At first he thought he was being paranoid, or just "too sensitive," as his white friends put it, when he told them of his misgivings about auditioning for a Loeb play. An aspiring student actor, Gerald Hail '81 tried to forget about the butterflies in his stomach and --accompanied by a white friend--walked into the Loeb Drama Center two weeks ago to audition for "The Royal Family," an upcoming mainstage production.
Hail had good reason to be nervous, with a history of discouraging experiences in Harvard theater behind him. This time he had asked the play's associate producer in advance if race would be a consideration in the casting, and since she had told him to go ahead and try out, Hail sat in the Loeb, waiting and hoping.
When director Timothy Garry '81 began to call up actors in groups of four, Hail and his friend went in to audition together. Hail waited for what he and his friend later agreed was an unusually long time, as his friend read for several roles, including the male leads. When Garry finally called Hail to audition, Garry told him to read the role of Jo, the family butler; Garry listened, politely thanked him, and called for the next group of actors.
Hail felt stunned--and angry--so the following day he returned to the Loeb to confront directors George Hamlin and Robert Chapman over what he considered unfair and perhaps racist treatment. Chapman, who could not be reached for comment, reportedly told Hail nothing could be done since solely undergraduates were responsible for the play, and since Hail had technically had an audition--even if he had only read one part. Hamlin declined to comment but told Garry of Hail's concern and suggested that Garry call him.
Garry called Hail later that day, to ask him to attend the call-back for the butler's role, but also to tell Hail why he couldn't read for any other part. The play was "written for whites," Garry reportedly said; he had decided to do the play "realistically," and if Hail played any but the butler's role he would be "playing the part of a white."
When Hail hung up he called his senior tutor and then Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, who met with Hail before convening an informal meeting with the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) and Glen W. Bowersock '57, associate dean of the Faculty for undergraduate education. The administrators sat down with HRDC officials in order to clarify the group's position on casting and auditions in mainstage productions. Although the administrators condemned Hail's mistreatment, they shied away from setting down explicit guidelines for future auditions; likewise, the students sympathized with Hail, but hesitated to impose constraints on Garry's artistic prerogative.
While it may be easy to view the conflict as a minor struggle between one undergraduate artist's acting aspirations and another's directorial interpretation, in fact the issues are considerably more complex. No University-wide policy yet exists on whether one student has the right to implement his personal artistic vision even of excluding a superior actor because of his or her race. Under what circumstances can a student director become dictator, in usurping another's right to equal access to University facilities? Far from being an isolated incident, Hail's experience is reputed to be a common one. What effect does repeated rejection have on the willingness of blacks and other non-white students to participate in the extra-curricular life of the College? Would Faculty legislation designed to maximize student participation limit artistic freedom in the University?
Hail's feelings about his experience remain strong; his frustration was still evident as he spoke.
"It was all I could do to keep from crying," he recalled later. "Even though I know that I can portray an 18th-century Frenchman if the role called for it, every time I go to an audition I feel they're looking at me only as a skin color." Hail feels that any actor should be allowed to audition for any role as long as he can make the characterization believable. "Besides," he says, "part of my and every other Afro-American's cultural experience is white, which makes me artistically capable of playing a white."
Garry, who said he "hadn't given much thought to someone non-white auditioning," stressed the importance of the plot in his decision.
"Almost all of the characters are white because the play is set in 1927. It's a comedy of manners, so detail and realism are important because we're commenting on the times. So there are only certain roles--the butler, the maid, the boxing coach, the Indian servant--that could be performed by someone nonwhite."
Hail nevertheless feels that his rights as a Harvard student outweigh Garry's desire for "realism."
"This is the one place at Harvard where you can learn how to act, so it's as if I've been denied admission to a class because I'm black. It seems that blacks here can only perform in experimental productions or in Black CAST--and I'm tired of being an experiment. Realism can go to hell as long as I'm paying $9000 a year to go here."
No specific administrative policy exists regarding the use of the Loeb or student productions which take place within it, though the University does support the facility with yearly grants.
Ticket sales help balance the Loeb budget, but according to HRDC president Elizabeth Maguire, plays are not chosen for ther profitability, but for their artistic merit and adaptability to a student cast. A selection committee comprised of four HRDC members and two members of the Faculty Committee on Theater chooses the plays.