Not enough color at the Shaw Festival?

(October 2008) To his dismay, Emsworth has belatedly learned that the diversity police have been hectoring Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, for not bringing more actors of color, more directors of color, and more plays by playwrights of color, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The hue and cry is being led by one Andrew Moodie, who is apparently a Canadian playwright of some distinction. (Emsworth makes no pretense of being up on contemporary theater, especially in Canada.) Moodie’s campaign, which he calls “Share the Stage,” was seconded not long ago by J. Kelly Nestruck, the redoubtable theater critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, who claims he was “suddenly struck” earlier this year with how “white” the Shaw’s company was.

The wedge here is the Shaw Festival’s friendly competition with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an institution which Nestruck patronizingly says is now up to snuff, diversity-wise.  Jackie Maxwell gets credit for “gender diversity” (what an dreadful phrase!) at the Shaw Festival, but they’re blaming her for not trying hard enough on race.

Well, now — how is she to do this at the Shaw Festival? It’s an institution whose every season is anchored around two plays by Bernard Shaw himself, a white guy who wrote plays about white folks. And all its plays (per the Festival’s “mandate”) are supposed to have been written, or at least set, during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

We pause for historical reflection.  Here in Rochester, we’re steeped in the American suffrage movement, because Susan B. Anthony lived here and her 19th-century home, now a museum, is here.  History tells us that before the Civil War, abolitionists and suffragettes made common cause.

But Anthony’s relationship with Douglass (together again in bronze in a Rochester park) cooled when black leaders wanted to put women’s rights on hold while civil rights for black people were being consolidated. So there’s a tiny touch of irony when Jackie Maxwell is accused with putting racial diversity on the back burner now that she has gotten “gender diversity” at the Shaw.

There are plenty of new plays by and about people of color. But unless they’re set before 1950, they’re not plays that the Shaw does. So how, exactly, is the Shaw Festival supposed to diversify, color-wise?

Well, Moodie and Nestruck want the Shaw Festival to feature more actors of color in plays by Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward. After all, when The Glass Menagerie is played in Bombay, doesn’t it have an Indian cast? When they do Blithe Spirit in Lagos, isn’t the cast Nigerian? There are people of all ethnic backgrounds in Ontario (as in New York State). So if Denzel Washington can play Brutus (see the picture above, with Stratford Festival veteran Colm Feore, in the foreground, as Cassius, in a Washington, D.C. production last year), why can’t there be a black Undershaft at the Shaw Festival?

If that were to be, Emsworth would nominate Derrick Lee Weeden. On the basis of his breath-taking performance as Othello at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater last winter (with Paul Niebanck as Iago), Emsworth ranks Weeden with the best actors we’ve seen in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, not excluding Christopher Plummer or the late William Hutt. But Weeden is, regrettably, not part of the Shaw’s repertory company, and the Shaw Festival is at a disadvantage in trying to recruit an actor of his ability. (He’s acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years; see this link.) The Shaw Festival doesn’t do either Shakespeare or contemporary plays, and from 1856 to 1950, there just weren’t that many important plays written by or about people of color.

There’s no reason why actors of color can’t be cast in many Shaw plays, as indeed they sometimes are. As Mr. Nestruck points out, Nikki M. James has one of the lead roles in Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival this season. But in many cases, color-blind casting in a Shaw play would tend to confuse audiences and to distort social relationships that are at the heart of the plays.

And many Shaw plays are largely concerned with subtle gradations of class, and with interactions between English people of different ranks of life. Pygmalion is the story of a poor flower girl who encounters a rich, upper-class intellectual. Getting Married (one of the highlights of the Shaw’s 2008 season, highly recommended by Emsworth) has a lot to do with a lower-middle-class greengrocer’s relationship with the family of an English bishop.

The precision with which Shaw sketched class relationships in his plays is at the core of his genius. So how disorienting would it be for audiences if a person of color were cast as either the greengrocer or the bishop in Getting Married? In 1902, could a black greengrocer possibly have been on such familiar terms with an upper-class white family? — we’d be asking ourselves. Or would a white greengrocer really relate in such a way to a black English bishop and his wife? The didactic Bernard Shaw fervently wanted people to think about his plays — but those are not the questions Shaw wanted his audiences to be asking. A director shouldn’t interject race where it would confuse.

Or take Mrs. Warren’s Profession, also at the Shaw Festival this year (see the Emsworth review). The most interesting relationships in the play are between Mrs. Warren, the former courtesan with lower-class origins, and her middle- and upper-class friends (and former clients) in the aristocracy, the arts, and the church. What would happen to the already challenging social dynamics of these relationships if either Mrs. Warren or the men were black actors? Indeed, since the paternity of Mrs. Warren’s daughter is in question, how would it be anything but confusing if all these actors were not of the same race?

Race is already an element in many American plays that the Shaw Festival performs, just as it is in many plays by contemporary black playwrights (like Mr. Moodie, one assumes). Where a character’s ethnicity is part of the play, an ethnically appropriate actor is needed. Would anyone cast a white actor in an August Wilson play? Of course not — black actors are needed to portray African-American culture. Mr. Moodie says one of his plays wasn’t considered by the Shaw Festival because it called for more black actors than the Shaw could muster. I’m betting that Mr. Moodie wouldn’t be happy if white actors were cast to play black characters in his plays.

In The Little Foxes, playing this year at the Shaw Festival, Lillian Hellman’s key lines about the Hubbard family’s exploitation of black people wouldn’t make much sense if the actors portraying the Hubbards were themselves black. On stage, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make sense unless Atticus Finch looks like a white man and Tom Robinson looks like a black man. In fact, since interracial marriage was rare in England and North America before 1950, casting a husband and wife as persons of different races in Shaw-era plays would often be jarring and incongruous.

Mr. Moodie and Mr. Nestruck might argue that audiences today simply overlook an actor’s skin color. Maybe so. After all, every theater performance requires an audience to suspend disbelief to one degree or another.

But a director needs to be careful how far she imposes on audiences. As I commented in an earlier post, one of the problems with Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival this year was the director’s decision to make both sets of parents of Romeo and Juliet mixed-race couples. It was a seriously distracting element.

Theater is visual, and appearance has always mattered in casting. We audiences strain if an actor doesn’t look the part. We wouldn’t buy the Shaw Festival’s Michael Ball as Jack Tanner, because he’s too old. We wouldn’t buy Deborah Hay as Tanner, either; she’s too female. (But at the Stratford Festival next year, we’re going to buy Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell!) We don’t buy Eliza Doolittle unless she’s truly pretty enough to dazzle a prince at the Embassy Ball.

Ethnic appearance won’t be important for every Shaw-era play or character, but it matters often enough that a director usually has little discretion as to the racial composition of her cast. Sometimes, of course, the question of race can be neutralized by choosing all-black casts, as was done, apparently with success, for a recent Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, among other distinguished black actors. Could the Shaw Festival mount an all-black production of Private Lives or Waiting for Godot? It could happen, one supposes — they’re plays with small casts.

But in general, the Shaw Festival’s perennial need for a relatively large company of white actors will tend to preclude all-black casts. To Emsworth’s sorrow, for the late August Wilson, a fellow native of western Pennsylvania, is one of his favorite playwrights, that probably means that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, plays comfortably within the Shaw Festival’s mandate, aren’t likely to be presented there. But you can’t have everything everywhere.

Couldn’t the Shaw Festival hire well-known actors of color for particular productions? That’s not its policy. The Shaw Festival casts from its own repertory company. So even if Morgan Freeman were willing to commit several months to acting in Niagara-on-the-Lake (don’t we wish!), it’s not the Shaw’s practice to bring in “stars” to play lead roles. Should the Shaw Festival redefine itself or change its policies to placate the diversity establishment? This member doesn’t think so.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. David — As an American, I don’t know anything about that, so will have to take your word for it. I would only comment that, despite all the good that unions accomplished for their members back in the day, American unions today are the most reactionary institutions in our country, the short-sighted enemies of change of any kind.

  2. Well, what is Maxwell going to do, considering that closed-shop actors’ union all of English-speaking Canada has to contend with? It is overwhelmingly packed with white, middle-class boomers (many of whom are utterly lacking in talent and intelligence) who, unfortunately, got their feet in the stage door when Pierre Elliot True-Dough was throwing money at the brats through L.I.P. and other undeserved largesse?

    I admit, I am one who benefitted. I resigned from the union, a few years ago, however, digusted with its behaviour.

  3. Thus my observation that some of the plays of August Wilson, the ones set in the earlier decades of the 20th century, are eligible for production at the Shaw Festival under its “mandate.” Here in Rochester, Geva Theater has been mounting one of Wilson’s plays each year for the last several years. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to see August Wilson at the Shaw Festival — if it had the people to do it.

  4. Thanks for this blog, very interesting points. I should point out that the Shaw Festival’s mandate was expanded in 2000 to include new plays ABOUT, or set the period of, Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

  5. As always, thank you for your thoughtful analysis of these issues, they are always refreshing.


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