Features Published 26 January 2015

Taking the Colour Out of Casting

Director David Mercatali discusses colour-blind casting in British new writing.
David Mercatali

Since the late nineties, colour-blind casting as a movement has really taken off and become an increasingly prolific practice across the theatre industry.  Black and minority ethnic (BME) actors are increasingly more represented (though not nearly represented as much as they need to be) in classics, especially Shakespeare, where choices made on the basis of race provide either an interesting take on a well-known character/situation, or where a play is extremely well known and therefore the race of the actor is not seen as “blocking” their character’s identity.  Yet colour-blind casting is far less common in new plays, especially those in a domestic setting.  Many still struggle with the feeling that this is somehow “unnatural.”

In its early forms, colour-blind casting received a large amount of uneasy equivocation from the theatre community or sometimes downright pushback, especially where it was felt that casting a BME actor ran contrary to the historical context of a play; a black actress entering a white family in the 60’s, where signs in boarding houses would have read “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish”, for example.

Nowadays, in new work, unless the playwright specifically instructs, when the action is set domestically, and the main protagonists are members of a family, the actors are almost invariably white.  Black actors are often given roles on the fringes, roles that are less specific and therefore less affected by their “otherness”, because that is how people’s perception still works.  If a whole family is cast with black actors, an audience tend to assume that their race is intrinsic to the play. If you think about it you know it’s true. If you cast one member of a family as black, and the rest as white, people’s initial instinct will be that they are not part of the same family, as they are different ethnicities. If this is not referenced in the script, then what does it suggest?

So when it came to the casting of Little Light by Alice Birch, soon to open at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, I must confess that there were questions in my mind.  Though I had cast colour-blind and gender-blind in new plays before – Philip Ridley’s Feathers in the Snow, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Ajax – this was the first play in a purely family setting.  How would it work in this case?  Would there be an assumption that one of the two girls was adopted?  Would it distract people from the play by wondering how two sisters, from different ethnicities, could possibly be related? Luckily Alice was not just happy but actively encouraged me to consider casting the roles colour-blind when I mentioned it.

When we auditioned Lorna Brown for the role of Alison, one of the two sisters, she brought this issue up too.  What would the audience make of the sisters’ relationship?  Would it influence the audience’s interpretation of their actions?  But just before she left she said something that has stayed with me, and perfectly crystallised the problems facing BME actors. “Thank you so much for seeing me for this role,” she said.  “I don’t get many opportunities at these kind of parts.  It’s just wonderful to be able to have a shot at it.”

This got me thinking.  Should this even be a thing in modern-day urban Britain? Does watching a family of two races not call for only the same skills as those a theatre audience already possess: a suspension of disbelief in order to identify with the character and the choices facing him or her? Can we really not see the actor rather than the colour?

Unfortunately, it appears that in many instances we cannot. Last month’s furore over Lenny Henry’s remarks  that the UK lags far behind the US in colour-blind casting showed that many audience members are not yet ready for it.  “If a plot doesn’t require a black actor or call for one, why should a script writer write one in?” grumbled one online comment, somehow implying that BME actors are good for certain roles only, rather than BME actors being potential material for all roles. “We just all boycott these stupid performances that cast on the basis of positive discrimination,” announced another. Troublingly, this attitude does not only appear to be confined to audience members. “Unfortunately Lenny, work dries up for a lot of us regardless of whether we are black, white or pink with yellow spots on,” shot back (presumably) a fellow actor, entirely missing the point that BME actors are woefully underrepresented across the entire spectrum, and that the proportion of jobs on offer is way smaller than for their white colleagues, even on its best days.

So should we not stand back and allow society to develop itself, until people are ready for colour-blind casting?

The answer is no. It has always been the role of the arts to push boundaries in society and diversity is part of that boundary-pushing. For instance, the acceptance of LGBT people in society was greatly enhanced by writing in more and more gay characters in high-profile theatre shows, soaps and films until it came to the point that it no longer raised an eyebrow to have a gay kiss on mainstream TV. And then finally, last year, society’s acceptance came to the point that same sex unions were recognised as equal marriages by law. Similarly, yet slowly, more and better roles are being written – or cast – for women, because it has been realised that women too can be police, lawyers, diplomats, FBI agents, assassins and astronauts. Theatre is increasingly casting against sex too, with female Julius Caesars and all-male Twelfth Nights, and people can get on with watching the play and enjoying it, or not, on its own merits.

Because it’s all a question of practice.  If we stop seeing everything through a “white” lens then we will understand that these things don’t matter and will soon become as natural as accepting two people who don’t look remotely alike are siblings.

And this is a call to writers too, no matter what their ethnicity or gender. We need to make positive informed choices in our writing as in our casting. Don’t just write BME roles as drug dealers, gang members or terrorists. Open everything up to the wide, wonderful field of human variety. Question everything, turn it on its head.

Why not?

Little Light by Alice Birch is at the Orange Tree Theatre 4th February – 5th March.

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