Racial obsession is an occupational disease of Washington eggheads. After Bob Mondello’s bilious review of The Tempest (Theater, 9/12), someone should diagnose him.
Mondello’s assertion that Garland Wright’s superb production dug the Shakespeare Theatre into a racist hole doesn’t hold water. Let’s look at Mondello’s own record on race. I have a few notes. In 1992, Mondello complained about the all-white cast of Pump Boys and Dinettes at the Kennedy Center and uttered a racist epithet (“redneck revues”) (Theater, 3/13/92). In 1995, he accused Theater J of oblivious insensitivity for casting a black as a maid in Nano and Nicki in Boca Raton (Theater, 10/20/95). Artistic Director Randye Hoeflich pleaded that “[Cynthia] Webb gave the best audition” (The Mail, 11/3/95). That doesn’t cut much ice with Mondello, who seems to insist on pointless and jarring cross-racial casting, as in Arena’s inept Our Town a few seasons back (Theater, 11/30/90).
Emboldened after beating up on a small theater, Mondello now takes on Wright and the Shakespeare Theatre, but here he’s in beyond his depth. He criticizes the “‘exoticized other’ production concept.” C’mon, Bob, what’s the matter with that? Wright cast the Milanese as white, and the islanders, spirits, and gods as black, which gives lots of jobs to black actors. Isn’t that good? If Wright had cast a Milanese nobleman as black, as you wanted, wouldn’t that be ahistorical and a distraction? The Shakespeare Theatre is about to mount a race-reversed Othello, which may work well, and Bob seems to approve of that. If, like Bob, we were to cling obsessively to integrationist “nontraditional casting,” then such a concept wouldn’t even be possible.
Plenty of theater pundits disagree with Bob. Redoubtable black playwright August Wilson says that “nontraditional casting does not have any validity and has never had any validity.” I heard Sir Ian McKellen tell a luncheon group that he opposes nontraditional casting when it interferes with “sense of time and place.” A nice phrase, that.
Bob complains because Caliban in The Tempest is villainous and black. Stephano and Trinculo are villainous and white. Was that OK then, Bob? Do you think that we, the Shakespeare audience, are idiots? Are we like hoodlums listening to a street-corner orator, eager for a race riot? Are we coming into the theater like affirmative-action inspectors? We can see that stuff in our newspapers. We’re coming to see the genius of Shakespeare, not the hang-ups of Mondello or of official Washington.
In the action, the black Caliban, impressed by the swagger of the bumbling white scoundrels Stephano and Trinculo, attaches himself to them. In the course of the play, Caliban discovers that he’s smarter than they, and at the end he has a great speech:
“…What a thrice-double ass
Was I to take this drunkard for a god
And worship this dull fool!”
If you’re looking for context and relevance, Bob, might this not remind us of some drunken white liberal politicians who can’t deliver? Maybe Shakespeare and Wright aren’t oblivious after all. But maybe that resonance isn’t on your political agenda.
Another director might cast Caliban and Stephano and Trinculo too as black. That might work! Then Caliban’s speech (above) might remind us of Marion Barry. Would Bob praise that casting for giving two more plum roles to black actors, or would he decry it as a further insult to black people? What if the Caliban were then whitelike many Washingtonians who voted for Barry?
Enough of this. Plenty of theatergoers find that the Shakespeare Theatre does a great job, and some of us are fed up with Mondello’s racial politicking, which disfigures his reviews. Lighten up, Bob!