Around the time the nation elected its first black president nine years ago, Park Square Theatre founder Richard Cook looked at the demographic trends and had a light-bulb moment.
“I’m a 20th-century artist and I want Park Square to be a 21st-century theater,” he said to himself, “which means the work on our stage should be as rich and diverse as our culture is becoming.”
So the St. Paul theater, which had mostly presented mainstream fare to a base of ardent but aging supporters, set out to change its programming and the actors it hires. As a result, the company’s audience is gradually diversifying and getting younger.
A similar story is playing out at theaters across the Twin Cities and around the nation.
What used to be called “colorblind” or “gender-blind” casting — now branded with the awkward label “nontraditional” — has become standard practice even at mainstream stages such as the Guthrie Theater. “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical in which actors of color play America’s founding fathers, cemented a revolution to the field.
Nor is the issue limited to the stage. Hollywood for years has struggled with issues of “whitewashing,” using white actors to play people of color. When actors of color are cast in formerly white roles, there’s intense social media chatter, as happened when Michael B. Jordan played the Human Torch in 2015’s “Fantastic Four” and transgender actress Laverne Cox portrayed Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the 2016 TV remake of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
However, where some view an opportunity for inclusivity, others see a misguided attempt to rewrite history. Witness the recent hubbub over the casting of a black actor in an Oregon staging of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” The Albee estate scotched that production, saying it violated the late playwright’s intent.
There is some irony in the fact that the faces we see on stage — whether people of color or white, male or female, gay or straight, cis or transgender — matter so much. In ancient Greece, the birthplace of Western theater, performers wore masks to blot out the individual and put the focus on their characters.
Theater, of course, has evolved since then, but it still serves as a representation of democracy — another Greek gift. The theater is a communal space where Americans re-examine the past, interrogate the present and dream the future.
“As artists, we want to be able to play any role, to practice our craft fully and thoughtfully,” said Sun Mee Chomet, a stalwart Twin Cities actor who performed in the Guthrie’s “King Lear” last winter and who is Asian-American. “The field has come a long way, but there’s still a lot of catching up to do.”
Color-conscious, not ‘colorblind’
Casting changes might be old hat for Twin Cities theater companies such as the Children’s Theatre, Ten Thousand Things, Illusion, Pillsbury House and Mixed Blood, where representing the world’s cultural mosaic is central to their mission. But it’s a big deal at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, where founder Bain Boehlke built a reputation for meticulous productions that were almost exclusively white.
In the quarter-century before Sarah Rasmussen took over as artistic director last year, the Jungle featured only one actor of color in a leading role — the black chauffeur in “Driving Miss Daisy.” She has retained the company’s strong artistry while bringing diversity into the mix, with actors of color taking prominent roles in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Sarah Ruhl’s “The Oldest Boy” and the current musical “Fly by Night.”
“All actors are playing someone else in this form where we conspire in our imaginations,” Rasmussen said. “Why not imagine a world where the magic includes everyone?”
Still, are people ever “blind” to race and gender? And if actors of color or women of any race can be cast in classic roles, can white actors perform the plays of, say, August Wilson?
“Everyone wants hard and fast rules around this topic, but casting decisions are based on the needs of each project,” said Guthrie artistic director Joe Haj. “On the one hand, I’m figuring out how to be maximally inclusive, so we consider actors as broadly as possible. On the other hand, we have to be sensitive and conscious to how we’re doing that so if you have one person of color in a show, you’re not telling a story that you don’t intend to tell.”
Haj could have been talking about the Broadway tour of “An American in Paris” that landed at the Ordway this month with one very ugly stereotype amid all its lush beauty. Set in post-World War II France, the show has one obvious black ensemble member who wears an apron and stays mostly in the background except for the conspicuous moments when he comes to center stage to dust and clean.
A more salutary example would be Haj’s own well-considered production of “King Lear,” which featured central characters played by black, Asian-American and white actors. As they worked in concert to evoke the grave issues in Shakespeare’s epic, their skills superseded their identities.
Michelle Hensley, founding artistic director of Ten Thousand Things, has practiced color-conscious and gender-bending casting as a matter of course for two decades.
“It’s a real joy to find ways of opening up stories to people of all different backgrounds and genders,” said Hensley, who takes her minimalist productions to shelters and prisons. “It’s not just the excitement that actors can bring to a show or also new audiences. It’s a wealth of possibilities.”
That’s especially true for classic works, or plays set in fantasy realms. In 2015 Hensley staged an all-female “Henry IV, Part One” that was full of machismo and bravado, not to mention murder and conniving, revealing new meanings around gender in the Shakespearean text. At the Children’s Theatre, “Cinderella” took on new meaning when the rags-to-tiara role was reprised by a black actor, Traci Allen Shannon. And a decade ago, British director Max Stafford-Clark set “Macbeth” in a 1990s West Africa wracked by civil war and swarming with wigged-out medicine men.
Still, Hensley sounds a cautionary note: “We all see color and gender, so why deny it? Also, we can’t be blind to the history that putting a black person onstage in a particular role may represent.”
Playwright Wilson famously decried a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” with an all-black cast. In the show, a white character brags about getting diamonds out of Africa. There are also anti-education references.
“Those are antithetical to black values and black culture,” said Lou Bellamy, founder of St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre, where Wilson had his first professional production. “You can’t just put a black face on a white story and hope that everything is hunky-dory. We have to tell authentic black stories rooted in the black culture.”
Or as his daughter Sarah Bellamy, who succeeded him as artistic director this spring, puts it: “Rather than trying to breathe new life into Albee and Shakespeare — which are fine by themselves — we should be building up other canons.”
Much the same could be said about the Latino, American Indian and Asian-American traditions.
“Where nontraditional casting doesn’t work is where you, a person of color, is cast as a white character in a white context,” said Randy Reyes, a longtime actor and artistic director of the Asian-American troupe Mu Performing Arts.
“You have to do the work to create the right world where the casting makes sense,” said Reyes, who once set Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in French colonial-era Vietnam. “In that setting, we can speak in a Western way but justify how we look.”
Reyes, like many of those interviewed, said casting is hugely important — directors often quip that it’s 95 percent of the work, although they don’t spend 95 percent of their time on it. But it’s only one answer to the complex challenges facing theaters in a rapidly changing world.
“It’s not a numbers game where you cast a certain amount of people, or program certain plays, and then your work is done,” Reyes said. “And you can’t just try to fit people into preconceived structures. You have to be thoughtful and careful in this bold, brave new world.”
Equity, diversity and inclusion aren’t mere buzzwords, after all.
“It’s not just the right thing to do,” said the Jungle’s Rasmussen. “Our integrity and survival depend on it.”