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The Cast System

THEATER | PLAYWRIGHTS ON WRITING

When great actors are denied great roles on the stage because of their skin color, there's a problem. Even if they are white.

May 06, 2007|Neil LaBute | Special to The Times

THERE'S a wonderful old theater story about Laurence Olivier in the 1960s -- he was playing in "Othello" and receiving generally glowing notices opposite Frank Findlay and a young actress by the name of Maggie Smith. One night, however, as he stormed through the jealous general's odyssey, Olivier seemed to be on fire (not literally, of course, because that would be painful, and, while certainly an interesting if too literal take on the Moor's passionate histrionics, pretty "out there" as an interpretation of Shakespeare, even for the '60s).

Backstage he was approached by his colleagues, who found him, rather than overjoyed by his brilliant portrayal, staring mournfully (as only Olivier could supposedly do) into his dressing room mirror. One meekly said to him, "You were magnificent tonight, Larry," to which he moodily answered, "I know." Another of his costars continued on, brave enough to ask, "Then what's the matter?" Olivier turned to them and wearily said, "I don't know how I did it."

Even if that story isn't true, I want it to be because it's not just a terrific tale about one of the great stage actors of the 20th century, but also a perfect example of the actor's alchemy in general. How do they do it? I don't know exactly -- and I'm around them all the time.

The focus of my thoughts here, however, is not about the way in which actors go about crafting their work but about the opportunities they have to do that work. If Olivier was alive today, young and vibrant and working in the theater, we might never have that story to tell for one simple reason: In these troubled times, the man would never be allowed to put on blackface and play that role. Hell, he wouldn't be allowed to perform it if he went out in a strawberry-blond wig and clown makeup.

Now this probably won't stop somebody from having the bright idea of casting Beyonce in the role, but Liev Schreiber -- as fine a Shakespearean actor as this country has at the moment -- will never have a shot at the part. For most white actors today, roles of color -- from the classics to some of the sensational writing that is currently being done for the theater -- are not even an option for them, and I'm not sure why.

For a time this idea was given the name "color-blind" casting, but the only thing it seemed to be blind to was the fact that it wasn't a two-way street; it was obviously designed to provide opportunity for minorities rather than put the best person in a role, regardless of color.

I suppose this is the notion of equal opportunity rearing its fearsome head again -- and if it is, can we stop using the word "equal" in that phrase?

Or is it something far deeper and much simpler: What are people going to think of us for even suggesting such a thing?

Maybe.

I understand about slavery and all that, but that was a generally unpleasant time in our national history and it's firmly in the past. No one but a few folks who own "The Dukes of Hazzard: The Complete First Season" continue to think that slavery brought this country anything but shame and heartache. So we should all get over it, say we're sorry -- I'm happy to do that to anybody who stops me at the Grove -- and move on. Anyone whose ancestors were slaughtered by the U.S. Cavalry or spent time in a wartime internment camp may line up directly behind.

This is a nation of great promise and stunning achievement, yet our road to freedom is paved with blood and ambition; but, hey, enough about Hollywood. Today we should embrace the idea of a collective history and speed off into the future holding hands, enjoying and understanding the wonderful variety of our various cultures and head toward the glowing sun of a better tomorrow. And while we're doing this, why not acknowledge the achievements of several of our greatest playwrights -- people like Lorraine Hansberry, David Henry Hwang, Jose Rivera, August Wilson, etc. -- by allowing anybody who wants to play the parts they've written the opportunity to do so?

Don't forget, these actors still have to find a theater company brave (or crazy) enough to cast them. But if that happens -- if someone does allow me to mount my all-white version of "A Raisin in the Sun" -- then please let us proceed. I promise you, we'll be doing it not to be provocative but because it's a terrific American play. Don't picket outside the theater or send letters to the editor -- if you have to, though, do that first rather than start up another annoying blog -- or ask CBS to take away my radio show. (I actually don't have one, so relax, you can continue sleeping in in the mornings.)

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