Colourblind Casting One: The Streetcar and I

As someone who is not a part of a visible minority, I'm pretty sure I'm not qualified to talk about this, but lately this has been bothering me a lot, because there have been a lot of cases where colourblind casting (or hell, even colour-conscious casting) has been received with a mindset that is less than modern and far less than enlightened. Though the US and Canada that generally pride themselves on being open on issues of diversity, there are still embarrassing and primitive fails.

(I'm not talking about the Hunger Games issues. I am so late to the party on that one it isn't funny. The twitter shitstorm that followed the release of that movie was a problem that stems from idiots reading a book but blocking out what they don't want to here. Rue is clearly black in the books, and while it isn't a huge part of her character, it was definitely the right choice to cast a black actress in the movie, especially if that actress was someone of such screen presence as Amandla Stenberg. Case closed. Idiots are idiots, and should have their rights to the Internet restricted if not outright revoked.)

What I'm talking about is the treatment of actors and actresses of colour in theatre, not film and television. Tentatively this subject will be covered in more than one post.

On Broadway, there's been a production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire that chose to have actors of colour in it. I don't see why this has to be commented on in 2012, when the United States has a black president and when there has already been an all-black production of Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway. It's Streetcar! I'd go to see that show on Broadway, no matter who was acting in it.

And yet:

'Heck, I wouldn’t care if all the performers were green and they called it “A Spaceship Named Desire,” if the acting were good enough. One of the advantages of theater, where metaphor reigns, is that it doesn’t have to be literal minded in the way film does. Part of the contract between any play and its audience is our willingness to make a leap of imaginative faith.' -Ben Brantley, New York Times
 This is the sort of apologetic pandering that consumes a good fifth of the article. Mr Brantley waves his hands around, going "Ooooh, look at this bold directorial decision, but you know, there are a lot of black people in New Orleans, and James Earl Jones, and ooooh."

I love how he says that suspense of disbelief is vital if we're to believe that someone with the last name of Kowalski is black. Or that it would be impossible to have a black Blanche on film. Has he seen the original cover of the play's script, by the way?

I mean, if I had never even heard of this play and just picked it up with this binding, I would assume Stanley was black. And it wouldn't make one iota of difference in my reading of it.

Brantley is clearly trying to placate a white readership that for some reason can't see Blanche DuBois or Stanley as black. It's odd -- I thought the eighty-year-old corpses populating theatre audiences could only envision black people as lower-class beasts or manipulative deceivers. Why would Ben Brantley need to spend so much time in this review defending the directorial decision?

And who, exactly, is he writing for? Whereas his review was more or less ambivolent as to the actual quality of the production (and not the race of its actors), a precursory look at the reviews below revealed that the people who didn't get in to see the show on a critic's pass ie. the ones who actually paid the exorbitant fee of a Broadway ticket, really, really enjoyed their evening:

'Did the reviewer actually attend the play? He certainly doesn’t describe the same riveting, powerful performance of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” that I attended on Sunday night. Ben Brantley’s review seems created out of pre-conceived biases and his own agenda (Emphasis mine).'

'I flew in from Florida...with no regrets.'

'I saw Streetcar last night. Apt, thrilling, spot on interpretation, riveting, electric, mind blowing are the initial words that come to mind. The production was unforgettable and phenomenal and fabulous. I am a teacher, adjunct professor, researcher, Williams fan (read everything) amateur actress for a while (who studied at HB Studios under Walt Witcover, Bill Hickey, June Eve Storey and others) journalist (Technorati) blogger, novelist and poet.'
These people do not care about colour. These are happy customers! Who the hell does Ben Brantley intend to impress with his oh-so-enlightened views on race?

The negative reviews seemed to pertain to the attitude of the audience. Apparently, some school groups do attend theatre now and again, and school groups are more responsive to the events onstage than certain naysayers would like. I don't think this is a problem, personally; as an actor and a viewer, I prefer an engaged audience to a polite one. Some of the language used was troubling, though:

'as a former casting professional, I hate to say this because of the way it's going to sound, but I ran into the same kind of audience when I saw the all-black version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with Terence Howard. granted, the production was a snooze, but the busloads of clearly inexperienced, urban, Broadway theatergoers imported from the outer boroughs and beyond, sassy-talked back to the actors and laughed at inappropriate times throughout the entire play. and then there was all the eating during the show. it was a most unpleasant experience and one I'm not eager to repeat anytime soon.'
Sooo... did you even go to see A Streetcar Named Desire? The title of this review, by the way, was 'no, they're not Tyler Perry productions.'

And here was the only negative review on the featured page which pertained to the show, and not to the location of the play:

'Awful. I felt like I was watching a bad episode of a Tyler Perry show. They played it for laughs-interesting choice for a tragedy. Blair Underwood seemed like he was in another play entirely--the real one. The audience was cracking up at totally serious lines. When the rape scene and final disaster comes, the audience was shocked--they thought it was a comedy.'
 Another Tyler Perry comparison? Really?

Also, I'm not sure how an audience being shocked in regards to a rape scene is a bad thing. Frankly it troubles me that they are expected to react in any other way. In 1947, when the play originally came out, the audience would almost certainly have not expected a run of the mill kitchen sink drama to take such a grave turn.

The rape scene was extremely watered down for the 1951 movie, because it was so shocking. I think it's fantastic and maybe not a detriment to our psyches that a modern audience still has insight into how brutal this is, and amplifying this shock by directing some of the other scenes with a lighter touch was a great move on the director's part. A play, even if it is over sixty years old, still needs to be affecting and have resonance with its audience. Apparently this reading of Streetcar succeeded on that front.

I'm fixating a little on this particular review of Streetcar, but that's because it's only the most recent in supposed enlightened reviewers for some reason fixating on colourblind casting in the productions they go to see.

My personal philosophy, and seemingly everyone else's who is not a theatre critic, is that casting a person of colour is a side product of casting the best possible actor for the role that needs to be filled. There are some roles where race matters a lot, like Raisin in the Sun or Ragtime. But there are far more plays and musicals where the characters are accepted to be white, not because they need to be, but because white is the default, or because the original cast was white.

People get so incredibly defensive and tetchy about this, but it is a fact; Most won't imagine or cast characters in their plays as white because of any textual evidence. They will imagine them as white because that was the precedent set in the first cast. Exhibit A:

It's Yul Brynner. He's a Caucasian playing the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I. In the two Broadway revivals and movie that followed the original production, Mr Brynner reprised his role. The 1996 Broadway revival opened with Lou Diamond Phillips as the King.

I've seen countless productions of this show, with a white King every time. I can only think of a few times a non-Asian production of The King and I had an actor of Asian descent in the role of the King. One was when Ben Kingsley played him in an album featuring Julie Andrews (which is really excellent. I recommend it highly). There was a US tour that starred Daniel Dae Kim. In Britain there have been several productions and tours that featured the likes of Raymon Tikaram and Daniel Scott Lee. But otherwise, colour-correct casting is rare in this show and especially this role.

Because of the precedent set, it's been accepted that a Caucasian with a shaved head can play the King of Siam in this show, even though textually he is Asian. That this basically amounts to blackface is apparently irrelevant.

To be fair, there are similar precedents set for characters of other races. In RENT, it is more or less expected that Joanne and Collins be black, and that Mimi and Angel be Hispanic. But I feel that setting a precedent for a character's race in a play where race isn't an issue explicitly dealt with in the piece is rare enough that the case of precedent in RENT is a positive one.

It is not vital for Blanche DuBois to be white in A Streetcar Named Desire. Race is not a driving part of her character, and Ben Brantley shouldn't have to get anxious and defensive about it in his review of the show's production. It would have been far more constructive for him to spend more time on why he felt the production didn't work as a whole, which was something he said, but something he didn't explain very well.

And in the end, reviews from people who paid full price to see this show pretty much unanimously show a huge amount of indifference. Which is my time wasted as well as Brantley's.

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