The Slippery Slope of Non-Traditional Casting

I read an article recently where Trevor Nunn, a celebrated British theatre director, defended his choice of doing Shakespeare without a multicultural cast. And, in a related story, Anthony Horowitz, who writes James Bond novels, suggested that Idris Elba is "not suave" enough and "too street" to play Bond on film, flying in the face of fans who have been, reportedly, eager to see the actor tackle the role. Horowitz has since apologized.

As a Black actor and writer, I'm here to say that non-traditional casting is not a simple issue.

The actor in me sees all casting through the lens of employment. I want actors of all colors to have an excellent chance at making a living. That requires that there be ample jobs (roles) in film and television and theatre. I also want to see those mediums reflect the life that I live -- inherently multicultural. That's the way my world has always been, though the entertainment I watch has not always reflected that. The actor in me wants that changed. One way to change it is to encourage and imagine traditional roles (like James Bond) played by someone like Idris Elba, or roles in classical plays (like a Shakespeare history) to be cast with an eye toward diversity. I've benefitted from my share of that kind of casting in my own acting career: in contemporary plays and in Shakespeare.

But the writer in me sees things differently. Much of what I write is meant to deal with issues of race and culture. That means I'm very specific about the race of a character I create. There is nothing casual about my desire to see a Black person interacting with a White person (or an Asian person for example) in a scene I've written. It's part of the fabric of what I'm trying to say with the play, so if the roles aren't cast in the way I envision them, the message, the story, the vision of my play gets altered (or possibly even erased). I've been in the situation where I've had a reading of a piece and there were no [insert appropriate ethnicity here] people available. One reading (on Cape Cod) had a Latino character who was played by a Black actress because they couldn't find an actress who would fit the bill. I wasn't happy with that. I should have the right to have the world populated as I invented it. Shouldn't all writers have that right? I think they should.

So, although the argument against a particular casting choice might be frustrating on one level, on another, it makes complete sense. I believe the writer should always have the last word. Though there are two instances where I think non-traditional approaches can make sense: 1) If the "tradition" of the writer has been explored a great deal and the play is a modern classic (like Death of A Salesman) -- I think it could be a logical choice to shake it up with a new (ethnic) interpretation envisioned by a director -- though even then, any writer or writer's estate (if the writer was dead) would have the right to say no if they disagree with the direction of the production. 2) In the case of a piece as old as Shakespeare (or older) it also seems like a terrific opportunity to mix things up (since modern audiences are already so far outside the 'reality' of those plays and are not necessarily going to have a realistic view of the world being portrayed).

Bottom line, though, I get the challenge. I've been one of few Black people in a Shakespeare production. And I've heard at least one audience member, at a talk-back, complain about my presence in a Shakespeare play that was set in a time period where the presence of a Black guy would not be the norm. I've also read reviews of a modern play where I was non-traditionally cast, where the reviewer claimed casting me was an "interpretation" that tugged at the author's intent. And I've been in a production where a role the director wanted me to play was nixed by the writer's estate. There's never been any question in my mind that being a dot of color in a largely white painting has an impact on the painting. And in spite of that, I've always been thrilled for the work.

So what's the solution?

Partly we have to agree to disagree. There's no way to legislate casting choices unless we're casting ourselves. There are so many factors: the writer's intent, the director's vision, the audience's ability to grasp and accept what's going on.

Bottom line, as long as people of color are going to want to see themselves on stage and in film and TV, and as long as some White people want to help with that, I continue to believe that the best chance for diversity is for people of color (or other like-minded people) to create their own work. If you want mixed race families on stage, write those plays. If you want stories outside mainstream fare on American stages and screens, bring those stories to the table. That's why I became a writer in the first place: to fashion narratives I couldn't be cut out of, to create experiences where I wasn't dealing with being a non-traditional and (sometimes unwelcome) guest.