Casting Ethics: Color-Blind vs Color Conscious in “All My Sons”

Director Gregory Mosher quit the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (scheduled to open in the Spring) when Miller’s estate, run by his daughter Rebecca Miller,  blocked him from casting a black actor  to play George Deever, one of the main characters in the classic.  Miller objected to the director’s choice of making the Deever family black when the play’s other central family, the Kellers, had already been cast as white. If the Deevers were black, it would introduce the concept of an interracial relationship in the 1940s.

“My concern was that to cast the Deevers as black puts a burden on the play to justify the relationship in the historical context,”  Miller said “I was worried that it would whitewash the racism that really was in existence in that period by creating this pretend-Valhalla-special family where no one would mention this.”

Nice attempt to put her position in a politically correct context, I have to admit. The objection really is that the play is a period piece, firmly and unavoidably set in the post-World War II era. It will have period costumes, sets and props, and the audience seeing the story unfold in the proper historical time period is essential to the play’s success. An inter-racial romance shatters that illusion, and unnecessarily so. The play is not about race, so race should not be injected into the plot by reckless casting. Miller had previously approved of a production in which both families were black.

Interestingly, she also was willing to approve the casting of a black actor if his sister were cast as white. You see, then the casting would be “color blind,” meaning that it was just a black actor playing a white character (without white make-up, which would be “white-face,” which would suggest blackface, and—oh, never mind…), and that his family wasn’t really “black.” Got that? Otherwise, it would be “color-conscious” casting, in which the race of the performer necessarily requires a different approach to the material.

My position, as a director and an ethicist, is this (as I have stated here before): the objective is to make any work of stage art work and continue to work as the original playwright originally intended. Race should be no more of an issue in casting that race, age, weight, beauty or height, but no less of an issue either. The two questions are whether a non-traditionally cast performer can do a competent job in the role, and whether the fact that his or her race is different than what  the original production featured or the script suggests will undermine rather than enhance the production.

Casting that sacrifices the stage work itself to make a contemporary political statement, to be “woke,” or to provide employment opportunities to minority performers without genuine and substantial benefits to the production are indefensible.

This can only be determined on a case by case basis. I’d rate this a borderline call. Miller has a valid point that the anachronism of the mixed race neighborhood undermines the authenticity of the play, which is so period specific. I also am inclined to respect a director’s decision that such casting, in order to have an outstanding actor take a role, will have the results he thinks it will, and to let him cast the show as he chooses. True “color blind” casting is impossible in many shows. There is no reason why a great black comic couldn’t play Pseudalus in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” since the musical is a silly farce—except that the character is a Roman slave. I think the juxtaposition of U.S. slavery with the plot would make audiences uncomfortable: I wouldn’t do it. Nor would I cast an African-American or and Asian in the role of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” any more than I would cast a white performer as Porgy, Bess, Crown or Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess.” Those show are about specific races and ethnicities, in very specific period and locales. I would fire a director who insisted on casting a black actor to play the Russian Jewish milk man/philosopher who opposes marriage outside the Jewish  faith.

The ethics  formula for casting should be simple; it’s certainly clear to me. The director’s  duty is to serve the play and the audience, not social justice objectives, not labor issues, not past discrimination, not his or her own ego or virtue-signaling.

If only it was a simple and clear to everyone else….

4 thoughts on “Casting Ethics: Color-Blind vs Color Conscious in “All My Sons”

  1. I wasn’t familiar with play probably because during high school Arthur Miller was still suspect due his involvement with the HUAC and it was not included in the ciriculum. We instead read *Death of a Salesman* which was safer choice. *All My Sons* is dated in the sense few people would know about P-40 Warhawks except for WW2 buffs. The play seems to be more about corruption and it’s effect on families and introducing a black actor needlessly complicates the play with an interracial element.

    • It’s a thoroughly over-rated drama. If Miller hadn’t written The Crucible and “Salesman,” I doubt anyone would revive it, except my theater company, but then, we had a death wish.

      Any drama that resolves with an off-stage gunshot is a bust, in my book.

      • Any drama that resolves with an off-stage gunshot is a bust, in my book.

        Hmmm… depends. was the gun shown onstage before the gunshot?

        My impression is that a gun shown on stage in the first act must be fired by the third. The only ethical way to go about it.

        Kind of like knowing who the bad guy is on CSI: if it is a well known but never before seen (on that show) actor, they did it.

  2. T o me, this all hinges on the old “suspension of disbelief” necessary for a consumer of fiction to accept and (especially in cases like performances) enjoy the story being presented. Anything that jars the viewer out out of that condition is sacrificing the best delivery of that “product” in favor of some other objective…a disservice to the audience.

    I once attended a professional production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, staged in an upscale venue in a major city. The part of Scrooge was played by a black actor. Everything else (set, costumes, language, etc.) was consistent with the English Victorian period. The actor did a good job playing the role, but that inconsistency in presentation marred the ability for a viewer to stay immersed in the presentation. Why not go ahead and cast Yao Ming as Tiny Tim, and Kathy Bates as Bob Cratchit?

    That’s not to say that a play (or movie) can’t be adapted to a different type of presentation and be successfully engrossing. I’ve also enjoyed a “steampunk” version of The Tempest, where Shakespearean dialog was retained, but there was no expectation that anything else about the play follow too closely to the original. The movie version of Richard IIIwith Ian McKellen in a dystopian alternate history is a similar example.

    Keeping the audience engaged should be the prime duty of those offering up
    such things to the public.

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