This week’s emails beg the question: Is colorblind casting appropriate in university theater productions?
I once saw “The Sound of Music” with a black girl playing one of the seven Von Trapp children (I kid you not). “The Most Happy Fella” features one ranch hand who’s continuously, and for no apparent reason, mocked by the others. He even gets tied up just for kicks. I saw a mounting in which the hapless fellow was played by a black man, while all the other ranch hands were white. It made for some discomforting moments.
I recently reviewed Nevada Conservatory Theatre’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in which Stanley — the “Marlon Brando role” — was portrayed by a black man, Gerrad Alex Taylor. The Southern 1940s story involves a down-on-her-luck woman (Blanche) who comes to live with her sister (Stella) and brother-in-law. Stanley keeps telling Blanche in anger that he is a Pollack. Blanche tells Stella that Stanley is a Neanderthal whose function is only to bring home the bacon and give sexual pleasure. Stanley winds up raping Blanche.
Of course, with a black man in the lead male role, there are all kinds of inevitable questions: Would an interracial marriage be accepted in the Deep South? Is Blanche’s hatred of Stanley a result of racial prejudice (the play is about class distinction, not race). And what would happen to a black man who was rumored to have raped a white woman? A white guy might be able to figure out a way to get by, especially if the victim were a whorish sister-in-law. But a black man? No way.
I didn’t discuss any of this in my review, and some intelligent readers were not happy. But I didn’t delve into the issues for a simple reason: I think colorblind casting in this day and age is vital for a healthy theater. It wasn’t so long ago that blacks and Asians played little more than bumbling comic foils and white men’s butlers. I don’t think this was due to prejudice. The majority of writers were white men, and writers write about the world they know. The situation is better today, simply because more minorities are penning their stories.
But it’s still not good enough. And why should actors such as Taylor be denied the chance to tackle great roles like Stanley simply because of race? I don’t know if director Jeffrey Koep had another motive in casting the performer, and I purposely didn’t ask him, because I wanted to judge the production without any knowledge of Koep’s concept. But I admit I frequently find myself turning a blind eye when a minority is “inappropriately” cast. I figure that’s the least an audience can do to make up for the many shameful years when legions of talented minorities could not get a foot in the door.
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at email@example.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.