Casting Beyond Color Lines

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A new Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof will feature an all African-American cast. Ayanna Thompson, editor of Colorblind Shakespeare, and Mia Katigbak, artistic director of the National Asian American Theater Company, discuss the history of non-traditional casting decisions.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan.

Previews begin next week for the latest Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Several previous Broadway productions and a popular film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman had made this story of wealthy but dysfunctional southern family, a familiar cultural icon. But this new production brings an added dimension to the stage - an all-African-American cast.

Casting against color and even gender is not new to theater or to film, but each time nontraditional of colorblind casting is used in the production in a well-known play it takes a question about how important race and gender are in understanding and interpreting characters. Does it matter at all or does is fundamentally change the way we view a play?

Later, Hollywood writers tell us how they would script their favorite shows now dormant due to the writers' strike. But first, do you think race or gender matter in casting decisions? Did nontraditional casting ever change the way you interpreted a play or a film? Have you ever played a character of a different race?

Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. And our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

We're joined now by Ayanna Thompson who is the editor of the book "Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance." Welcome to the program.

Ms. AYANNA THOMPSON (Editor, "Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance"): Well, it's such a pleasure to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: Ayanna, nontraditional and colorblind casting are not really the same thing. Maybe you can explain what's the difference.

Ms. THOMPSON: Sure. Nontraditional casting is a kind of umbrella term for different types of casting. Colorblind casting is probably the most familiar to everyone in that you're not supposed to notice the race of the actor or the character, and are just supposed to be blind to it on stage. But there are other types of nontraditional casting such as societal casting and conceptual casting or even cross-cultural casting.

And so my understanding of the Broadway production, the all-black cast of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is probably a cross-cultural casting in that the entire setting of the play is transposed to a different location with people of a different race. So you're not supposed to notice the race in the play.

NEARY: Well, again, I was going to ask you. I mean, you were saying you're not supposed to notice the race. Is that really possible and doesn't it frequently, at least, really change the way you would look at a play or think about a play when you see somebody of a different race or not?

Ms. THOMPSON: Absolutely. I mean, I think race in America is still very important as we can tell from, you know, the recent political events. So I'm not convinced that we're ever blind to race. But there are productions that want the cast and want the audience to be blind to race. And I think there are interesting debates about whether or not that is ever possible.

But clearly from Joseph Papp who started the New York Shakespeare Festival in New York in the 1950s, his vision was initially that you should not notice race at all, and that, you know, this was going to be the transformative event for people then to not notice race in the rest of their lives.

NEARY: Can you give an example - a sort of concrete example of that maybe from the Joseph Papp days.

Ms. THOMPSON: Oh certainly. There were many productions in the '50s, '60s, '70s all the way up into the present-day moment. But one of them would be the "King Lear" that starred James Earl Jones - I think it was in the '50s - as King Lear. And so his race wasn't supposed to impact the production. Though I think it is - it's a valid question about whether or not the audiences who saw that production then thought about King Lear differently. And, of course, we know that the way we see race and gender on stage changes overtime.

I'm a Shakespearean, so my knowledge of the Renaissance has shown that, you know, all the female parts were played by young boy actors and any black characters that were in the Renaissance were played by white actors in black face. And, you know, obviously those changed - those kind of casting decisions changed with time. And so it's clear that people - the way they see things changes overtime as well.

NEARY: So ideally, what would casting against color or gender even - what does it bring to a play or a film? I mean…

Ms. THOMPSON: Well, it depends on the production and it also depends on the medium employed. I think that film and television operate in vastly different ways than theater. Theater seems to be slightly less mimetic or, you know, there's slightly less direct correlation between what you're seeing in reality, whereas, I think, audiences expects TV and film to be more kind of reality based in some way. So you're not going to see a lot of television shows or films that have, you know, two black parents and white child…

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. THOMPSON: …and not question what that means. But you couldn't see that on - in many, many theater productions.

NEARY: Yeah. Talking about television for a moment. I did a piece on diversity on television not too long ago. And one of the things - I talked with the creators of "Lost," and one of the things I remember them saying to me was that, you know, when they creating this program about an airplane that crashes, it was an international flight, which offered them the opportunity to have lots of different kinds of people. But that when they went into the casting, they really didn't have specific ideas about what the racial identity of the different characters would be. It really left them open in the auditions to cast people that they just thought were good.

Ms. THOMPSON: Right. And I think that is one of the things that we should encourage new productions to do, right? If you have a new play, why have everything scripted so tightly based on two particular race. But if you're trying to remount productions - whether it'd be Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams or other classics, then, you know, there is a theater history and a performance history that is going to influence the way casting directors, directors, producers and audiences think and receive what is possible and what is probable. Whereas with a new production, you can really explore it open…

NEARY: Right.

Ms. THOMPSON: …and create new opportunities.

NEARY: All right. And did this, to some degree, start as a way to create opportunities for actors, nonwhite actors, for - is that part of what started the whole idea of nontraditional casting?

Ms. THOMPSON: Absolutely. It was a way both to desegregate the theaters because, as you know, they were segregated well into the 1950s, and also as a way to create jobs for actors of color. And although there is much more equity, it's not, you know, it has not been achieved, but you know, equity is getting closer to the image you have now. But there are still problems that exist and I think many of the problems that exist around nontraditional casting are the lack of conversations held in theaters or in movie houses about how audiences see and how they receive race in that production.

And so it's great to have a show like this or a symposium that I recently went to at Rhodes College that open up venues for people to talk about what their comfortable with and what they're uncomfortable with and why.

NEARY: Oh I'd like to get in that with you. But I'd like to get some callers in on this discussion as well. We're talking about nontraditional casting. If you'd like to join the discussion, the number is 800-989-8255.

And we're going to go to Gus(ph), and Gus is calling from Nashua, Tennessee.

Hi, Gus.

GUS (Caller): Hi, there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

GUS: Yeah. I'm (unintelligible) with the concept. I'm a high school theater teacher in an independent school in Nashville. And I have found it to be really interesting and wonderfully rewarding to change the gender or race of a character. And what the problems it creates in scripts within conflicts with sort of the general dynamic of the piece itself.

Ms. THOMPSON: Right. And I think that that's absolutely the case. In the book that I edited, "Colorblind Shakespeare," there are a bunch of actors that I've worked with who talk about how it's very different in school productions than it is in professional productions. In school productions, it's really important for everyone to feel as if any part is open to them. And so you're kind of training young minds to see the text differently and to receive the text differently.

But the choices become much more limited once you enter into the professional realm. So that encourage…

GUS: Oh, I…

Ms. THOMPSON: I encourage you, though, in your school productions to keep it as fluid as possible.

NEARY: All right. Thanks…

GUS: (Unintelligible).

NEARY: Thanks for your - thanks so much for your call, Gus.

GUS: Mm-hmm.

NEARY: I'd like to bring another guest in now. Mia Katigbak is the artistic director of the National Asian American Theater Company. And she joins us from the NPR New York bureau. Good to have you with us, Mia.

Ms. MIA KATIGBAK (Artistic Director, National Asian American Theater Company): Thank you.

NEARY: Now, you recently cast William Finn's "Falsettoland," that's a play about a Jewish family preparing for their son's bar mitzvah, and you cast it with an all - a cast of Asian American actors.

Ms. KATIGBAK: Yes.

NEARY: So tell us a little bit about that, why you did that and how that changed - shook things up a bit, I would think?

Ms. KATIGBAK: That's pretty much the philosophy of NAATCO, National Asian American Theater Company, which - harking back to what Ayanna was saying why nontraditional casting came about in some realms was a kind of frustration for Asian American actors, in this case not to have the same sort of acting opportunities. And so that was always the basis of the work that we did. And with a difference in terms of we don't really set the culture necessarily to an Asian culture.

So that when we asked Mr. Finn if we could do "Falsettoland," he was very open to it, but was curious about what it would with an all-Asian-American cast. And we presented it as a sort of a benefit. And what was interesting to me was it became not a question of why are people who are New York Jews being represented by people that don't look like what we expect for this culture to look like. But what happened was an appreciation of the talent and the ability of this cast to represent that culture without there being too much of a dysfunction or a disconnect. So that was interesting to me.

NEARY: So is this what you would call colorblind production?

Ms. KATIGBAK: No, I don't think so. Because I have a hard time with that concept because I don't think I could ever be blind to the color of the performers on the stage. But in answer to your other question which is how does it make you see the work differently perhaps. For me, it goes one step further which is, how might it make you see the world differently.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KATIGBAK: Because if this, you know, non-usual way of seeing this particular characters of a specific cultural background can be brought to you by a different face then could we open our eyes to those sort of differences when you're walking on the street, when you're dealing with other colleagues, and, you know, make you question maybe your expectations of them.

NEARY: All right. We're going to continue this discussion after a short break. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

A bit later on the show, we'll be talking to some Hollywood writers about how they would script the finale to their favorite shows now on hold due to the writers' strike. And we have an e-mail challenge for you to do the same thing. E-mail us talk@npr.org.

Right now, we're talking about casting characters in plays and movies and role that of ethnicity. Does the color of the actor matter? Does it add value to the production when the players don't look like what the audience expects?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Still with us, Ayanna Thompson, she's the editor of "Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance," and Mia Katigbak, artistic director of the National Asian American Theater Company.

Mia, I wanted to ask you. Before the break we were talking about his production of "Falsettoland," a play by the Jewish family which you cast with Asian American actors. We were talking about that. And I wanted to ask you, what was the reaction in the audience to that production?

Ms. KATIGBAK: I think I can proudly say kind of delight, which was very important. And I guess qualified surprise delight, too, which is a very wonderful thing. I think it was one of our most successful commercial venture. You know, I thought about it and just realized that it was such a cross connections among very important groups in New York - certainly Jewish, Asian American and gay. All those cultures were up there on stage, kind of, in happy concert. And it was just - it was a very enlightening experience, I think, for me, the actors and the audiences as well.

NEARY: Yeah. And just one other question about that specific production is I think you said early on - I just wanted to clarify this on my own mind, that you didn't try to bring an Asian-ness to this production. I don't know if you put that way. But, you know, that it wasn't like imposing some kind of Asian sensibility on a play by Jewish people. But at the same time, did something different come out of the play because everybody was Asian?

Ms. KATIGBAK: I'm not sure. We all kind of used to joke that we must all be Jewish because…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KATIGBAK: …a lot of the values and the qualities were so identifiable, which is another point of what it is that NAATCO does. Because what you'll discover are more of that commonality - common ground that we share without having to erase the difference. Because I think the difference is very important, because we can't be homogenous. And what was enlightening was that it wasn't, you know - it's not as if I don't think the actors had to research what it was like to be Jewish.

You're feeding from the text, from the music, and all the information that was required of them was right there. In terms of Asian-ness, I guess all of us whenever we do any of these roles, are tapping into deep-seated cultural information that is true of any actor. A designer friend of mine said, well, at first she was reluctant to - she designed the original production of "Falsettoland" in '87 - she said, oh, well, I don't know whether Asians can do this. And she thought about it and said, well, what makes us think that Americans can do Czechov(ph), it's sort of the same cultural divide perhaps. You know, why Americans doing Russian.

So I - it's interesting that all those questions are there.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Mark(ph). And Mark is calling from Salt Lake City, Utah. Hi, Mark.

MARK (Caller): Hi, there. I've seen many plays - especially Shakespeare - where black characters are in turn (unintelligible), but lends itself to it because a play in a theater is a more abstract setting. And Shakespeare, especially, is good at that. Whereas, whenever I see movies that are trying to be more realistic especially in the historical sense, like historical dramas, I'm really bugged when they try to impose a modern sensibility about gender or race on it.

And I'm thinking of recently - and I can't the name of it - with Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd where he's playing the character of the famous composer, and his going through his whole life and the musicals he produced in the early 20th century…

NEARY: Cole Porter.

MARK: Yeah, Cole Porter. And in some of the productions they were doing, they were black and white characters dancing on stage, and men kissing men. And so I thought it was, you know, they're just so patently false and yet it was trying to be some kind of historical drama of his life, and their imposing these modern sensibilities and viewpoints on it. And that's what bothered me as this kind of like rewriting of history.

NEARY: Hmm.

MARK: So I guess, you know, when we're doing the abstract dramas, yeah - twisting gender and race can be really provocative and interesting, a way seeing something in a new light. But I'm bothered when we take modern sensibilities and impose them on history.

NEARY: Interesting comment. Thanks for your call, Mark. Ayanna, I wonder - Ayanna Thompson, I wonder if you can respond to that.

Ms. THOMPSON: Right. I mean, I think it's important to acknowledge the moments when audience members feel uncomfortable about the way something is cast. And it's important to have conversations about why that jarred you out of that suspension of disbelief that you're supposed to have when you're watching a film or a television or a theatrical production.

On the other hand, you do want to think about the fact that I don't know that any of us really want to have - an all-white film that does not cast any actors of color or does not cast - it does not, you know, open up the doors to more opportunities. And so there's this tension that exist. And I think it's precisely this tension that we want to gloss over as a society. Especially when you hear people talking about it existing in a post-race world right now.

And I always think it's funny that people use that term whenever they're referring to people of color. I've never heard a white person referred to as existing as a post-racial person. So, you know, I think that that's precisely the tension that we need to have more conversations about.

NEARY: Yeah. Mia, just - to follow up on that. You know, what is owed, for instance, to a playwright who may have had a very specific image in mind that when he or she wrote that play, you know, what is owed to history?

Ms. KATIGBAK: Well, I guess the location of those different examples is very interesting. Because the classics have always been a very, very good venue for nontraditional casting because they have this proven ability to represent - they've been around for so long and they've persist, and that's why they're classics because they continue to illuminate us in terms of human nature, across cultural lines globally.

And so in a sense, I think, were freer to represent those multiculturally. But in the instance of Cole Porter's life, what that tension - and I agree with Ayanna that the tension is very, very important - you know, the reception of that not being true to history is very interesting for me because that informs us about how history is viewed. I didn't think that any of those things were not historically accurate in terms of Cole Porter's time. So the reception that they are is an interesting one. And one, certainly, that deserves to be examined.

NEARY: All right, Mia. Thanks…

Ms. KATIGBAK: I could - I'm sorry. I couldn't agree more just that perception of history is quite interesting as well.

NEARY: All right. And Mia, I wanted to thank you so much for joining us this afternoon.

Ms. KATIGBAK: And thank you for having me.

NEARY: Mia Katigbak is the artistic director for the National Asian American Theater Company, and she joined us from our bureau in New York City.

And joining us now is Thom Sesma. He's an Asian American actor who often plays roles that are normally played by white men. And he joins us from our studios in New York as well. Thanks for being with us, Thom.

Mr. THOM SESMA (Actor): Thank you, Lynn. It's a pleasure to be here.

NEARY: Maybe if you could tell us, first of all, a couple of the roles that you've played. Give us a couple of examples of roles you've played.

Mr. SESMA: Well, I like to say that I play the big Asian roles. I've played the engineer in "Miss Saigon" on Broadway and on tour, and the king in the "The King and I." I've also played Sweeney Todd and Thomas Andrews in "Titanic." I've done any number of Shakespeares here in the city. Three years ago, I think - three years I did a production with the National Asian American Theater Company…

NEARY: Uh-huh.

Mr. SESMA: …of "Ivanov."

Ms. THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.

NEARY: Oh, that's good.

Mr. SESMA: Which was just a delight.

NEARY: And listen, when you are playing a role like, say, Sweeney Todd, for example, usually played a non-Asian actor, do you approach it differently from when you're playing a role that is a traditionally an Asian role?

Mr. SESMA: Gosh. I hope not. I don't think I do. You know, roles of that magnitude are difficult enough that you really don't want to think about anything else other than what's on the page and how to make that come to life. And yet, I am who I am, so I bring my whole history to my work with me hopefully in any situation, whether you're doing Sweeney or whether you're doing Julius Caesar and you have a director that's bright enough to say, oh, you bringing in something that doesn't quite work here. You know, something a little too personal maybe.

NEARY: Hmm. Was there a time or was there a role where you think your own ethnicity sort of forced an audience to see a play in a new way?

Mr. SESMA: Yeah, that's sort of interesting because this last year, I've had the opportunity to play this Irish patriarch…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SESMA: …in one very interesting musical called the "Molly McGuire." So that's the sort of Irish homegrown - Irish American homegrown pseudo terrorist organization in the Pennsylvania coal fields. And just this week, I was workshopping(ph) a new play where I played a working-class Irish guy and - in Canton, Ohio. And maybe it's my age or something - he's just getting older. I started to think about how do I make this work? How do I make this work? I don't look Irish, I don't feel Irish. But the funny thing is it wasn't a question of feeling more Asian or feeling more ethnic, it was just a question of how I…

NEARY: Finding what that world was about somehow.

Mr. SESMA: Yeah. Right.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. SESMA: You know I think it's just how an actor grows and changes overtime. You know, how I do find myself - how do I find my way onto the page and how do I take myself off the page and onto the stage as it were.

NEARY: All right. Let's go to a caller now. James(ph) in Des Moines, Iowa. Hi, James.

JAMES (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

JAMES: I just wanted to say that I was in London a couple of years ago and I was privileged to be at the Globe Theater. And I saw a production of "Much Ado About Nothing" that was entirely cast with females in the role. And I thought it was a very interesting reversal to go from - in Shakespeare's time when there were no females allowed on stage to a play of his where the entire cast was female. And that's all I wanted to contribute. And I'll take my answer off the air.

NEARY: Can I ask you one question, though?

JAMES: Oh, sure.

NEARY: As you were watching the play, as it went along, did you lose your awareness of the fact that every - all of the actors were female or were you always aware of the fact that they were?

JAMES: Oh, I very much lost that awareness. I think when I was buying tickets and getting ready to go, I was a little bit worried about how it would look. But once, you know, once the first word that came out of the prologue and it was all just, you know, just a play, just going on as normal.

I think looking back on it. The only thing that I could take away was kind of - it is a bit of stretch, but a little bit of many lesbian overtones, you know. There's a different way of thinking about the play than normal.

NEARY: Mm-hmm. Interesting. Thanks so much for your call. It's very interesting.

JAMES: No problem. Thank you.

NEARY: And let me just remind our listeners that my guests are Ayanna Thompson, editor of "Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance," and Thom Sesma, he is an actor who has been cast in roles - he's an Asian actor, Asian American actor, often cast on roles that have been by white men. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Ayanna, I just wanted to ask you to respond to that - as a Shakespearean expert or scholar to that casting, an interesting casting of Shakespeare.

Ms. THOMPSON: Yeah. And I think in some ways British and American audiences are more comfortable and more used to the idea of cross-gender casting than they are to cross-racial casting. I've worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England and several of the black actors who have worked with them have talked about being heckled when they've been in productions. And so, I think, that it's interesting to think about the fact that they are cross-gender cast productions that are kind of received easily and then, you know, cross-racial ones meet with a little bit more resistance from time to time.

NEARY: Let me read this e-mail that just came in from Allison(ph) from Indiana. She writes, I see the appeal of casting choices in conflict with what the audience expects. But I think that only works with characters who are meant to be archetypal like Shakespeare. Plays that are meant to play off, satirize or explore nuances of a particular race, ethnicity or group, lose something when casting is undertaken to specifically defy the expectations of portrayal.

Now, what do you think of that, Thom Sesma?

Mr. SESMA: Well, I think that second guesses the motivation of the creative team, of the vision of the director or the writer, the producer. You know, I think that the clearest example of colorblind casting that worked for me was Audra McDonald in the revival of "Carousel," that Nicholas Hytner directed, about 15 years ago.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SESMA: This phenomenally gifted, extraordinary African-American actress who is more actress than African-American - I hope that's not a terrible thing to say - but, you know, her performance transcended any kind of type at all. And you very rarely hear people talk about that when she walks on stage. It's - and I don't think that Nicholas Hytner would have casted - I don't think he cast her simply because she was African-American, simply because he wanted to skew, you know, the perspective on the play by the audience or by critics or by anyone else.

I think he just saw this extraordinary person walk on stage and said, she's it, that's Carrie Pepperidge.

NEARY: Ayanna, I wonder if there is a play that you've thought about, a casting that you would really love to see if you've imagined a production.

Ms. THOMPSON: Right. Well, first I just want to respond for a second to the, you know, that you had because I think it's important to challenge the notion that Shakespeare's characters are archetypal or are not bound to a specific culture because, obviously, they are quintessentially British and, you know, 17th-century British at that. So I mean, I think it's important for us to challenge that notion.

But I have thought about - because I was recently at the symposium at Rhodes College that was called "Shakespeare in Color: A Symposium on Macbeth in African-American Performances and Appropriations." I spent a lot of time thinking about Macbeth and casting options. And because of the 1936 Orson Wells so-called voodoo Macbeth, they're been tons of productions that have been all black cast of Macbeth. And while I think they'll all interesting in different ways, I wondered why that was - why that play has taken on - has kind of taken off as this kind of cross-cultural production.

And when I was thinking about the paper I gave at that symposium, I challenged the audience to think about what would happen if there were a black actor cast as Macbeth and the rest of the play were filled with white actors. Because I think that that might shed a different kind of light on the desire, inhibition and the inability to be fulfilled with, you know, either in the face of success and failure that occurs from Macbeth.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today for this discussion. It was really interesting.

Ms. THOMPSON: Thank you.

NEARY: Ayanna Thompson is editor of "Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance." We were also joined by actor Thom Sesma.

And next on the program, picking up your favorite shows where the writers' strike left off. Send us an e-mail at talk@npr.org.

It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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