About twenty years ago, Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake produced a truly memorable version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that I very much enjoyed. Many modern Shakespeare productions attempt to “update” the material with weird modern references, and I almost always find that distracting. This version used authentic Elizabethan costumes and sets, and it was well-performed. It did, however, include one powerful thematic element that would have been unthinkable in Shakespeare’s day.
In this production, all of the Capulets were white, and all of the Montagues were black.
None of the text was changed, and there was no attempt to underscore the difference here. Indeed, there was no need to do that. The hatred between the two families took on a powerful racial overtone, and it elegantly highlighted just how silly and petty racial divisions are.
Unfortunately, it did the same thing offstage, too.
A friend of mine who worked for Pioneer Theatre said the box office was deluged with phone calls from patrons, many of them season ticket holders, who wanted to buy or exchange their tickets for a performance on a night when the black fellow wouldn’t be playing Romeo. The show was a financial failure as a result of the racial controversy.
Still, that was twenty years ago, right? Well, let me take you back about ten years, to a theatre I was managing. We were having a hard time finding a lead for a production of The Music Man, and at one point, it looked as if we might be able to book a big star to take the role. Later, we talked to his agent, who told us his client couldn’t live on less than $25,000 per week, which pretty much ended the negotiations. But prior to that, as we were discussing the possibility, the question was raised as to whether our audiences would balk at this bit of casting, seeing as how this particular actor was African American and the woman we’d already cast as his love interest was not.
I couldn’t imagine it would be a problem. This actor was very popular and would have been quite a draw – surely nobody would pay attention to his skin color. Then I started to ask around, and discovered that a number of people, far more than I anticipated, had a real problem with this.
“Would he have to kiss her?” one lady asked me.
Yes, I said.
“Could you change it so they didn’t have to kiss?”
About four years later, at the same theatre, I cast an African American woman in the female lead opposite a white man in a version of Guys and Dolls that I directed. We didn’t hear one word of complaint as far as I knew, although one idiot told me it wasn’t a problem because the woman was very pretty and “didn’t look all that black,” and that it was a white man kissing a black woman, which wasn’t nearly as offensive as a black man kissing a white woman.
I honestly don’t understand that kind of stupidity.
When I was a theatre student at the University of Southern California, they insisted on a strict policy of colorblind casting. I played Giles Corey in a version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which dramatizes the real-life events surrounding the Salem witch trials. John Proctor, the lead in that show, was played by Scott B., an outstanding actor who was also African American.
This struck me as an odd choice, as John Proctor was a historical figure, very much not of African descent, who lived at a time when virtually all black Africans living in the Americas were slaves. Indeed, The Crucible features several scenes with a character named Tituba, a slave who is instrumental in providing the spark for all of the madness that followed. That role was also played by a very talented African American actress, which, for me, highlighted some of the tension that a strict colorblind casting policy can create. Would it have been acceptable to have cast a white actress in that role? Doubtful, given the fact that the woman’s race is so intertwined with the character’s identity. But a black John Proctor? It made absolutely no difference. Within minutes of seeing the character onstage, his race was completely immaterial, at least to me.
All this is prelude to a dream I had last night, where I returned to that same theatre where I had produced Guys and Dolls and The Music Man. They were doing a new production of Annie Get Your Gun, which is a show I directed there back in 2002. It was a huge flop, and they’d come to me to provide some insight as to why. (That’s your first clue that this was a dream – that theatre wouldn’t call me for advice in a million years.) I sat and watched the show and discovered they’d cast a woman in the role of Frank Butler, the male chauvinist who resents being shown up by Annie Oakley primarily because she’s a woman. I told them that was their problem – casting a woman as a male chauvinist didn’t make any sense. I was told that I was too focused on “gender identity,” and that I was too unenlightened to truly understand. (That’s your second clue that this was all a dream – in our world, the real life guy would have run screaming for the hills.)
I found this dream fascinating, because it exposed one of the central flaws in the argument for same-sex marriage – that this is no different from opposition to interracial marriage. After all, what are the intrinsic differences between a black man and a white man? They’re all cosmetic. The same cannot be said of the real and significant differences between men and women.
Bottom line: they should never have made Starbuck a girl in the new Battlestar Galactica.