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Ford’s Theatre knew going into its revival of the well-worn, 60-year-old Sabrina Fair that a quaint, fizzy rumination on class just wouldn’t do. Even light romantic fare needs some bite, and so the theater made a casting decision that instead made the play about that other, more scarring division in American life: race. In the role immortalized by Audrey Hepburn in Billy Wilder’s 1954 film version, Ford’s placed Susan Heyward, a black actress.
That’s not the only example of “nontraditional casting”—that’s the theater world’s term—in D.C. productions this season. House of Gold and Oklahoma!—now running at Woolly Mammoth and Arena Stage, respectively—both feature minority actors in roles that in the past have been played by white ones.
The concept of nontraditional casting isn’t new, nor is it new to Arena Stage, which produced The Glass Menagerie with an all-black cast in 1989. The Shakespeare Theatre Company has staged two nontraditional productions of Othello: first in 1990, with black actors in the roles of Iago and Desdemona, and again in 1997, in which Patrick Stewart played a white Othello with an otherwise all-black cast. The American Century Theatre featured an all-black cast in its production of That Championship Season in 2007.
In all of those examples, actors weren’t just cast because they were great for the role, but also because the director had something to say.
While reading Samuel A. Taylor’s Sabrina Fair as he mulled the 2010-2011 season, Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault found that, while enjoyable, it didn’t quite feel contemporary. “Though I thought the play was charming,” he says, “there was something lacking in its immediacy.” The play tells the story of a chauffeur’s daughter who attracts the romantic attentions of the sons of her father’s employer. Tetreault chose to keep the play’s mid-century setting, but he ditched the class-tension theme. “Not that we’ve solved the problem of class,” he says, “but we’re really still grappling with race.”
Not that everyone was happy with the change. “I told Edward Albee that I was changing the race of Sabrina, and he was outraged,” Tetreault says. “He said, ‘What, you think black people and white people are interchangeable?’” Tetrault says some audience members chafed at the notion of a play presenting race as a barrier to romantic relationships. “I think that artists think the notion of the whole post-racial America is bullshit,” says Tetreault.
House of Gold, Oklahoma!, and Sabrina Fair are all examples of “color-conscious” casting. “Colorblind” casting is something different. Tetreault thinks the latter only works in classic works. With Sophocles or Shakespeare, “people aren’t necessarily looking at race,” says Teatrault. But that’s not the case across the board, he says. “When you’re doing contemporary work or new work, race is very important,” he says.
Race in theatrical casting has generated controversy. In 1997, the playwright August Wilson and Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., engaged in a heated debate about colorblind casting. In short, Wilson, who was black, argued that colorblind casting amounted to rewriting history and negating the cultural importance of race. He contended that the black experience is no less universal than the white experience, and that the real problem lay in the lack of funding for black playwrights and black theaters. Brustein, who is white, considered Wilson’s position separatist and countered that colorblind casting facilitated a unifying experience.
In House of Gold, a sort of whacked-out telling of the JonBenét Ramsey story, the black actor Kaaron Briscoe plays the Girl—aka JonBenét. She studied at Brustein’s ART, and says that colorblind casting was an inherent aspect of acting there, so much so that it was never explicitly expressed. “It was never really said,” she says. “It’s [Brustein’s] theater, it’s going to happen. I never thought, ‘I’m black, I don’t think I’m going to get this role.’”
House of Gold isn’t colorblind at all. With a media that devotes incongruous attention to missing white girls like Chandra Levy and Natalee Holloway, the choice to cast Briscoe as the Girl feels significant, like a social reprimand about who’s important and who isn’t. “There’s a statement that’s being made,” she says. “I’m not what you expect to see. You expect to see someone with blond hair and blue eyes.”
Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, also thinks race matters in casting. Smith calls her Oklahoma! “a representation of modern America, and modern America is cross-cultural.” She notes that Arena has employed multicultural casting—colorblind as well as color-conscious—for 20 years, a practice she’s made a mission since she took the helm of the theater 12 years ago. “I wanted to ensure that the diversity onstage reflects the diversity in the audience,” she says. “Our audience is one-third people of color. You do that through programming.”
JoAnn M. Williams, executive director of D.C.’s African Continuum Theatre, questions the motives behind Smith’s casting decisions. “What is the impetus with Arena Stage’s multicultural casting?” she asks. “Is it that they really are trying to be a unifying force, or is it a marketing technique? I think it’s a marketing technique. I could be wrong. They have a lot of tickets they need to sell.”
Smith laughs at the notion that her choice to work with multicultural casts is market-driven. “My casting decisions are my own,” she says, noting that before coming to Arena she employed the same casting philosophy at the Perseverance Theatre, which she founded in Juneau, Alaska. “This has been a part of my life in American theater,” she says.
Furthermore, Smith acknowledges that some people may be upset that the characters of her Oklahoma! aren’t as they know them—in Arena’s version, the romantic leads are Latino and black. “I am sure that there are some audience members that see this representation of America and aren’t comfortable with it,” she says. “And that means that this Oklahoma! is not for them. For others, they’re thrilled. It speaks to their own lives and it speaks to America today.”