically did an all-Asian version of this very waspy, 1950s comedy-drama. And we thought, you know, this is pretty cool.”

So cool, in fact, that the experience led Hsieh to found the Repertory Actors Theatre, or ReAct, a Seattle-based nonprofit theatre with a thirteen-year track record of fostering diversity through nontraditional casting. Past ReAct efforts reflect the company’s philosophy, including multi-ethnic versions of classics like A Chorus Line, Barefoot in the Park, and The Importance of Being Earnest. Hsieh, ReAct’s artistic director, casts shows with the continued goal of diversity in mind. He adamantly pointed out, however, that his methods shouldn’t be thought of as “colorblind casting,” a phrase used to describe casting techniques in which race and ethnicity are summarily ignored.

Hsieh maintains that race and ethnicity can’t be ignored, which is why you won’t see ReAct producing a typical colorblind show where, for instance, Hamlet is black and his mother is white. “We take into account that an actor is a person of color to make the play more universal,” he noted, “but we also want it to make sense. I guess you could say we’re more color-sighted than colorblind.”

The distinction is an important one, especially given the long, jagged history of conventional colorblind casting. That practice was pioneered in the late 1950s by New York producer Joseph Papp, who mounted multi-ethnic productions of Shakespeare in Central Park (a tradition that lives on to this day). Since then, colorblind casting has emerged as a commonly used device, particularly in high schools, colleges, and smaller professional theatres.

But not everyone has embraced colorblind casting as a shining citadel of equal opportunity. In 1996, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson denounced the practice in a famous speech he delivered at Princeton titled “The Ground on Which I Stand.” Wilson, the most successful African American voice in theatre until his recent death, spoke out against colorblind casting and went a step further—he also condemned the idea of a black actor playing any role conceived for a white person. He likened it to a denial of black history and contended that it glosses over the greater problems facing black theatre—a segment of the community that is disproportionately under-funded.

Bob Devin Jones, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based stage veteran, is both an African American and a huge Wilson admirer (he has directed and performed in many of the legendary playwright’s works). But as a Shakespearian-trained actor who studied at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Jones also sees merit in taking on roles not specifically written for black actors. His list of stage credits includes many white-envisioned parts, from Tom in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie to the scheming Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. For Jones, the question of which ethnicity a character was written for is irrelevant. The fact is, because Jones is black, an audience will have no choice but to see his characters as black. Rather than view this as a denial of his history, the actor uses his history to make these roles his own. “I don’t play black versions of white characters,” he said. “I create back story. I inhabit my characters with all of my past experiences.”

Like Hsieh, Jones thinks the best examples of nontraditional casting put believability ahead of sheer colorblindness, especially with works that deal specifically with race. It would make little sense, Jones added, to cast Othello as white, given all the references to the character’s ethnicity.

Still, to achieve ethnic-diversity on stage, some companies continue in the tradition of amorphous, sometimes random casting. For San Francisco’s Multi-Ethnic Theater (MET), an eleven-year-old nonprofit company, diversity is the foremost and founding objective. Artistic director Lewis Campbell is perfectly willing to flout unadorned believability with MET’s productions. His company, in fact, is currently planning a version of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of our Teeth where all four members of the Antrobus family will be played by actors of a different race. Campbell admits the translation will ask audiences to suspend disbelief. But that’s already a big part of the theatre-going experience, he contends—after all, no one has trouble buying the climactic suicide of Romeo & Juliet’s star-crossed title characters. “If an audience accepts the illusion of a character’s death, it should certainly be willing to accept that a character isn’t the same ethnicity as his or her parent,” Campbell added.

On the surface, MET’s methods would seem to embrace the conventional definition of colorblind casting. But Campbell, who is white, confessed to cringing at the term. Like other purveyors of diverse theatre, he thinks the label describes the exact opposite of his company’s philosophy. “Colorblind casting is what happens when a director casts with eyes closed,” he said. “I’m more interested in the idea that using a mixed-race cast can enhance certain plays artistically.”

Some performers, though, think highly produced plays like Teeth are actually part of the problem, with nontraditional casting as more of a quick fix than an enhancement. “In a sense, it’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” said Jude Narita, a Japanese American actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles. “When we only make opportunities for actors of color by sliding them into existing Eurocentric material, it makes them invisible on a cultural level.”

Narita acknowledged the good intentions behind nontraditional casting. And while she applauded the method as a good starting point for opening doors, she believes a performer shouldn’t have to depend on this method alone. A long-term solution, she said, would be to expand the parameters of American theatre to include those underserved voices.

Meanwhile, Narita practices what she preaches. For nearly two decades, the actress has been writing and performing in her own series of one-woman shows that confront Asian stereotypes with a multitude of true-to-life characters (a feat that has earned Narita a Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Award). Narita admitted, though, that she didn’t start writing her own shows by choice, but rather from a lack of choices. Like David Hsieh of ReAct, she became motivated to create her own opportunities in theatre after numerous maddening auditions.

Despite the admittedly slow wheels of progress, these theatre professionals generally remain optimistic about opportunities for today’s minority actors. They see shifting attitudes regarding race and blending of cultures, particularly among the younger generation of actors and writers. And while no one expects discrimination and negative stereotypes to disappear anytime soon, Narita, for one, thinks the theatre community is up to the task of tackling these issues. “Theatre artists have always been very aware of racism,” she said. “I think they’ll continue to work in many ways to keep putting different images in front of the audience.”

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Originally published in Dramatics magazine, 2006

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