By Taunya Lovell Banks
Jacob France Professor of Equality Jurisprudence
University of Maryland School of Law
The phrase "nontraditional casting" refers most often to "cross-racial" casting—placing a non-white in a role not specially written for a non-white actor. (New York Times 1993) A more comprehensive definition of nontraditional casting is the "use of actors of any race, sex, ethnicity or degree of disabilities in roles for which such factors are not germane to the development of stage characters or the play." (Washington Post 1987) But even this definition might seem too limiting for some proponents of nontraditional casting.
For many in theater and film communities, nontraditional casting simply means fair hiring. Historically European or American whites were cast to play all characters including Asians, Blacks, Latinos and American Indians. For centuries in some countries men were cast to play male and female roles, while few women were cast to play male roles. Often casting directors assume that character in plays or films are white or could be played by white actors. Thus nontraditional casting may result in more employment opportunities for non-white, female and disabled actors, but at what cost?
Nontraditional casting may mean moving beyond or challenging societal stereotypes: casting a black woman as the Marilyn Monroe figure in Arthur Miller's After the Fall; an Asian American theater company performing a play about Jewish angst; casting a young black woman to play an old Jewish man in Anna Deavere Smith's play Fires in the Mirrors or as Juror No. 8 in Reginald Rose's play 12 Angry Men. While some audiences might find these casting decisions provocative and exciting, others might argue that they cloud or distort the playwright's original vision.
In a heterogeneous community like America with its tortured racial history are some casting decisions even more controversial? Should a lone black actor be cast as the villain in a Shakespearian play? Does this casting decision reinforce negative stereotypes about blacks and criminality?
Are some roles so "sacred to a culture" that nontraditional casting is inappropriate? Playwright George Gershwin stipulated that his opera Porgy and Bess must be performed by all blacks. His estate continues to honor his stipulation even though some critics argue that the time has come to end the restriction. In Muddy River, the musical adaptation of Mark Twain's novel HUCKLEBERRY FINN, should a black person play Huck Finn and a white person play Jim, the slave? The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization thought not. What about an all female version of the musical Grease? The latest licensing agreement by Samuel French stipulates that "female roles must be played by women and male roles must be played by men."
In 1996 the preeminent playwright August Wilson, a black man, while taking American theaters to task for not hiring more black actors dismissed nontraditional casting as "an aberrant idea that has never had any validity." According to Wilson "an all-black production of a %91Death of a Salesman; or any other play conceived for white actors%85 is to deny us [black people] our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans." His remarks sparked a nation-wide debate that continues today.
Taking a somewhat of a middle ground film director, Wayne Wang, a Chinese American, when casting the film version of Amy Tan's novel, THE JOY LUCK CLUB, about a group of Chinese American women and their families, refused to cast white actors as Chinese characters but hired other Asian ethnics to play Chinese Americans.
As these examples suggest, nontraditional casting is a complex issue. The debate over nontraditional casting raises difficult questions reflecting America's continuing battles about race and social justice. It is an issue fraught with emotion and passion, those same qualities that make good theater.