Casting Ethics: A Black Joan Of Arc?

Sure, why not?

From Playbill:

Manhattan Theatre Club has announced a Broadway revival of “Saint Joan” by Nobel Prize and Oscar winner George Bernard Shaw with direction by Tony winner Daniel Sullivan. Heading the cast as the famous heroine will be Condola Rashad, fresh off her Tony-nominated performance in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

Superficially, at least, the casting of Rashad, an African American actress, as the famous “Maid of Orléans,” the French teenager who gained political and military power as a self-proclaimed messenger of God and who was burned at the stake, would seem like precisely the kind of stunt non-traditional casting that I have condemned by subjugating the intent and art of a playwright to affirmative action and virtue-signaling. However, this is not a legitimate objection to this casting choice, and in fact the upcoming Broadway production is as close to a perfect example of how creative casting can enliven a production and deepen its ability to make an audience think.

Joan of Arc, of course, was not black. Nor was she Swedish, though Ingrid Bergman played her memorably enough in the most famous Hollywood version of  Shaw’s play, She also didn’t speak English, and certainly not Shavian English. She spoke French. Ethnicity, race and color are not part of Shaw’s drama, however, nor are they relevant to what Joan of Arc did in life, and what she meant to her nation, its history and our shared Western culture.

How many public schools teach anything about Joan of Arc? How many U.S. students graduate completely ignorant of the historical Joan, not to mention Shaw’s version? Yet hers is one of the most remarkable stories in recorded history.

Joan of Arc was born around 1412, the daughter of a tenant farmer, Jacques d’Arc, from the village of Domrémy, in northeastern France. She was illiterate, as were most  of her class and gender, but also was indoctrinated into the teachings of the Catholic Church by her mother.  France was engaged in what we now call the Hundred Years’ War with England, and England had France by the throat.  A forced  treaty in 1420 disinherited  Charles, French crown prince, and England’s King Henry V—there’s a famous play about him, too– was made ruler of both England and France. Upon his father’s death, Henry VI succeeded him as king in 1422. At this point England occupied much of northern France, and many in Joan’s village, Domrémy, were forced to abandon their homes under threat of invasion.

Thirteen year-old  Joan began to hear voices in her head. Today we think the cause was tinnitus, but she was certain God was assigning her the mission of  saving France by defeating the English, and installing Charles as its the rightful king. Joan took a vow of chastity, as part of her bargain with God; this allowed her to reject a marriage her father arranged for her when she was 16.

Around this time, Joan traveled by herself to  Vaucouleurs, a nearby stronghold of those loyal to Charles. With her faith and her persuasive claim of being a holy messenger, she attracted a small band of followers who were convinced her sudden appearance was the the result of a popular prophecy coming true, and that she was destined to save France. Joan cut her hair short and dressed in men’s clothes to make an 11-day journey across enemy territory to Chinon, where the crown prince’s palace stood. She met with the young man, and convinced him that she was the Real McCoy (they didn’t use that phrase in France, of course)  by allegedly telling him things only God would know. She also  promised Charles that she would see him crowned king at Reims, the traditional site of French royal investiture, and asked him to give her an army to lead to Orléans, then under siege from the English.

Charles granted her request. Think about this for a bit. A strange teenage girl, dressed like a boy and claiming to hear voices, meets with the leader of a nation at war and convinces him to put her in charge of an army.

Amazing.

 Joan set off for Orléans in March of 1429 dressed in white armor and riding a white horse. She led several French successful assaults against against the English,  forcing their retreat across the Loire River. The victory was hailed by the French as a miracle, and I don’t blame them.

Joan and her followers escorted Charles across enemy territory to Reims, fighting and winning battles along the way, and finally having him coronated as King Charles VII in July of 1429.  At this point, Joan’s story had become legend, and she was more popular than the King, which alarmed his advisors, and probably Charles too. In the spring of 1430, Joan’s army marched to counter the Burgundy allies of the English as they attacked the city of Compiégne. She won the battle and saved the city, but was was thrown from her horse. She was trapped outside the town’s gates as they closed. The Burgundians took her captive, and brought her to the English commander at Rouen.

Joan was tried to a for more than 70 charges, including witchcraft, heresy and dressing like a man. King Charles betrayed Joan, making no attempt to negotiate Joan’s release. He was afraid that his ascension to power with the aide of a proven witch might lead the public to turn against him. Yes, he was a weenie.

Joan was definitely not a weenie, but a year in captivity  under constant threat of death seemed to break her. She signed a confession denying that she had ever received divine guidance. Then a couple of days later, she symbolically recanted her confession by again donning men’s clothes. This got her condemned to death. On the morning of May 30, at the age of 19, Joan was taken to Rouen and burned alive.

She became a martyr, of course. Twenty years later Charles VII ordered a new trial that cleared her name—dead Joan was a lot easier to manage than Live Joan.  Pope Benedict XV canonized her in 1920, and she is the patron saint of France.

Small wonder “Jeanne d’Arc” inspired songs, books, plays and movies, and continues to today. Among other things, she is a feminist icon, and a beacon for young women who are told that they can aspire to great deeds and accomplishments despite the oppression of male dominated societies.

Shaw, as usual, was not interested in history, and the play is not concerned with leaving audiences with a sense of who Joan “really was.” His drama explores the themes of fanaticism, bravery, the power and isolation of the individual in society, civilization’s search for heroes, the power of faith, the imperfections and fecklessness of mankind, and what Joan means in the context of his time ( “Saint Joan” was written in 1923) and now ours.

There are many reasons a black actress could explore these issues in great depth. It is sometimes valuable to force an audience into thinking about a central character in a new way, and to obliterate past portrayals and assumptions left lingering by other productions. An African American actress certainly accomplishes that. In the end, what is important about Shaw’s Joan is that she was a woman in a man’s world, that she was young, that she was a true believer, that she prevailed under astounding handicaps, and  that she was finally crushed by those in power.

Casting an African American actress as Joan of Arc is a terrific idea, as long as the actress is up to the challenge.  The last, in the end, is how every instance of non-traditional casting should be judged.

21 Comments

Filed under Around the World, Arts & Entertainment, Gender and Sex, Government & Politics, History, Leadership, Race, Religion and Philosophy

21 responses to “Casting Ethics: A Black Joan Of Arc?

  1. Neil Dorr

    WONDERFUL post!

  2. “Charles granted her request. Think about this for a bit. A strange teenage girl, dressed like a boy and claiming to hear voices, meets with the leader of a nation at war and convinces him to put her in charge of an army.

    Amazing.”

    Rule #1 of French strategy: French armies are victorious when not commanded by French *men*…

    • Other Bill

      Why do the French plant trees on the sides of their roads?

      So the German soldiers can march in the shade.

      Cheese eating surrender monkeys. (I actually had the pleasure of hearing a drunk Brit scream that late one night in Provence.)

  3. Other Bill

    I’m not sure why actors of any race or color can’t be cast in most any role. As long as they’re good at their craft. Who cares? They’re not the historical character. They’re actors. If he weren’t so conscientious he could have ended this post at “Sure. Why not?”

    • Abraham Lincoln cannot be black in “Abe Lincoln of Illinois.” You can make Othello white, but it’s stupid and distracting. A black Willy Loman makes that play about race, and it isn’t. As I wrote here earlier, “12 Angry Men” is about an all white jury. Black jurors make the play incomprehensible. “Prgy and Bess” cannot be cast with white actors, of course. “The Great White Hope” doesn’t make sense if Jack Johnson is white. The slaves in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” have to be black, and Simon Legree has to be white.

      I have many, many more examples. It’s not as simple as you make it out to be. Appearances don’t matter as often or as much as some directors think it does, but it sometimes matters a lot.

      • Other Bill

        I guess I was thinking that some day, probably after I’m dead, people will be just people. In kind of a Martin Luther King way. We’ll be even more mixed up genetically than we are now. We’ll all be mongrels. An actor will just be a person who wants to act and is good at it. Look at all the “mixed race” models and actors and actresses in fashion and entertainment. They’re gorgeous. They’re exotic. They’re in demand. And they’re getting rich. It’s just not that far away. Sheesh. Princess Diana’s son is about to marry and breed with a “mixed race” commoner! At some point, we’ll all just be humans and the world will be a better place. Long after I’m gone.

    • Emily

      I agree with Jack, and I think a big part of it is that theater and film is a collaborative effort.

      The writer has a story in mind, which means characters, plot, and the actions that display those things, but it also means tone, theme, subtext, and symbolism. Characters are a part of how the writer displays and integrates those latter things.

      The director and core of the crew has the writer’s story in mind, but also what they took away from it and see in it, especially when it comes to those indefinite things. The cast has all of that to work with, then their own ideas on top of it.

      A great actor probably can bring *something* to any well-written role, it’s true. But what they can bring might not line up with the story the writer or director are trying to tell. Race, age, size, and gender can be (or be part of) powerful symbols, can alter the tone of the work, can add subtext, and can be central to the theme. Sometimes that’s great, it can add a new dimension to the writer’s work or allow the director to find new stories written on top of old ones. But sometimes it can make the story a distracting mess if it’s removing a key aspect or adding a new one at odds with what’s being presented.

      It’s really up to the full combination of writer, director, cast and crew how that works out, so even the best actor in the world can’t play most any part because he’s only one piece of the puzzle.

  4. The most severe case of tinnitus yet recorded:

    “And behold a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

    😉

  5. Wayne

    Tinnitus? I think there could be a different explanation:

  6. John Glass

    Back in the day, I saw a nice production of St. Joan at The Folger Theatre with Gail Grate as the black heroine: http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/events/saint-joan-91-92/ .

  7. If we can be cool with this, then surely the next step is to be cool with a black role being played by a white actor.

    • Pennagain

      As Tonto said, in deep rhetorical tones, to Him-Who-Rides-Up-Front, when told they were going to have to fight their way clear of the pre-Native-American ambush they were in … or die …: “What you mean WE, White Man!”

  8. John Glass

    Well, how about Patrick Stewart as Othello alongside an otherwise all black cast: http://www.shakespearetheatre.org/events/othello-97-98/. That was something to behold!

    • A stunt, don’t you think? It didn’t add anything that I could detect.

      • John Glass

        Not for me as a white man. I’d have to place it as one of the most powerful interpretations of the play I’ve ever seen. It got me to clearly think of an outsider’s status in circumscribed world, a message that Shakespeare conveyed, and his audience understood (then and now), in many of his plays. Then too Mr. Stewart said Othello was always a role he wanted to play. How was he to do it at the time without some concessions in casting? For me, the choice the director made felt right then.

    • JutGory

      Same message, just flips the cards. If othello is a play about race, othello is typically black. Making him white, with a black cast presents the same message, but from the other side. I think the message is the same, but would make the audience think.

      The other thing: we had an othello production and the only non-traditional casting was that Iago’s wife was BLACK. That seemed great. It suddenly stripped Iago’s hatred of Othello of any racial aspect, since race and sex could be inferred from Othello ‘s relationship with a white woman. If nothing else, it forced the audience to think about what was happening.

      That plays in to Jack’s point. Non-traditional casting can be a detriment, in the many cases Jack mentions. It can be neutral. It can be a benefit.

      I saw a production of Julius Caesar (I will stick with Shakespeare for this discussion) where the opposition was made up of women and minorities (Michael Antony or Brutus was either a white woman or a black man (this was decades ago so Caesar’s wife was still a woman)). None of that really mattered because it was not a “Roman” production. No togas; they were dressed, ironically like modern day antifa fascists.

      That is what is great about Shakespeare. You want to play it straight, MacBeth is played by white people with Scottish accents talking to ugly witches; you decide to place the play in the 1940’s (like a production/movie if Richard III did), you can cast as you wish. You have already broken from the strict historical context. Unless the other breaks provide a contextual meaning, they can be ignored.

      Romeo and Juliet could be done no -traditional, all-black, or black-white and it would make sense. Race accentuates the themes, but adds little.

      Many of the comedies gain or lose nothing with non-traditional casting. Cast whom ever in Midsummer nights Dream

      Joan of arc appears in one of the 3 Henry VI plays. Make her black , like in Shaw’s play and her race is a distraction and meaningless.

      Bottom line: non-traditional casting can be good, bad, or neutral. It has to be done thoughtfully, if it is going to have the desired effect.

      -Jut

      • John Glass

        I’m in agreement with your point and Jack’s about thoughtful casting. What makes St. Joan problematic is the play’s historical & religious & ideological context and Shaw’s wordy & tortuous (at times) treatment of the plot. Audiences have to puzzle through all that, along with the casting decision. However, actresses quite rightly recognize Joan, saint or otherwise, as a great role and want to take it on. And having seen it in the 90s, knowing something about the background, it wasn’t a distraction. Today in this an age of unbelief, the ability to suspend disbelief is all but nonexistent to the average theatergoer. I suspect that Sullivan and his backers have something up their sleeves regarding the take on St. Joan that they feel will “resonate” with the public.

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