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Blindly Colorblind

Two plays currently on Broadway wrestle with the influence of the past on the present, and each asserts that the former can no more be excised from the latter than a drop of ink can be extracted from a bottle of milk. In Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, Jamie Tyrone declares, "There is no present or future -- only the past happening over and over again -- now." In August Wilson's Radio Golf, an African-American mayoral candidate struggles with the compromises of assimilation and gentrification and what they portend for black heritage and black identity.

Playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute has taken a different view, suggesting in a recent essay that history is a prison from which people must escape, particularly those who work in the theatre. In a May 6 article in the Los Angeles Times, he wonders why colorblind casting is not an equal transaction, why Denzel Washington can play Brutus but Liev Schreiber cannot play Othello, or why an all-white version of A Raisin in the Sun could never go forward. "For most white actors today, roles of color -- from the classics to some of the sensational writing that is currently being done for the theatre -- are not even an option for them, and I'm not sure why," he writes.

While it is imperative that the cultural world keep itself free from political correctness to remain creatively fertile, LaBute is mistaken in his assumption that, artistically speaking, race is a fungible element in every play. It is not. With an all-white cast, A Raisin in the Sun would become just another story about the working class and the American dream, ground already well-covered by Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller. However, an all-black production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (scheduled for Broadway in 2008) could be a revelation, because its themes of patriarchy, class, and closeted homosexuality might assume a greater weight when played out within the context of an African-American family.

This is not to suggest that an actor such as Carol Lawrence shouldn't play Maria in West Side Story or Jonathan Pryce should be barred from playing the Engineer in Miss Saigon. Where race and ethnicity are not integral to theme, the parts should go to the best actors available -- though we would hope Latino and Asian actors would be strongly considered for those roles. However, for LaBute to casually state that white actors could tackle Wilson's plays on the African-American experience is to express a profound disregard for the substance of the work.

More important, LaBute willfully ignores the central problem that colorblind casting has been trying to address by increasing access to acting jobs for people who historically have been barred from them, intentionally or otherwise. It is easy to get complacent with Radio Golf up and running, Audra McDonald drawing raves in 110 in the Shade, The Color Purple eclipsing the 600-show mark, and Usher wowing audiences in Chicago earlier in the season. But writers of color still find it difficult to get their work produced in the theatre, particularly in New York, and as a consequence the actors on Broadway and Off-Broadway stages remain largely white.

There is something unsettling about LaBute -- a writer whose work is frequently produced and almost always employs white actors -- suggesting that racism is merely a perception ("Color is going to remain the great dividing line as long as we allow it to be") and that our stories are interchangeable ("Today we should embrace the idea of a collective history and speed off into the future holding hands"). What he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge is that American history will never be collective as long as its aftereffects are played out unequally in the present. An African-American man, for example, has a better chance of going to prison than to a four-year college; funding for arts education in the inner city lags far behind that in the suburbs; and whites get a disproportionate share of the roles in theatre, film, and television. We haven't progressed quite as far as the playwright would like to think.

LaBute wants colorblind casting to be "a two-way street," and he finishes by writing, "All I'm asking is that you let the theatre, that last bastion of illusion...remain exactly that. The stuff that dreams are made of." Until we are certain that dreams from every  segment of society are getting their hour upon the stage, Schreiber can stick to playing Iago. Besides, he does it brilliantly.   

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In Support Of Color Blind

I stumbled upon the article online and from there discovered a plethora of angry rebuttals. If you haven’t read it already, I’ll give you a brief rundown: Playwright and filmmaker Neil Labute recently wrote an article regarding the disallowance of white people to play traditionally colored parts in theater:

“Why do we barely bat an eye at an all black version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night… But why shouldn’t it cut both ways? Isn’t it simple prejudice to suggest that we should think otherwise?”

As one would expect, the reaction was vehement. What surprised me though was just how consistently people missed the issue at hand. That his essay was in fact about artistic integrity and not about racism per se went largely unnoticed. I realize it’s difficult to discuss race in relation to another topic without the forerunner taking center stage, but like it or not, here at least, it’s necessary to acknowledge that small but crucial point. So when commentators mis-summarize the article by writing things like “…he’s relegated the whole basis of racism in America to ‘something that doesn’t really matter anyway’…” or “His central thesis is, ‘Slavery happened a long time ago, I apologize, now let's get over it…,’” they do a disservice to everyone who reads the rebuttal. Because, in large part, what they are opposed to, whether they realize it or not, is the casual tone in which Labute writes. This, however, is a matter of aesthetics and not philosophy. The point isn’t that actors of colors are having trouble getting substantial roles (there are enough people already trumpeting that grievance, which is probably why Labute chose not make it his topic of discussion) but that we live in a time when political correctness might be squelching potentially provocative work.

Later in the article Labute mentions that he would like to direct an all-white version of A Raisin In The Sun. As it turns out, this was done once in Maine. This brings up my second point: Living in a culturally diverse area is a privilege. In the truest sense of the word. Having grown up in the aforementioned least-diverse state in the nation, and attended a high school that had two black students and I think one Asian student, I’m often surprised at the degree to which people in diverse areas take their diversity and liberalism as a given human condition. (For what it‘s worth I currently live in Los Angeles.) It would be nice if that were the case, but the fact remains it’s a given condition of one’s environment, education and possibly predisposition. That said, I would argue that a performance of A Raisin In The Sun, even in blackface if that is what’s required, is culturally needed all the more in a place like Maine than in Los Angeles or New York where that kind of first hand understanding and exposure already exists. Theater, above and beyond all other art forms I think should fight tooth and nail from preaching to the choir.

Was that Labute’s point? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not for me to say. What I do know though is that Labute raised an important issue and was immediately slapped down without, as far as I’m concerned, even a consideration as to whether or not his unusual thesis had any validity to it. A knee-jerk reaction took hold and people ran with it rather than reserving judgment, staying their impulses and giving actual consideration to the writer and his subject. There is a line in the movie Seven that I always liked: “Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you'll notice you've got their strict attention.” When it comes right down to it, that is what Labute does. He hits us with sledgehammers constructed out of words. The result is two-fold: Yes he gets our attention, but at times the message is lost beneath the shock of having just been bludgeoned. However, one must remember that it is us that seeks him out. It is not difficult to avoid Labute’s writing if that’s what you want to do and so if you undertake to read one of his essays or sit through one of his plays you should do so only with the understanding that once you’ve been hit, it is your responsibility to shake it off and then seriously consider why before allowing yourself to react.

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