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Why casting can no longer be seen as black and white

Tanya Moodie in Shakespeare’s Globe’s touring production of King John. Photo: Bronwen Sharp Tanya Moodie in Shakespeare’s Globe’s touring production of King John. Photo: Bronwen Sharp
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It was not the first production to star an all-white cast, and it is unlikely to be the last. But when the actors for Trevor Nunn’s The Wars of the Roses took a group photo, it caused a firestorm the theatre director clearly did not expect. Having caught the attention of diversity campaigners, the photo attracted widespread anger on social media and even drew criticism from Equity, which said the theatre’s casting decisions “locked minorities out of the cultural picture”.

Robert Gilbert and Ony Uhiara in Anna Karenina at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, which ran until May. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
Robert Gilbert and Ony Uhiara in Anna Karenina at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, which ran until May. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

Nunn has since defended his casting choices, explaining that he wanted to reflect “historical verisimilitude” and make it clear in a complex play which characters were related by blood.

However, there are an increasing number of productions tearing up the status quo when it comes to so-called historical accuracy. Earlier this year, Manchester’s Royal Exchange staged Anna Karenina with Ony Uhiara, a British actor of Nigerian descent, in the title role. Sheffield Theatres’ version of Pride and Prejudice featured a multi-ethnic cast, with several black actors in roles written by Jane Austen as white. And Iqbal Khan’s recent staging of Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company took the racially charged tragedy – its history peppered with controversial leads – and twisted it into something new with the quietly radical casting of Lucian Msamati as a black Iago.

Next month, Danny Lee Wynter will step out on stage as Tom Wingfield in Nuffield’s production of The Glass Menagerie, something he says he never believed would happen because so few black, Asian and minority ethnic actors are considered for roles in the classics.

“I don’t think I’ve ever really played a protagonist before in a theatre play,” the actor explains. “At drama school, you get to be everything, and of course, you then go out and meet the profession and it has other ideas about who you are, and what you can do.”

Wynter founded Act for Change in 2013 to campaign for better representation of minorities on stage, but insists he never wanted to be an activist.

“I wanted to be an actor, period,” he explains. “But [the industry] made me a ‘black actor’. I never even realised I wasn’t white until I left LAMDA. Even the people in my year who were as wooden as a chair were getting audition after audition because there were stories being told for them to be a part of, while I had to go and sign on.”

Nuffield artistic director Sam Hodges, who is directing Wynter in the production, explains every role was open for actors of all ethnicities, and that disabled actors were also seen – both of which are decisions he thinks directors of his generation “don’t think twice” about. “When we [at Nuffield] go into a casting situation, I would expect to see all manner of ethnic backgrounds come into the room,” he says. “I think there’s never – or very, very rarely – a moment when you have to talk about ethnic specificity now.”

Casting diversely still isn’t the industry norm though. Especially with the classics, there’s a need for casting directors to be explicit to agents about how open their auditions are.

As Hodges puts it: “Because there is such a history of white Toms, I think there is sometimes an assumption that that is what a director is looking for.”

Michele Austin in Sheffield Theatres’ Pride and Prejudice this summer. Photo: Johan Persson
Michele Austin in Sheffield Theatres’ Pride and Prejudice this summer. Photo: Johan Persson

Practices such as Hodges’ – opening up roles to actors of all ethnicities regardless of any specificity in script or history – has been referred to as ‘colour-blind’ casting for a number of years.

But that’s a term actor Tanya Moodie never wants to hear again. “I think we need to dismantle it, I think it needs to become defunct,” she explains firmly, “because I think it’s unfair to ask anyone, any audience or any cast member, to be blind. Because what it denotes is, ‘Look, I’m other, I’m different to the other people in the cast. My race is in terms of numbers, is a minority in this country. And I want you to ignore that fact, I want you to pretend like I don’t exist, or that you don’t even see me. What I’m asking you to do is add some extra layer of psychic functioning which makes me disappear’.”

Moodie, who starred this summer as Constance in King John at the Globe, adds: “I’m not blind, and I’m not asking you to be. What I’ve always wanted is for people to see who I am. See my difference, see my uniqueness, see my talent, see my value. And ultimately, see the story that is being told. That’s the most important thing.”

Upon hearing about the controversy over the Wars of the Roses casting, Moodie initially thought little of it – “There’s still a good few reps around in a lot of places where for whatever reason the whole company is white,” she says. But her attitude changed when she saw Nunn defend it as a conscious choice.

“When it was this official statement, from someone who should know better, I was… oh my God. That felt like a body blow. I felt almost personally injured to have someone say something like that. Because he is reaffirming something that is a complete and utter fallacy. When you say the term ‘historical accuracy’, in my head I hear ‘historical revisionism’.”

She reels off a number of requirements that the production would have to adhere to for the sake of true accuracy: Richard III’s scoliosis of the spine, mostly French cast members and a ban on Jews auditioning – in line with the fervent anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages.

“And yet someone with black skin comes in and it’s like, ‘Let’s avoid the black people, because that’s not historically accurate’,” she scoffs. “You can cherry pick. In any way you put it, it’s offensive.”

Moodie and Wynter both claim that to boost representation on stage there needs to be an increase in the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic producers, writers and directors – the people who call the shots. Recent Act for Change figures suggested they made up only 7% of creative teams in regional theatre and 5% in subsidised London theatres. Sheffield Theatres’ artistic director, Daniel Evans, has worked with Act for Change since it was established, and is vocal about the need for progress both within his company and elsewhere.

5 Landmark colour-blind castingsBut is there a sense that some in the industry are unwilling to discuss diversity in casting publicly for fear of saying the wrong thing? “I think that happens, and I think there’s also great anger among those people who feel they don’t have a voice, because I think they feel there is a degree of racism going on,” he says. “So I think yes, on both sides, the sensitivities are understandable. It’s a really complex issue.”

He explains his venue’s production of Pride and Prejudice came from a need to do something different with a commonly performed piece. “Did we want to do another bog-standard version, an all-white affair?” he asks.

“Actually we decided we weren’t interested in that, we wanted something richer. So [our casting] was a kind of statement. Not that we publicised the fact – in fact, we made a point of not publicising the fact that it was cast ‘colour-blind’, as it were.”

Evans recalls the praise audiences had for Michele Austin’s portrayal of Mrs Bennet. “People were saying the character was resonating, and that was how Michele was playing it. The fact she was black had nothing to do with it.”

Diversity is not just about ticking boxes either, according to Evans, who recognises that it also brings in audiences, and audiences bring in money. He points to the runaway success of Broadway musical Hamilton – in which presidents and key figures from American history are played by a multi-ethnic cast – as an example of where diverse casting has paid dividends.

In the UK, the clamour for increased diversity on stage has become so deafening that Arts Council England has begun monitoring the mix of on and offstage talent in theatres – with the threat of removed national portfolio funding if progress isn’t made.

And with a slew of recent high-profile productions with diverse casts, it seems there has been at least some progress.

But Moodie says that while any success or advancement for black, Asian and minority ethnic actors is encouraging, no progress with diversity can be taken for granted. “If we sit back and go, ‘This is really encouraging. Well done, we’re doing well’, then it’s easy to slip back,” she warns. “It’s a muscle that always has to be exercised.”

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