The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s shrunken news hole forces editors to make tough choices about what warrants coverage. Yet, in a telling sign of the times, the paper found room for a lengthy, 1,000+ word article last week about a theatrical casting issue at Wisconsin’s famous American Players Theater.
Jim Higgins’ piece — headlined “American Players Theatre’s casting of a white actor as a black man in ‘Blood Knot’ stirs controversy” — begins as follows: “The casting of a white actor as a light-skinned black man in American Players Theatre’s (APT) production of ‘Blood Knot‘ has generated sharp criticism from other theater leaders around the country, and a related petition.”
To Higgins’ credit, he explains that the original production of Blood Knot, in apartheid-era South Africa, featured exactly the same casting as chosen by APT. Higgins explains that the two brothers in the play are “both black but one light-skinned enough to pass for white.” And, as it turns out, the play itself highlights that issue. The white actor in the premier production was none other than the play’s author, Athol Fugard. This makes the APT decision eminently reasonable.
APT’s choice doesn’t pass muster with “other theater leaders.” For example, Milwaukee Repertory Theater managing director Chad Bauman doesn’t “accept [APT’s] reasoning” in replicating the original casting decision. And there’s this from Journal Sentinel drama critic Mike Fischer: “I couldn’t get past the knowledge that I was watching a white man playing a black man, in a country (ours) where that sort of appropriation has a long and troubled history. APT would never cast DeVita as a black man in an August Wilson play. It shouldn’t have cast him as a black man in this one.”
In truth, the “controversy” is a phony, manufactured effort by people who want to draw attention to their supposed racial sensitivity. Fischer’s “reasoning” would mean that non-white performers would find substantially fewer roles at classical theaters such as APT. In the many years that I have delighted in APT productions I have lost count of the times that Black and Latino performers were cast in roles historically reserved for whites. These efforts have been so successful my wife and I no longer “notice” when a non-white performer is cast in a “white” role.
Last Saturday, we saw a powerful Chicago Shakespeare production of Macbeth. To state the obvious, Blacks did not play a role in the play’s medieval Scottish roots. Yet there was a family of Blacks in the pivotal role of the Macduff family. Like APT, Chicago Shakespeare has a long record of such casting. In this particular case, Lady Macduff was portrayed by Jennifer Latimore, a Black actress who appeared frequently on stage at APT. She likely is glad that the “logic” of “theater leaders” and reviewers such as Bauman and Fischer is seen for the phony preening that it is.