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Cue Sheet – January 2011


Last night, at a party with some theater friends, conversation turned to upcoming local productions. Somebody mentioned that one company with a good reputation will be doing The Member of the Wedding, with a white actress rumored to be cast as the main adult character, a black maid. General reaction: surprise and consternation.

I found this ironic, because one of the people at the table (who expressed no opinion on the matter) was a talented young African-American actor who had spent the past three weeks portraying a Medieval French king. Needless to say, that historical figure was not black; the actor was hired because he had the right age and bearing and acting skills, in an example of color-blind casting.

Gone are the days when African-American actors were limited to stage appearances as servants, or in all-black productions like Porgy and Bess or special treatments of classics, like Orson Welles’ so-called “Voodoo Macbeth” in 1936, or in singular lead roles, like Othello (to whose skin Shakespeare refers as “black,” even though the character is also identified as a “Moor,” which would logically look more Moroccan than Ethiopian).

Today, not only are more black characters being written into new plays, but black actors are invited to portray not-necessarily-black characters under a number of circumstances. Most interestingly, recasting a traditionally white character as black can make an old play seem more relevant if it shifts old-fashioned class conflicts to issues of race. Iin Tucson, remember recent productions of The Pajama Game and Picnic. More commonly, a black actor can be cast in a role that, in the world of the play, really ought to be white, like a Medieval king of France, but accepting him as such a character merely requires a slight extension of the suspension of disbelief required in any theatrical production. That’s when the casting is truly color-blind.

So why can’t it work in the other direction? Practically, it should. There are so few actors of color residing in Tucson (why that’s true is a topic for another time) that some good plays are avoided simply for the lack of a race-appropriate performer. So why not hire a white actor for a black role? I can think of a couple of reasons, but I’d like to see if they show up in the comments section of this blog.

Aside from that, I’m not so sure casting an Anglo woman in the role of the black maid in Member of the Wedding is a good idea simply because I can think of two African-American actresses in Tucson who could handle the role and aren’t given very many acting opportunities in town. Of course, that assumes they’re still in town and haven’t moved on to better opportunities elsewhere, and that they’re available for the show during its rehearsal period and performance run, and don’t have other issues that would interfere with their participation.

To say the least, it will be interesting to see how things develop with Member of the Wedding.


About Cue Sheet

James Reel's cranky consideration of the fine arts and public radio in Tucson and beyond.