Authenticity and ethnicity – the theatre casting debate

I recently attended a debate in Chicago entitled “Building a theater of inclusion” with an eminent panel of Asian-American artists, including playwright David Henry Hwang whose play Yellow Face is playing at London’s Park Theatre.

The word “authenticity” featured strongly; the response to a series of recent incidents in US theatre that have predominately affected Asian-American casting, and a published report last year on Broadway claiming only 3% of its casts were represented by Asian-Americans and (surprisingly) also the same figure for the Off Broadway not-for-profits. The report also found that casting of all minorities on Broadway was at only 20%.

What happens if, at the end of a search, the actor may authentically fit the role but not be the best actor?

Hwang spoke of a “burden of proof”, in which theatres demonstrate they have carried out searches for an authentic actor during their casting process. But what happens if, at the end of a search, the actor may authentically fit the role but not be the best actor?

This made me think back to performances I have enjoyed such as Adrian Lester’s Henry V, Pippa Bennett Warner’s Cordelia, Anthony Sher’s Richard III, Omid Djalili’s Fagin, Lea Salonga’s Eponine, Ben Kingsley’s Estragon and Norm Lewis as Javert.

While they all represent minority casting, in the context of “authenticity” for the roles these actors undertook, none of them would have been given the opportunity to play them.

However, in watching these terrific performances, I don’t believe their casting choice was made upon race or gender but because they were the most talented and best actor for that production.

The question I have been considering since this debate is whether “authenticity” of theatre casting actually risks narrowing opportunities for minority group actors and restricts their opportunities to play a cross-section of roles?

For example, if we were to take demands for authenticity at an entirely literal level are we then saying: that a Jew must always play Shylock, a Russian in a Chekhov play, and an American in a Mamet play?

To this end, could some of the same actors in the audience for this debate from all ethnicities and vocally advocating authenticity of casting even be ones to then object if imported actors of authentic origin were to undertake such specific roles, denying them work and even prevent them from displaying their own talent performing in a diverse variety of parts?

If theatre marginalises or categorises its actors in roles because of race or gender, then in the same way we also risk carrying that negative attitude out into the audiences.

The fight must be to continue taking progressives steps forward and Broadway’s statistics illustrate that there is still much work remaining for our industry’s future in successfully ensuring that we have equality in casting, balanced with talent and inclusion. For me, that is the “burden of proof” that is a responsibility for all of us.

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