Oh, I just love this Comment of the Day by Curmie, who was AWOL from the ethics comment wars for far too long, and whose return recently has made my heart soar like a hawk. I love it for many reasons, including, of course, the fact that it is well written and enlightening, far more so than my post that prompted it, which focused narrowly on the double standard of applauding the having a performer of one race portray another, but only when it’s the “right” races involved.
As with my posts about ethics issues in another lifetime passion, baseball, I know that many readers nod off when the framework is theater. But the conceit of Ethics Alarms is that the ethics issues and process of analysis are often universal regardless of where the dilemmas and conflicts pop up. As it happens, baseball and theater happen to be two realms that I know a lot about.
But not as much as Curmie, at least as far as theater is concerned. I had hoped that he would weigh in on the casting of a black actress as Anne Boleyn, and he did.
Here is Curmie’s Comment of the Day on the post, Casting Ethics: “Anne Boleyn” And Discriminatory Double Standards.
Literally two minutes after reading this post, I saw that Katori Hall had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play The Hot Wing King. I don’t know the play—its Off-Broadway run was cut short by COVID, and as far as I can tell it hasn’t been published.
I do, however, recognize her name as the playwright of The Mountaintop, in which the two characters are Martin Luther King, Jr. and an employee of the Memphis hotel in which he is spending what he doesn’t know is his last night on earth. (Spoiler alert: she’s really an angel preparing him for what is to come.) It is a good, borderline great, play: by turns moving, humorous, and incisive. But what comes immediately to mind is the production by a student group at Kent State University, in which a white actor was cast as King. The director, of course, claimed the casting decision wasn’t a gimmick. (Newsflash: it was a gimmick.)
The original idea was to alternate the role between a white and a black actor to be, in the director’s words, “a true exploration of King’s wish that we all be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin.” The black actor had to drop out of the production, and the white one played the role throughout the run.
Anyway, Ms. Hall rightfully objected to the casting decision and said she would not allow future productions with similar casting. MLK was black, and it matters. Anne Boleyn was white, and it matters… perhaps less than in the case of The Mountaintop, but it still matters in that it distracts the viewer’s attention from what the storyline is (or at least should be) about.
I should explain that as a director in university theatre for over 40 years, I have not infrequently cast a black actor in a role that was obviously first played by a white one. I have never done so because of their race, but for many roles the best available actor is the best available actor.
The style of the play is the primary consideration. The director has a lot more leeway in non-realism (or pre-realism). Hence, I have cast a black Macbeth, a black “Husband” opposite a white wife in Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias, etc. I cast a black woman as the Broadway producer in The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, which is set in the year mentioned in the title. Were there a lot of (or any?) black women in such positions at that time? I doubt it. But there weren’t many white female producers, either, and, more importantly, the play is a farce. No one in the audience could possibly think that all those events, all those coincidences, could possibly represent the real world.
Things get more complicated in realism. I should note here that the definition of realism is rather specific in my field. So, just as I have a musicologist friend who cringes every time someone describes Tchaikovsky a “classical” composer, I adopt a specialist’s definition: realism requires only that there is an attempt to create what Mordecai Gorelik called “outer reality”: the language of the play takes the form of conversation (e.g., not in verse), the characters are psychologically motivated (e.g., not allegorical figures), and the events make sense within the fictive world. Thus, for example, the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings series of films are “realistic” in these terms.
In realism, and both The Mountaintop and virtually all film qualify, sometimes race matters and sometimes it doesn’t. There weren’t a lot of black people in early 20th century Russia, but in my production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters I cast a black man as Kulygin. He’s the husband of one of the title characters: a bit of a stretch, to be sure, but sometimes needs must, and we just didn’t have a lot to choose from that semester. But I didn’t consider that actor for Andrei, the brother, as that would have been the proverbial bridge too far. (I hasten to add that the actor in question was very good; my hesitancy in casting him had nothing to do with his skill-set.)
Particularly interesting to me was a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm I saw in London a couple of years ago. There was only one black actor in the central cast (not a lot of black people in late 19th century Norway, either). He was excellent, but he played the hero’s brother-in-law, an ultra-conservative representative of what might be called the old order. Had that actor played the visionary but derelict philosopher, the vindictive journalist, or the romantic central character, it would have worked. But surely a society as sexist as the one his character represents would also have shunned him, at least to the point of not allowing him to be their spokesperson. Or maybe that was the point, and I was just too dim-witted to understand its profundity.
Of course, playing around with historical fact is a well-established trope in film-making. The Cate Blanchett “Elizabeth,” for example, was so historically inaccurate that my basic knowledge (hardly expertise, but probably a better than average understanding) of that period in English history was actually a detriment. I tend to be fine with conjecture—”this could have happened, and it would make a better story”—but I’m not a fan of presenting in historical dramas what could not have happened as if it did. I note the irony of my saying this as someone who learned far too much history from Shakespeare, only to have to re-learn it all.
Ultimately, this casting is a gimmick. But it’s not as if a lot of viewers are going to say to themselves “I didn’t know Anne Boleyn was black.” (Yes, I know, some will, alas.) There’s nothing per se wrong with gimmicks, I’ve used more than a few in my day, some of which even worked. But the argument for casting Ms. Turner-Smith sounds like a rationale I’ve used when there was literally no good option available. I strongly suspect there are hundreds of age-appropriate, talented, white British actresses who’d be very interested in playing that role. Casting a black woman has nothing to do with exploring the character, any more than a white MLK does. It’s about hype. You got it. Move on.
Speaking of age-appropriate: I do need to correct one thing, Jack. Jodie Turner-Smith is 34. Although some historians say Anne never saw her 30th birthday, most argue that she was about 32 when she married Henry, 35 when she was executed. The age is at least arguably right even if the race isn’t.