I've been hearing through the grapevine and over the networks about last night's AAPAC event to release their new data on diversity in theater casting. I haven't yet found a link to the study, but from what I understand it marked an uptick for Black and Latino actors and pretty much a flat line among Asian actors on New York's major stages. In the 15 years that I have been working in theater the issue of "colorblind casting" has always been present. As a producer I have cast hundreds of plays for my company's 10 minute play series Sticky, and have reached a few conclusions about how I approach the question of race in casting.
I think that we need to divide plays into two types in order to properly examine this question. The first are plays where a racial dynamic is specifically called for, either by the specific reference to race in the script, or a historical setting that demands a specific racial casting in order to present an "accurate" window on the past. The second type of play are those in which the context offers no instruction as to the race of the actors. I will refer to these as Contextually Specific and Contextually Neutral respectively.
Contextually Specific plays, as I stated above fall into two general groups, those in which the scripts refer to race and those in a historical setting. As to the first, there is little question that some plays and their playwrights have every expectation that casts will reflect their preferences. A few Stickies ago, we presented a play by Rehana Mirza, there was no question that this play, focused on a White man and a Latina woman, both American, trying to decide what was best for the play's sole indigenous South Asian character had to be cast with race in mind. Not only was it central to Mirza's point, the play also continued her efforts to create roles for South Asian actors. Mirza was a member of Desipina, a fabulous South Asian theater company whose signature show "7-11" featured some of the best and most successful Asian actors in the city today. As an Artistic Director, when confronted with a play with such scriptual demands for racial specific casting, it is an easy choice to honor the writer's intentions.
Contextual Specificity as it relates to historical setting is a trickier issue. Frankly almost all of the plays I produce are set in the present, so I don't deal with this much. But it got me thinking about the new production of Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" that is upcoming on the great white way. In this production James Earl Jones will play the former president, a character based on Harry Truman, in a play set in the 1960s. My expectation is that this will not be particularly jarring for theater audiences, after all we are used to black presidents now, not just our current commander in chief, but also the president in the original "24" who presaged Obama's election. Generally speaking, I think the historical accuracy argument against colorblind casting, may well be fading away.
It is the second type of play, the Contextually Neutral plays that most effectively point the way forward towards colorblind casting. By a vast majority, the hundreds of submissions we receive for Sticky have neither scriptual nor historical casting implications. It is quite common as we put our casts together that actors of several ethnicities are considered for the same part, and there has never been any discussion about what impact a certain racial combination would create. For these Contextually Neutral plays, I see no reason to consider such factors at all. Whatever impact an actor's race has on the audience's reaction to a play is unknowable, for every patron who takes it into great account, there will be a patron who pays it little mind. And just as our society at large gets more accustomed to people of all races playing all roles in life, so shall it be on stage.
The term colorblind has come under some attack recently, as not only a naive, but potentially racist and dangerous attitude, a notion I will not broadly address here, but I think in the specific context of theater, the right way forward is pretty obvious. If your play is set in the present (or maybe even if it isn't) and it doesn't deal with race directly, just cast the best actor you can.