LA HABRA — The board of the La Habra Community Theatre has rejected a director's plans to put an interracial spin on the doomed romance in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
The action, taken in an emergency meeting Wednesday night, came after director Marla Gam-Hudson had placed ads seeking a black Romeo in the Los Angeles-based theatrical trade publication Dramalogue. Auditions are scheduled Sunday and Monday.
Gam-Hudson said some of the board members expressed concern to her before the meeting that La Habra's "predominantly older" audience "would not easily accept a mixed racial relationship" in the play. She said she was told that casting a Romeo and Juliet of different races was "an exciting idea but just not appropriate for this community theater at this time."
The director of several plays on Orange County stages in recent years, Gam-Hudson said she would abide by the board's decision but that auditions would go on as scheduled.
According to Rand Hudson, the director's husband and a board member who attended Wednesday's meeting, the decision does not preclude a multiracial cast. The board, in essence, told Gam-Hudson not to cast the play "in a way that emphasized racial differences between the families or the lovers," Hudson said.
Gam-Hudson, who did not attend the meeting, said she interprets that to mean that the lead roles could be cast with actors of any ethnic group, as long as they were both of the same race. Board president Jeannie Diamond could not be reached for comment Thursday. Eleven of the 16 board members attended the emergency meeting.
Hudson said the board's concern was less with casting than with changing the focus of the play. The board "wanted a traditional type of Shakespeare piece," Hudson said. "They did not want some sort of racial message one way or another placed on 'Romeo and Juliet.' "
The issue provoked some heated discussion, Hudson said.
"Everybody is very concerned about being perceived as racist," he added, but the bottom line is that "they did not want 'Romeo and Juliet' to become a 'message play.' "
As written, Shakespeare's romantic tragedy centers on the "star-cross'd lovers" from two feuding families in Verona, Italy. Gam-Hudson said she had wanted to make the main relationship interracial as a commentary on bigotry.
Gregory Kind, La Habra director of community services and the city's representative on the board, said the board wanted a traditional version of "Romeo and Juliet" partly to provide the audience with a point of comparison for "West Side Story," the season's following offering. The 1957 musical took the "Romeo and Juliet" story and set it in 1950s New York, with the feuding families transformed into rival gangs.
Kind said that the community theater has mounted a number of multiracial productions in the past and that the "Romeo and Juliet" decision was not racial in nature.
"Romeo and Juliet" is set to run at La Habra's Depot Playhouse Oct. 26 through Nov. 18, with rehearsals scheduled to begin Sept. 10.
Non-traditional casting in theater is not a new concept but has become an increasingly controversial issue. With a production of "The Tempest" in 1987, the La Jolla Playhouse received letters of protest when it cast a black actor as Ferdinand, the love interest of the white actress who portrayed Miranda.
Last year, a traveling company in Port Gibson, Miss., staged a "Romeo and Juliet" that reset the story in a Mississippi town with a black youth and a white girl. According to reports, community leaders were "nervous," but the show went off without a hitch.
More recently, the musical "Miss Saigon" made national headlines when Actors Equity voted Aug. 7 to deny Jonathan Pryce a permit to reprise his London role on Broadway. Pryce, an English actor, played a Eurasian character, which drew protests from Asian-Americans when it was announced that he would play the role in New York.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh subsequently canceled the $10-million production, but Actors Equity has since reversed its ruling on Pryce.