When Should Race Influence Choice of Actors?

30 June, 2017

When the musical "Miss Saigon" first opened in New York City in 1991, critics questioned the choice of Jonathan Pryce to play a French-Vietnamese engineer.

"Miss Saigon" is a love story between a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier.

Pryce, a white actor, was from Britain, not Asia.

Performers in Olney Theater Center's Production of Performers in Olney Theater Center's Production of "Proof," from left to right, Biko Eisen-Martin, Aakhu TuahNera and Dawn Ursula. (Photo by Stan Barouh for Olney Theater Center)

A labor union representing actors criticized the decision.

"Equity (the actors' union) believes the casting of Mr. Pryce as a Eurasian to be especially insensitive and an affront to the Asian community," the union said in a protest letter.

Twenty-six years later, "Miss Saigon" is back on New York's Broadway. This time an Asian actor is playing the engineer.

Linda Winer reported on the show for the New York newspaper Newsday. She noted that while the music is much like it was in 1991 and the show still has a helicopter seeming to lift people away at the end of the Vietnam War, there are differences.

"Most obviously, many of the main roles and, especially the engineer..." are now cast "with powerhouse Asian-Americans," she wrote.

Parts played by white actors wearing makeup

For years, Asian and black characters were often played by white actors. Those actors wore makeup to make them look less white. One example is the decision to cast Katharine Hepburn as a Chinese women in the 1944 war movie, "Dragon Seed."

More recently, theater critics questioned the casting of a white actor as Michael Jackson, and a Hispanic actress as singer Nina Simone, an African American.

Today, more shows like "Miss Saigon" are casting actors who have the ethnic and racial backgrounds of the characters they represent. But some directors are choosing diverse actors for parts that, in the past, went to white actors.

As New York director Jackson Gay says, there are parts that really are not clearly connected to a racial or ethnic group.

Gay recently cast African-Americans as Russian soldiers in a production of the 1900 play "Three Sisters." The play was written by Anton Chekov more than a century ago. It was performed recently at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C.

Russian soldiers in the late 1800s and early 1900s were generally not black. But Gay said the emotions and pressures felt by soldiers are universal -- meaning that gifted actors of any race could play the roles.

An all black production of ‘Proof'

Dawn Ursula starred in a recent production of "Proof" at the Olney Theater in Maryland. The play had all white stars when it opened on Broadway in 2000. Later, it was made into a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins.

But at the Olney Theater, Ursula and the other three actors are all African-American. Ursula played the part of Catherine, a woman who is good at mathematics like her father. But she is afraid she also might have some of his mental problems.

Did the African-American cast make a difference? Ursula said it did to some theater goers.

There are lots of African American mathematicians. But that did not stop theater goers from reacting approvingly to the casting of blacks as math geniuses. Ursula recalls her satisfaction watching some older African-American men stand and cheer after her performance – happy that "Proof" showed four successful people – all of them African-Americans.

That kind of reaction made Ursula feel "like I had crossed the finish line in some Olympic sport that ‘black' people may not normally be associated with and had won the Gold."

Some white audience members told her that an all African-American cast did not make a difference to them. They just enjoyed watching excellent acting.

Ursula is thankful for their praise, but hopes the day will come "when those pronouncements are not necessary."

Taunya Lovell Banks is a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Law. She often writes about ethnic and racial diversity in theater. She said casting decisions can be a difficult balance.

Normally, Banks supports open casting. Casting an African American, for example, in a part usually performed by a white actor can bring new meaning – even to an established show.

That happened in "Proof," when Ursula's character discusses a conflict she had with police officers.

Washington Post theater critic Celia Wren said the discussion produces more tension with an African American cast "in the aftermath of the police-related incidents that have fueled the Black Lives Matter movement."

But Banks said that casting at times can still be a divisive issue.

Recently, the estate of playwright Edward Albee refused to approve a Portland, Oregon production of his famous play, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf." The reason: the director wanted to cast an African-American actor in the part of Nick, a young professor.

Director Michael Streeter went on Facebook to express his anger with the decision.

Sam Rudy, spokesman for the Albee estate, said the playwright had created Nick as a character with "blond hair and blue eyes."

Rudy said the casting proposed by the Portland director would have led to a mixed marriage between a black man and white woman. He said "that would have not gone" unnoticed at the time the show is set -- in the early 1960s.

Other parts in Albee plays carry no limitations on the race of the actors, Rudy said.

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

cast v. give someone a part in a show or movie

affront – n. an insult

role n. the part that an actor has in a movie or play

character n. a person in a story or play

diverse adj. including people of different races and ethnic groups

audiencen. people attending the performance of a show

genius - n. a very intelligent person

associate – v. connected to something or someone

pronouncement n. a message

estate – n. the things left by someone who has died