Casting Ethics And The Great Stupid: So William F. Buckley Was Black…I Did Not Know That!

Buckley Vidal play

“The Best of Enemies” is a stage adaptation of the film about the 1968 TV face-offs between arch-conservative pundit William F. Buckley and acerbic liberal author and wit Gore Vidal that climaxed with Buckley threatening to punch Vidal is the face. I haven’t seen it (which is now playing in London’s West End) or the film: I was lucky enough to see the original, live. Buckley was fascinating (and often hilarious); Vidal was the perfect iconoclast (I even had a correspondence with him briefly!), so I assume both play and film are at least entertaining. That’s not the issue at hand, however.

The issue is casting ethics. My position as a director and also from the ethics perspective is that a production’s obligations are to the audience and the work being presented, and everything else is subordinate at best. That does not mean that I am opposed to so-called “non-traditional casting;” indeed, I support it (and have done a lot of it as a director) when it benefits the play or musical. When funky casting accomplishes nothing but making activists happy or ticking off woke boxes at the expense of the show’s effectiveness, that’s unethical, plain and simple.

Since The Great Stupid, largely fueled by an over-reaction to a single non-racial incident in Minneapolis, grabbed the culture by the throat, rationalizing casting BIPOC actors (I use that precious woke acronym to irritate myself) over white actors purely on the basis of race has become standard practice in the arts. (I honestly was startled when a recent TV movie had no bi-racial couples in it. “How unusual!” I thought, and then recalled that I know a lot of couples in the D.C. area and none of them are bi-racial.) Most of the time it doesn’t matter; professional actors are usually at least competent, and most productions lose nothing by casting a black actor or actress in a role that would have automatically been filled by a white performer 20 years ago. When non-traditional casting becomes misguided–okay, wrong—is when it calls attention to itself for no good artistic reason, distracts the audience, and actively undermines the play. I would only cast a black Tevya in “Fiddler on the Roof” if no competent white candidates were available, a situation that never could happen in Hollywood or Broadway. (Community theater is a different story, which is why I once cast a musical about Noel Coward with an all-female cast.)

This brings me to “The Best of Enemies,” which has distinguished British actor David Harewood in the role of Buckley, while credible Vidal look-alike Charles Edwards is his foil. There is no conceivable justification for casting a black actor to play William F.Buckley, whose tics, mannerisms and appearance were well known and satirized—political impressionist David Frye contorted his face into a hilarious mask of a crazed Buckley and added a flecking tongue, like a lizard. Making Buckley black simply robs the production of the possibility of a suspension of disbelief; it’s raw virtue -signaling at the audience’s, the play’s and Buckley’s expense. Harewood is always terrific, but London is hardly lacking for terrific actors who could be credible William F. Buckleys.

Naturally, critics of the play have demonstrated that they don’t have the guts or integrity to call out the casting for what it is and does. New York Times reviewer Matt Wolf doesn’t even mention that the play’s Buckley is black until the 9th paragraph, where the critic manufactures justifications where there are none, writing

Buckley…[c]asually disdainful and airily patronizing…is given tremendous gravitas by Harewood, a Black British actor cunningly cast against expectation as a white establishment figure who was taken to task for bigotry more than once. Speaking in a lower register than Buckley, Harewood requires that we listen afresh to Buckley, as we do to Vidal.

So Harewood doesn’t sound like Buckley and can’t possibly suggest Buckley visually, but the casting is “cunning.” How could it be cunning? Would it be cunning to cast Denzel Washington as Abe in “Lincoln”? I guess Wolf would applaud casting Bill Maher as the star of “The Richard Prior Story.”

At least the British reviewer from The Guardian didn’t insult his readers’ intelligence. He wrote,

Buckley, who can be seen as the epitome of a privileged white right-winger, is portrayed by the black British actor David Harewood. He exactly captures every aspect – drawl, lolling posture, facial tics – of the Republican’s awkward broadcasting persona, except for one element in the room….As a means of equalising opportunity for actors, there is no reasonable argument against racially fluid casting. But in plays that aim elsewhere for photo-realism – the show’s Andy Warhol, Aretha Franklin and Bobby Kennedy reliably match the archives – audiences are asked to make an adjustment in how they visually read a production. When Buckley and the novelist James Baldwin are on stage together, white racism and African-American pride are simultaneously being represented by actors of colour.

At least he’s honest, though the reasonable argument against “racially fluid casting” is exactly what he wrote: sometimes it is a distraction that hurts the play, like in this case. Then like his NYT counterpart, the critic feels it necessary to babble an imaginary artistic justification where there is none:

Apart from Harewood’s electrifying stage presence, a justification for this pictorial revisionism is that Buckley did experience a form of prejudice and institutional isolation; in a Republican party of entitled white Protestants, he was Roman Catholic.

I guess we can look forward to Idris Elba portraying Pope Pius XII next.

I can’t wait.

17 thoughts on “Casting Ethics And The Great Stupid: So William F. Buckley Was Black…I Did Not Know That!

  1. I judge a man by the content of his character not the color of his skin. This play should help us all become color blind. I would like to see this play just to see if the black actor does a good job of portraying Buckley.

  2. The casting choice in the face of casting the rest of the show photo perfect seems hairbrained to me. Otherwise, if the man can play the part, I say let him play it. I’m pretty fed up up with all the rules and considerations which have glommed onto nearly every aspect of the theatre. Shoot, I remember the days when the only real contention was the struggle between “we’re making art and changing the world and “how much money did we make?” Oh, for those simpler times again.

  3. Two thoughts come immediately to mind.
    1. On my last trip to London (pre-plague, obviously), I saw Giles Terera in a revival of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Like Harewood, he is an excellent black British actor. But he was cast in the only male role in the play it made no sense for him to play. I’m sure that there was great profundity in the choice, which I was too dim-witted to understand. Yeah, that’s it.
    2. I just happened upon the sage observation of Frank Zappa: “It’s not getting any smarter out there.” More true today than in 1979, alas.

  4. As you said, I think non-traditional casting needs to be intentional. There is something to be said for what the WaPo critic said, “Speaking in a lower register than Buckley, Harewood requires that we listen afresh to Buckley, as we do to Vidal.” I remember after the 2016 election, a theater company restaged the Trump/Clinton debates, except casting a man as Clinton and a woman as Trump. Apparently the audience on the identity obsessed left felt that it was eye opening — that male-Hillary seemed smug and condescending, while female-Trump came across as a feisty underdog — and some of them felt like they understood what it was the right saw that made them embrace Trump. Using theater to recontextualize a public figure or historic situation seems to me to be the best reason for this kind of gimmick, so long as the director thinks the new perspective will reveal something of interest. However, in the case of Buckley here, the rest of the casting suggest that wasn’t their aim, that this was just a grab for some woke brownie points, along with probably the chance to cast an actor who might be familiar to theater goers.

    • Indeed, any time a non-traditional casting shatters images of a familiar character it opens some new doors of perception, but it still has to be worth the cost. One of ethe most famous and successful example was when a West End production of Miller’s “After the Fall” cast a black actress is the role based on Marilyn Monroe. It forced audiences to stop think about the Monroe they thought they knew during the play and really focus on the character, which is not Monroe. Most critics thought the drama was better without the ghost of MM hanging over it.

    • Jessup is fictional, and I don’t think is specifically described as any race. Plus, now that we all saw Samuel L. Jackson as a USMC colonel on trial in Rules of Engagement, that would be old hat.

  5. Why not use Wardrobe, Hair& make up to make him look more like Buckley?

    That’s what is done in theatre.

    This was pure lame political stupidity at play it seems. If not, the program should explain why they let the audience have to figure that out.

    If they were really trying to make a point why not put the actor in a dress?

    Makes no logical sense. But the theater people are sorta weird. 😋

    I’d LOVE to know the actors reasons if I cared more.

    I just saw the new Gucci Film and no leading part was played by a POC and they knowingly won’t get certain waters for that. I appreciated the integrity of wanting to portray an Italian family as… Italian.

  6. I agree with your assessment, but some Utopian part of me wants to argue, to say, “But what if we really did treat skin color as inconsequential? What if it were no more significant than an actor’s hair color, or whether they were left-handed?” In this case, the fact that the actor is well-respected and capable has been overshadowed by the counterproductive (but “Woke”!) artistic choices we have seen in a dozen other productions.

    Is the play’s purpose to present the historical moment between those two men, or is it meant to convey the battle of ideas as these two influential intellectuals presented their views? If the play is meant to emphasize the latter, then it would be a mistake for the actors to be presented as knockoffs of the original Buckley and Vidal. Their resemblance to the originals and any visual quirks they presented would actually distract from the play’s ideas. Casting a Black man as Buckley could also actually help defend his ideas from the knee-jerk liberal ad hominem cry “but he’s a raaaaacist!”.

  7. One wonders why there hasn’t been too much of a backlash against Spaniard Javier Bardem playing Cuban Desi Arnaz in the movie “Being the Ricardos” (which I saw last Saturday, thought was a little busy, but otherwise an interesting way to tell the story). In fact, there’s an entire scene in the movie in which Lucy educates the suits at CBS about the fact that her husband isn’t Spanish, but Cuban. I suppose, though, that if “consulting producers” Lucie Arnaz and Desi, Jr, don’t mind a Spaniard playing their father, no one else should.

    Incidentally, my husband saw the new “West Side Story” last night and really liked it. I preferred to stay home and watch “Jeopardy!”. Your mileage may vary.

      • And you are correct. He not only doesn’t look like Arnaz, he doesn’t talk like him, sing like him, walk like him…

        By contrast, I almost forgot it was Nicole Kidman behind that Lucy facade. She didn’t quite do as well at burying herself in the part as Renee Zellweger did in “Judy”, but I bought it.

Leave a Reply to Emily Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.