Education Letter to the Editor

Casting Against Race May Benefit School Plays

July 12, 2005 1 min read

To the Editor:

Regarding your Take Note column headlined “The Color of the Play” (June 8, 2005) on the controversial race-blind casting of a school’s production of “Big River”:

Two years ago, I directed a school production of Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.” The play is based on interviews Ms. Smith conducted with a wide variety of people following the riots sparked by the verdict acquitting four white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of an African-American motorist, Rodney King. The play is about race, just as “Big River” is.

I chose to cast against the race of certain characters in the play. In a society such as ours, with its long history of racism and violence and its continuing struggle for equality of opportunity, it is impossible to cast a show without considering the race of the actors and characters. Colorblind casting is a myth—a wished-for but unattainable ideal. This is all the more so when casting a play that deals with race.

My experience with this play showed me that casting against race can be a powerful tool for both actors and the audience. Angela King, Rodney King’s aunt, is a commanding, middle-class African-American woman. I cast her with a blond, blue-eyed actress who, experienced as she was, had to meet the challenge of portraying a person so different from herself. I cast a Korean character with a Latino student. But I chose, on the other hand, to cast Cornel R. West, the African-American scholar and activist, and Elaine Power, a former Black Panther leader, with African-American actors.

My point is that even though I was casting against race for some characters, I was doing so in a conscious way. I tried to stimulate thoughts and feelings in the audience and promote reflection with these unexpected juxtapositions of the characters’ and the actors’ race.

Directors need to cast actors that fit their roles. But in an educational institution, that’s by no means the only, or even the most important, consideration.

Dev Luthra

Jamaica Plain, Mass.