Immigration, Assimilation, Ethnicity and All That Jazz

Colour-blind Casting in Theatre – Good thing or bad thing?

Posted by chinesecanuck on May 8, 2008

At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (aka “Stratford”) this year, the actress playing the female lead in Romeo and Juliet is Nikki M. James.  Nikki is black.  While most seasoned theatre-goers probably won’t have any issues with this – colour-blind casting has been used before in many major productions, especially ones casting big names, I can’t help but wonder what the general public would think.  Are they accepting Nikki’s tragic portrayal?  Does it help that Lady Capulet is also played by a black actress?  Romeo, by the way, is played by a white actor.

Stratford has historically been lily-white.  The first time I saw a non-white actor in any Stratford show was in 1999 when I saw West Side Story (The Stratford Shakespeare Festival isn’t only about Shakespeare.  In fact, this year, they’re also doing George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra.  Nikki M. James is also in this show, replacing Anika Noni Rose as Cleopatra.  Julius Caesar will be played by Christopher Plummer.) where all of the Sharks were played by non-white performers.  Maria was played by Miss Saigon alumna, Ma-Anne Dionisio.  Since then, Stratford has had more non-white performers, though not plenty.

Does colour-blind casting change the interpretation?  For example, in 1999, the role of Ellen, Chris’ American wife in Miss Saigon, was played by Margaret Ann Gates, who is of Korean descent.  As Miss Saigon is supposed to be the “updated,” 1970s version of Madame Butterfly, one would expect Ellen to be a white, southern belle.  When Margaret Ann was cast, message boards (this was the late 90s – not too many blogs at that time) were flooded with threads with titles such as “was he just seeking a replacement?”  or “does he even love his wife?”.  Had Margaret Ann been white like all the previous non-understudies, these threads would not have existed.  But these online critics were harmless compared to Michael Crawford’s replacement, Robert Guillaume, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.  Many people just weren’t ready to see a black Phantom and many returned their tickets even before he made his debut.  However, Robert Guillaume’s run as the Phantom was nonetheless popular.   Some people even found the 1997 version of Cinderella, starring Brandy and Whoppi Goldberg to be distracting.  However, that was TV, and TV has a very different audience, often one that isn’t as enlightened.

For some reason, tragic shows are more likely to go for colour-blind casting, and the actors are usually cast in tragic roles.  Les Miserables has done so since at least the early 1990s, when Toni Braxton made her debut as Eponine.  Other non-white Eponines have included Ma-Anne Dionisio, Lea Salonga and Joana Ampil (for some reason, they like to cast former Kims as Eponine.  Similar role, I guess).  Lea has also played Fantine.  Javert, the evil policeman in the production, has been played by Norm Lewis, who is African-American. Brandy’s Cinderella, a Canadian touring production of Grease! (Ma-Anne Dionisio was Sandy) and a mid 90s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I saw with my English class in middle school are the only non-tragedies I can think of.

How do YOU feel about colour-blind casting?  Good?  Bad?  Does it only work if a non-white performer is cast in a traditionally white role (unless, of course, you’re doing a “reverse” production of say, Othello)? Does it only work if the person in the role is a big name (think Denzel playing Brutus in Julius Caesar or any of the “big named” stage actors like Lea or Ma-Anne) Feedback!!!

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