Repercussions in Cross-casting
After Adam Pachter maintained in a Crimson On Arts review that he found the casting of two Black characters in the Leverett House production of Chicago offensive ("Chicago's Razzle-dazzle Fizzles," Nov. 9), the Crimson received several letters, all of which denounced the review. Some correspondents went so far as to denounce Pachter himself, claiming that his review betrays his own knee-jerk racism.
A couple of these letter express chagrin at Pachter's accusations of director Beth Heller's "racist casting." This kind of response to this kind of statement is understandable, even laudable. But Pachter never makes this accusation. He instead writes that the two Black, non-chorus players were given "degrading roles for Black actors to play." Actress Lenore Jones was given the role of Mama, whom Pachter calls "sick and lecherous," and actor Tym Tombar was given the role of Amos, whom Pachter calls "simple, subservient, and constantly humiliated by his white, adulterous wife."
In the most extreme reading of the review, Pachter could be said to be calling Heller and the Chicago production staff of carelessness. In and of itself, that is a serious allegation, but to say Pachter lets fly charges of racism obfuscates a very real and pressing issue in the Harvard theater community and in the larger world of drama: the responsibilities of cross-casting.
Cross-casting is a recent and noble ideal. When a director or producer cross-casts, he or she casts a role disregarding the script's proscription of race or gender. On one level, it is an appealingly democratic notion; it suggests that anyone can play any role, and that despite our socialization, characteristics such as sex and race are supremely superficial.
But the innocence of the idealism of cross-casting, especially in American society today, is misleading. Cross-casting is inherently a political act, theater's own brand of revisionist history. If we locate drama in its proper place in the canon of Western literature, we are forced to acknowledge its bias toward European males. In the past, drama has scripted few if any roles for minorities and few full or flattering roles for women. And as most high-school English teachers will tell you, even the roles written for women were until recently played by men. So in a progressive world, the argument follows, we learn to disregard a script's proscriptions and strive for an theatrical world where minorities and women have a place on stage.
In our progressiveness, we suggest that the previous bias in drama was unfortunate, that the dearth of sensitivity to minority and female representation has robbed these groups of precious cultural capital. So when directors choose to cross-cast, they are making a conscious effort to impart new capital to those groups that were marginalized in the past.
But marginalization is not exclusively a phenomenon of our past. The reality is that we do not live in an inclusive world, and characteristics such as sex and race are not (perceived to be) superficial. The act of cross-casting has political weight and political reprecussions.
That was evidenced most clearly in the fervor that this summer surrounded the Broadway staging of Miss Saigon. The producers decided to cast European Jonathan Pryce in the role of a Eurasian, and Actor's Equity made a recommendation that the role be played by an Asian or Asian-American. Editorial pages across the country decried the Union for espousing what they called racism. What happened to the ideal of blind casting?
Blind casting is a relative ideal; it is a corrective measure. To pretend that the bias that infused drama did not infuse society is at best idiotic and at worst malicious. We cross-cast now to redress certain cultural greivances, but we should never forget how grave those greivances are. If a director casts an Asian-American as a Prince Hamlet, that still does not soothe the stinging reality that the West never did, indeed, never could, envision an Asian protagonist. Because so many roles are scripted for the social majority as acknowledged by our culture, roles scripted for Asian actors are anomolies. It ceases to become mysterious or even damnable when minority actors become jealous of those roles scripted especially for them.
The seemingly logical conclusion of this argument would be that Heller should be able to cast minority players in whatever roles she likes, and that Pachter should consider another medium, say sportswriting. Certainly Heller should be allowed to cast whomever she likes, and she deserves praise for embracing the ideal of cross-casting. But like any political figure, she has responsibilities. In cross-casting, she suggests that race is a superficial characteristic, and that anyone in the audience who disagrees, who thinks that a Black man embodies a stereotype, who thinks that an actor's black skin implies some awful caricature like Uncle Tom, is wrong. But she does not further that cause when the only Black man in her cast is a cuckolded "Mr. Cellophane." Many audience members found Tombar's performance brilliant, saying that Tombar's performance was evocative of the title character in Ellison's Invisible Man. Indeed, Tombar is a hugely talented performer, but a fair amount of the warm reception of the audience might also be rooted in their identification of him with a stereotype, a subservient Black who they believe not only because of Tombar's theatrical presence, but because of cultural dispositions.
Pachter's acknowledgement of race politics in the theater--where we go to see not only drama, but a dramatic re-enactment of life--does not connote racism. And Pachter is not alone among reviewers in his concerns about the responsibilities and repercussions of cross-casting. Liza M. Velasquez asserts in her review of The Royal Hunt of the Sun ("Royal Hunt Misses the Mark," Oct. 26) that the casting decisions made in the Mainstage production were "disappointing." She writes that director Jeremy Blumenthal cross-cast a number of women in the roles of "sympathetic yet incomprehensible male Incas," and goes on to say that "[i]t seems insensitive to make a conscious effort to cross-cast and yet cast women in only savage and subordinate roles."
Neither Pachter nor Velasquez dismisses the ideal of cross-casting. Each is mindful of the responsibilities of that political gesture. Cross-casting is an ideal precisely because our society is not, and audience members are mindful of race and sex, especially when it goes against the proscriptions of a playwright. We have to be careful about the messages we let them take from the theater. We do not advance feminism if we cast women in subservient roles written for men, or egalitarianism if we cast Black actors in subservient roles written for whites. Those roles have already been scripted for them, and have grown tired.
We debate and criticize drama not only because we are fascinated by the art of it, but because we fancy it disseminates cultural ideas. Theater is more powerful than entertainment, and casting is based on more factors than talent. Perhaps someday the audience will no longer be conscious of the sex or race of the players on stage, but that day is not tomorrow. With our heightened awareness of the scripted insensitivity shown marginalized groups in the past, we have to be especially sensitive in the future.