“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.