My Theatrical Ethics Dilemma: Integrity or Fairness?

It doesn’t come up here often, but I am the artistic director for a professional regional theater company. It is dedicated to producing 20th Century stage works of artistic and historical value that other, more commercial (sensible?) companies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Every now and again I find a play that is especially risky, challenging, and rich in theatrical possibilities, and those are the ones I direct myself.

This summer, I will be directing such a production, a harrowing recreation of Depression era dance marathons called “Marathon 33.” It was written by the fascinating June Havoc, Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister who became a Hollywood star and who is perhaps best known as the irritating “Baby June,” the  blonde and perpetually juvenile vaudeville headliner in the musical “Gypsy.” Havoc survived the Depression by competing in dance marathons during the Thirties, and wrote two autobiographies about these terrible spectacles, in which desperate couples would stay on their feet for thousands of hours for food and the promise of a cash prize, as more fortunate Americans paid to see who would drop first.

The show, at least as I and my artistic collaborators envision it, involves recreating dance marathons as accurately as possible, down to the smallest detail. The audience for the show will be immersed in the action as if it were the heartless mob that cheered the real dancers on, and we will avoid anachronisms of any kind. And yet, as I prepare to cast the show after a wonderfully productive round of auditions, I face an ethical conflict. Several of the strongest candidates for dance contestants are African-American, and there were no black competitors in the real contests. Even if there had been, mixed-race couples would not have been tolerated, especially in Virginia, where we are setting the show. Yet if I cast the best actors available without reference to race, I will have both.

Advocates for non-traditional casting notwithstanding, race is as much of a legitimate factor to consider in casting roles as gender, age, and physical characteristics. “Non-traditional” casting, accurately and reasonably applied, makes perfect sense: just casting a part “the way it has always been cast” is lazy and artistically limiting. “King Lear” isn’t about race; why not have a black or Asian Lear? It is about patriarchy, however: a female Lear—and I’ve seen that—is a scar on a masterpiece.  My usual rule is that if a non-traditional casting choice undermines the content or distract the audience (the open-minded and reasonable members of it, at least), it’s probably a bad idea. Casting an African-American as Curly in “Oklahoma!”…oh, hell, if he can sing the part, who will care? It’s a musical. Casting a black Mozart in “Amadeus”? Yes, I have trouble with that. Mozart wasn’t black. Dysart in the same playwright’s “Equus” however can be any color you like.

In a production that is striving to be historically accurate and one that will measure its success on how well-executed that effort is, embracing a clear and striking historical inaccuracy regarding the race of the marathon competitors challenges the artistic integrity of the show. Shouldn’t this be justification enough not to cast the African American actors? This is art, after all, not affirmative action. No director will cast 60-year-old actresses as the orphans in “Annie” to be “fair” or “diverse.” What’s the difference?

After thinking about it and seeking the opinions of the production staff, I think I come down this way on the subject. Yes, having black competitors will be historically inaccurate, having mixed race couples will be an anachronism, and both will undermine the historical verisimilitude that “Marathon ’33” is striving for. But the show is not about race. Race is never mentioned or discussed. The show is about what financial hardship does to human values, how callously we will make entertainment out of tragedy, how there are always exploiters of misery, and most of all, it is about human resilience, and how America sunk this low and still found its way back. Having the most talented  performers working to convey those message is critical to the production’s success, while having an all-white cast is far less so.

Most important of all, however, is this:

Racism and segregation robbed generations of African Americans of opportunity, money, careers and dignity, as it robbed America of talent, human capital, wisdom, inspiration and perspective. In portraying those lost decades theatrically, it is important to communicate this whenever possible, but it is unconscionable to emulate the corrupted values and unethical conduct of this period in the process. This allows the terrible cultural phenomenon of racism to reach across time to harm African Americans today, by taking away the opportunities and the recognition they deserve today, in the interest of historical accuracy. I don’t want to be a part of that; I don’t want to aid and abet it. I think, in fact I know, that it is wrong—unfair, and a misalignment of ethical priorities. Historical accuracy is important, as is artistic integrity, but sometimes achieving perfect costs too much, and accomplishes too little.

I want to make my show historically accurate, but I’m not going to embrace racism to do it.

15 thoughts on “My Theatrical Ethics Dilemma: Integrity or Fairness?

  1. “MovieBob” Chipman covered something similar when Thor came out.

    Personally, I say go for it. But on the other hand, I’m open to any sort of changes. Female Caesar? Black Superman? Henry V played by a puppet? Anything can be tried once. (I should point out that I’m not saying “go for it” because I think, “fuck it, whatever”; it’s because I really doubt it’ll be a big deal to be historically inaccurate in this way.)

    • I’m open to anything, as you say. But directing ultimately is about making the play work–some things just won’t, good intentions and motivations notwithstanding, even when they are done well. The female Lear was good; the play just makes no sense with one.

    • Henry the Fifth Finger?

      Come to think of it, Hand Puppet Shakespeare sounds awesome. If I can get a webcam that doesn’t lag like a [self-censored] I might try it. I bet it’ll at least get 10 hits on Youtube. (As opposed to a series of previous videos I did which only got maybe 5 or so apiece. I scrapped them because 6 hours of editing, compiling, and uploading isn’t worth 5 bloody views.)

  2. I’m preparing for auditions for Chekhov’s Three Sisters right now. Two of our top actors and one of our top actresses are African-American. Two or three other black actors—American and British—are certainly possibilities to be cast. But there weren’t a lot of black folks in Russia, ca. 1900. There are no right and wrong answers here. I haven’t made a final decision yet. Where I’m leaning is to say that the family—the four siblings—need to be of the same race. In our program, that means white. Every other role, from the army officer Vershinin (whose part is actually the biggest in the play in terms of lines) to Natasha (who marries into the family) to the family friends and servants, will go to the best available actor.

    Interestingly, however—and I say “interestingly” because the practice is so common—I do intend to pay a fair amount of attention to body type: Andrei is overweight, Olga has gotten “so thin,” etc.

    My last few shows have covered the field: ”Master Harold”… and the boys obviously had to be cast based in part on the actors’ skin color: it’s a realistic play about apartheid, after all. The Breasts of Tiresias, the play in whose preface the word “surrealism” was coined, was completely color-blind: we ended up with a mixed-race lead couple, an Asian-American woman in a role obviously written for a white male, and so on. The Uninvited had that same Asian-American woman and an African-American woman in feature roles (at least one of them in a role that would be difficult to justify in terms of sheer plausibility), but neither were considered for the lead, who has to be the sister of the very white male lead.

    I’m reminded of criticism I received years ago on a production of J. M. Synge’s The Well of Saints many years ago. One of my more PC colleagues didn’t like the fact that I’d cast the only African-American woman in the play (indeed, the only black actor of either gender to audition) as a peasant. I was, in his mind, perpetuating a stereotype. He didn’t seem completely comfortable even when I pointed out that all of the characters in that play (except, arguably, one or two male characters) are peasants. My choice was to cast this woman as a peasant or not to cast her at all because of her race.

    You can’t please all the people all the time. If the guy looking back at you from the mirror is OK with your decision, you’re good. But, if it matters, I support your call.

    • In the case of Three Sisters, I think either decision can be justified artistically and ethically. The characters are white, the Russian-ness of the play is central to it, and it is a family: casting white actors doesn’t grandfather in a racist condition, just a geographical one. On the other hand, Chekhov is about more than 19th Century Russia, and I can certainly conceive of a production with race-blind casting of “Three Sisters” being pulled off…the questions are 1) would it be as effective as traditional casting? 2) would it serve the play and the playwright, rather than social equity issues that have nothing to do with the play, and 3) could I personally have confidence in my ability to succeed with it? (No.)

      Your Synge situation is ridiculous, and I hope you handled that one more calmly than I would have. My company recently did “Stage Door,” and the director cast a white actress as the maid, Mattie, a part which in real life and in the play a black actress is called for…and also cast the part of “Frank” white, though he is written as an African-American handyman. Now, neither casting affected the play itself at all..with races reversed, I’d call this true non-traditional casting. But this was, in fact, “being afraid of stereotypical casting when the stereotype is historically true” casting, the equivalent of casting white house slaves in “Gone With the Wind.” And the result was that two black actors didn’t get jobs. How does this qualify as “ethical”?

      Then again, the actress cast in the maid’s role was far and away the most talented option, and in fact she was a stand-out in the production…so maybe it was the “right” decision after all.

      My brain hurts.

      • “being afraid of stereotypical casting when the stereotype is historically true”

        It may be historically true to how the show was cast in the past but not necessarily true to the actual history. Not all servants and cooks in New York at that time were black. My grandmother cooked for a boarding house in Brooklyn during that same time period and she was as Scottish as they come.

        The problem with casting the maid is that Hattie McDaniel is dead and there are very few actors of any race who had the ability that she did to play a stereotype but at the same time show herself to a person of power, intelligence and determination.

  3. The story demands white characters. Use them. And to hell w/ those who would diss you for doing so.

    If you feel guilty about it, do a Langston Hughes play next. And don’t cast any white actors unless the script calls for them. And if anyone complains, to hell with THEM.

  4. If there’s no mention of race in the script and there’s not a reference to race in the story, and it’s not about race at all, then cast away! The only time to limit casting in such a manner is when it feeds the story. You could cast it with white, yellow, brown, pink, and black people all in mixed relationships, and I won’t bat an eye, because that doesn’t distract me. In fact, I’ll be distracted if it looks like casting was done to have all white people. If someone else is distracted by the mixed couples, then I think that speaks more about the viewer than the director.

  5. I wondered how you were aging to cast this because of the demands of having actors who could dance or dancers who could act. While 50 years ago casting would have been less of problem because more performers were triple threats. But today not so much. When casting Stalag 17 I had an african american actor read who nailed the lead but if I had cast him in that role I would have needed to cast other African American actors in some of the other roles or the whole play would have become about racism . I didn’t have that option so I didn’t cast him that role. I think what you are doing is the right choice. Cast the best actors, tell the story well and the audience won’t care if its historically accurate. All they will care about is that they were entertained.

  6. I agree with Bill, Jack. I probably wouldn’t even question it if (I mean WHEN) I see your show with a mixed race cast because what you’re trying to convey is so compelling. I just thought dance marathons were a bunch of crazy kids trying to see how long they could do something, like how many they can cram into a phone booth or how long you can keep your hand on a car. Color me intrigued.

    (See what I did there?)

  7. Had Racism and segregation not been a historical part of our past then yes you would have seen mix color couples at your dance marathons.

    Since racism and segregation is not part of the story I wouldn’t let it bother you to the degree you seem to have let it do so. “Accurately as possible, down to the smallest detail” the accuracy you need to be looking for is the conditions that lead to the creation of such in the first place.

    I think if June Havoc were around to tell you, she wouldn’t mind a bit if the dancers were mixed couples of color or not, that was not the story she was trying to tell or she would have made it so.

    But I think maybe you miss the fact that such is still going on.

    While they are not dance marathons, they are your so call reality shows, where people are asked to work together but in the end there is only one winner of a prize. And we watch people stab each other in the back in order to improve their own position to win it. These shows drag on for weeks prolonging the morbid fixation many having watching such train wrecks unfold.

    And then there are your game shows where people are encouraged to act silly and or do things the wouldn’t dream of in their daily lives, for in many case a few thousand dollars. I wonder how many are compelled by a driving financial need?

    • 1. “Had Racism and segregation not been a historical part of our past then yes you would have seen mix color couples at your dance marathons.”
      Yes, and if the US had been settled by pygmies, everyone would have been really short. The issue of why there were no mixed-race couples isn’t what is in question.
      2.”…I wouldn’t let it bother you to the degree you seem to have let it do so.”
      I am not letting it “bother me.” I’m the director and a decision needs to be made. Since the issue involves history in a historically accurate semi-documentary drama, it’s a key decision that needs to be taken seriously, and thought about. I wrote about the ethical considerations involved, which were (properly) discussed with the artistic staff.You think it’s a matter that can be shrugged off? You’re wrong. “Hairspray,’ a light-hearted musical, is about mixed-race couples being regarded as scandalous in Baltimore, just up the highway from where my show will be set. Thinking about something before making a decision is responsible conduct, not being “bothered.”
      3. “But I think maybe you miss the fact that such is still going on.”
      And why do you think THAT, may I ask? What parallels to current cultural phenomenon might have led the artistic director of a 20th Century works theater company to do a show about manufactured drama where audiences pay to watch desperate people hurt and humiliate themselves? Gee, I wonder. What’s THAT? There are things called “reality shows”? Oh, do enlighten me!

      Uh, yes, DUH, I figured this out before I picked the show, but thanks for assuming I’m an idiot.
      I know I’m being unduly severe, but your comment is condescending, and I’m not in the mood for it. I apologize for the snark.

      • Would it be amiss to add in some particular condescension towards the black or mixed-race couples from the audience?

        Does that cross the line of editorializing, or would it make the out of place races fit more into the general storyline of dehumanization?

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