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Shakespeare Remains Constant, Whoever's Reading Lines

September 08, 1990

You recently reported that the La Habra Community Theatre had an emergency meeting to prevent guest director Marla Gam-Hudson from casting a black man in the role of Romeo in the theater's upcoming production ("La Habra Board Bars Interracial Twist for Play," Aug. 24).

The theater seemed to feel that the "predominantly older audience" would not accept this casting choice. The board tried to pretend that their concern was less with the casting of a black than it was with changing the theme of the play.

How can the theme of the play be changed if the words are not? If the cast remains true to the dialogue provided by Shakespeare, there will be no emphasis on the racial theme.

For fear of sounding racist, the theater stated that they simply did not want "Romeo and Juliet" to become a message play. As a director and teacher of acting, I venture to say that all of Shakespeare's plays have a "message."

The theater went on to say that they wanted a traditional "Romeo and Juliet" to serve as a contrast with the season's following offering of "West Side Story." The reporter, in an attempt to explain, described "West Side Story" as "Romeo and Juliet" transformed to New York, with the feuding families represented by rival gangs.

Since 1957, the theater community and the public continue to think of "West Side Story" as the "Romeo and Juliet" story with this beautiful music, when the real truth is that it is about racism. Yes, they were rival gangs--but would they have been rivals if everyone had been white? The white Jets did not want the Puerto Rican Sharks in "their" neighborhood, and the Puerto Rican Sharks didn't want the white Jets around "their" women. And here we are all these years later with the same old controversy. What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine. Right?

I have listened to this argument time and time again in the arts community--who should play what role--and always it seems to me it is news when a black or other minority plays a traditionally white role. Always the reason cited (for controversy) is fear of community rejection. Did this same fear rear its ugly head when Sir Laurence Olivier played the role of Othello, a role that Shakespeare wrote as a black man? Indeed, many white actors have played Othello.

I have always believed that it was the artist that either mirrored society or showed society the way in which it should be growing. In either case, I feel there is too much emphasis on who plays what.

As I teach my classes, I do not selectively prepare my young black actors for black roles and my young white actors for white roles. I teach them to act. I teach them to feel and to communicate those feelings, to react to everyday situations that are the color of humanity. I teach them to enlighten, educate and entertain their audiences.

We've got to start preparing our children to live in this world together, to live in this country together and yes, to live in this county together. The old crowd that "can't accept" this kind of non-traditional casting has already proven that they can't make the "melting pot" work. Let's give the new generations a chance.



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