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Should Race Matter When It Comes To Casting?

Courtesy: Communications Theatre Group

Race, ethnicity, and gender divide and unite us in many ways.

We see it in the news all the time, and that includes the world of the arts.

Just last week in New York, the singer and actor Mandy Patinkin canceled his plans to be the replacement for an African-American actor in the Broadway play, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” There has been what The New York Times called an “uproar on social media” critical of the change from an African-American actor to a white actor. 

This year a theater in Portland, Oregon canceled its production of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" after an African-American was cast in the role of Nick, the young college teacher. The estate of playwright Edward Albee didn't permit the change. 

Closer to home -- in May, the Las Vegas Little Theater mounted a production of Neil Simon's female version of  "The Odd Couple" in which he cast Oscar and Felix as Olive and Florence. 

Non-traditional casting has morphed from color-blind casting - which ignores race- to color-conscious casting - which not only acknowledges race but also takes into consideration the historic inequality in the theater field, that's according to Diep Tran, an editor and writer for American Theatre magazine. The magazine recently published an open letter on the topic signed by more than 1,000 people in the industry advocating against color-blind casting. 

"It was advocating for recognizing the struggles, the very particular struggles, that performers of color have when they're working in entertainment and recognizing that our nation is becoming more diverse, recognizing that diversity is necessary and we should cast with diversity in mind."

Tran pointed to the Hollywood practice of 'whitewashing,' which is casting a white actor in a role that was written for or originally featured an actor of color, as one of those particular struggles. One of the most famous cases of 'whitewashing' was the casting of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in 1961. 

“We want more performers of color, or performers on the LGBTQ spectrum, or performers of disabilities to play the roles that were written for them and as well as play roles that they may not have ever been able to play because historically they would never have been considered,” she said.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been known for a long time as a company that makes an effort to have a diverse cast. However, Amrita Ramanan, the director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy at the festival, told KNPR's State of Nevada the company has actively worked to go beyond just representation on the stage. 

“One of the biggest issues we have in our field right now is that theater companies will say they diversify and then people of color show up exclusively as the interns and coordinators rather than actually having leadership positions,” she said.

The company is 68 percent people of color Ramanan said.

They also find ways to diversify by choosing plays written by people of color, women, and people from different nationalities. Ramanan said it all comes back to the mission of the festival.

"Our mission is the cultural richness of the world on stage, and to us, the world does not look like majority white people. That’s not what it is,” she said.

Ramanan grew up in Las Vegas. She fell in love with theater at Green Valley High School. She said that while she had amazing instructors in school she also saw systematic racism and marginalization. 

“In high school, there were certain roles I couldn’t imagine myself in as an actor,” she said.

After deciding to pursue theater as her career, Ramanan said she decided it was her role to help diversify the theater industry. She said part of the issue with diversity is there is a nostalgia around plays that are considered Western Classics like Shakespeare, Tennesse Williams, and Arthur Miller. Some people have a perception about what the actor playing those roles should look like. 

"If you actually look at Arthur Miller, you look at the cast of characters, production histories will tell you that those characters have often been cast as white but Arthur Miller actually in "Death of a Salesman" does not explicitly indicate that his characters are white," she said.

Chris Edwards is the artistic director for Actors' Shakespeare Project. Before that, he was the artistic director of the Nevada Conservatory Theater at UNLV. He agrees that some people believe a character has to "look" a certain way. He remembers a production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" where the role of Stanley Kowalski was played by an African-American actor. He said the director of that production choose the actor because he was the best person for the role, but he does remember reviewers criticizing the decision and calling it "grandstand casting."

“This is how I look at color conscious casting is that you cast the actor and let the actor bring to the role everything that is a part of them whether its race, culture. You let them sit down at the table in all of their finery,” Edwards said.

Edwards pointed out it is not the job of the theater to be literal. If that were the case, no production of a Shakespeare play would be allowed in the United States because we're not British. He said for too long the idea that 'white' is the norm has ruled.

"We need to be on the forefront of helping the rest of our society understand the world we want to live in and the only way to do that I think is to have color-conscious casting,” Edwards said.

Troy Heard is the artistic director of Majestic Repertory Theater in Las Vegas. He said he has seen an extremely diverse casting pool in Las Vegas, which reflects our community on the stage.

“We just closed a production of “Carrie: The Musical” which was an extremely diverse cast because that’s what you see in high schools today,” he said.

Sara Phillips is the educational outreach coordinator for Reno Little Theater. She recently finished casting for "A Wrinkle in Time." She said it wasn't her aim to find a diverse cast, but that is who auditioned.

“I think that the casting simply reflects the community which was reflected at the audition process,” she said.

She said she had several actors of color who gave stellar auditions and that is who she cast. Phillips said she and others in the industry in Reno are always talking about how to increase the visibility of actors of color. She believes the best approach is listening to what that part of the community has to say. 

Heard also said as the city and the country continues to diversify that is where the audience is and they want to see themselves on stage.

“You’re seeing a diverse country. That’s who's buying tickets,” he said.

Tran agreed. She said the more diverse a TV show is, for instance, the higher the ratings, which means stations can charge more to advertise during those programs. Tran says being aware of the topic isn't just "the good thing to do," but the practical thing to do as well.



Diep Tran, Editor and Writer, American Theatre magazine; Amrita Ramanan, Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy, Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Troy Heard, Artistic Director, Majestic Repertory Threatre; Chris Edwards, Artistic Director, Actors' Shakespeare Project; Sara Phillips, Educational Outreach Coordinator, Reno Little Theater



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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.