Dear GRSF: Do you believe in color blind and gender blind casting?

Dear GRSF: Do you believe in color blind and gender blind casting?

“Dear GRSF” is a new series for our newsletters where staff and company members at Great River Shakespeare Festival answer your questions about the “whys” and “hows” of our company. To submit a question, click here.

Recently, a GRSF patron asked our leadership team, “Do you believe in color blind and gender blind casting?”

Answer by: Melissa Maxwell, GRSF Co-Associate Artistic Director

I’m not a lawyer. However, having played several judges on TV, I would argue that the precedent for gender and color blind casting has long been set. If, for centuries, audiences have been able to suspend their disbelief far enough to accept white men playing women and people of color, then watching women and people of color play various roles that weren’t specifically designated to them shouldn’t seem so far fetched—especially when their presence and diversity brings a much needed freshness and texture that adds value to those age-old stories. 

That being said, there are some inherent problems with “color blind” casting. In actuality, the term is a misnomer. We see color the same way we see age, size, gender, height or differently abled persons. Even someone who is legally colorblind is able to discern and differentiate hue or tone. So, when someone says that they “don’t see color,” I believe the well-intended meaning behind their statement is that that person is implying they don’t treat people differently because of their difference in color.

Additionally, the problem with “color blind” casting is that it can allow one to continue to operate from a place of unconscious bias, thereby perpetuating stereotypes based on one’s blind spots. Take, for example, the traditional casting of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, which typically has always cast Jesus as white and Judas as black. Notwithstanding the fact that every descriptive in the bible attributes black features to Jesus, such casting reinforces the false narrative that white is good and black is evil. Similarly, I would argue that if, in an attempt to diversify its acting company, a predominately white theatre company’s first choice is to only see a POC in the role of the villainous attempted rapist, Caliban, in the Tempest, then they’ve missed the mark. 

Now, there are some who believe that the answer is to do all black productions of fill in your favorite dead white male playwright here. And there have certainly been plenty, the 2009 Broadway production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and the 2013 Broadway production of Trip to Bountiful being perhaps the most visible. While there are many reasons to see James Earl Jones or Cicely Tyson act in ANYTHING, I have never been a fan of the all BIPOC version of fill in the name of your favorite “classic” play by a white playwright here.

I personally don’t believe that the world needs to see a Black version of Death of a Salesman. If a theatre is going to spend the time and money to produce an all Black/Asian/Latinx show, I’d rather they use their resources to expose their audiences to works of August Wilson, Lynn Nottage, Alice Childress, David Henry Hwang, María Irene Fornés, Caridad Svich, or any of the many brilliant BIPOC playwrights telling stories that are unique to their cultural experience, showing people of color expressing themselves in their own particular voices, vernacular and patois, adding a different perspective to the human experience than the homogeneous white male perspective we have all been fed for centuries.

The way I see it, this country has a problem with blindness: to our past, our history, and to our inherent differences. The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements show us, all too painfully, that we still have a problem accepting gender and race. Rather than attempting to continue not to see each other and ignoring our differences, we should openly and consciously recognize, embrace and celebrate that which makes us different and how those differences add value to every aspect of our society.

Rather than “color blind” casting, the preferable, more effective approach—one that GRSF has been practicing for the past five years or so—is “color conscious” casting. To cast with consciousness means that the person is not only actively casting with a diverse lens in mind, but is being deliberate and mindful of their choices so as to not do harm by further perpetuating stereotypes. Most importantly, it means casting with a consciousness that actively considers how an actor’s gender or color will add to or elevate the storytelling the same way one would consider any of the other attributes or qualities an actor imbues, making them undeniably the right choice for the role.