Ungentlemanly Callers

I don’t feel comfortable reviewing the Abingdon Theatre Company’s production of Philip Dawkins’ The Gentleman Caller because one of my friends holds up half of this new two-hander.

Then why am I writing about it now?

Because I’m not here to discuss the particulars of what’s currently happening onstage at the Cherry Lane Theatre; rather, I want to address MULTIPLE audience comments overheard at my performance that simply cannot go unrebuked.

These regressives chided the decision to cast actors of color to play the two famed playwrights depicted here: Tennessee Williams (my guy Juan Francisco Villa) and William Inge (Daniel K. Isaac). Any passing historian knows that both men were white, neither of whom particularly went out of their way to write characters of any other hue. Some may criticize them for being slaves of their eras, committing the crime of not expanding the progressivism of their theatrical writing so that who they wrote about matched the enlightened perspective of how they wrote about them. I personally don’t fault them for that; future generations will surely scorn us for making mistakes most aren’t even aware we’re making.

But a component of correcting the wrongs of whitewashed history entails opening up casting doors as wide as possible, especially in an industry so dominated by revivals, many of which are written by the pervasively-pale Williamses. And Gentleman Caller — the original title for The Glass Menagerie, which is about to premiere as the play begins — serves as a reminder that even new theatrical texts often set their sights on the rearview mirror, back to ages before rearview mirrors even existed. The woefully-misguided criticisms uttered by my ignorant fellow audience members expressed the same complaint: they were so distracted by the unrealistic casting that it completely took them out of the play.

And lest anyone believe these people are mere exceptions  “the insignificantly-rare bad apples far outnumbered by the moral masses”  I heard similar sentiments lobbed against Denzel Washington in the current Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill’s generally-hailed, personally-despised play from around the same period. First off, James Earl Jones played the part on Broadway back in the 1970s, so there’s ample precedent (not that any is needed). But more importantly, and the single craziest part of this example: the character is not based on a real person! Hickey never existed outside of the stage! He’s a figment of O’Neill’s theatrical imagination!

And yet, because certain generations of folks have been raised only seeing whites don his shoes, they believe that’s the way it should be, even though O’Neill never specified any race in the text. Just because a character’s assumed race has long been caucasian doesn’t mean that’s what was intended; intention can only be gleaned through specific requests. Not all racially-unspecific characters need to reflect the color of the playwright.

The person who exclaimed that the play doesn’t work with Hickey as a black man cited the fact that the script calls for one of the other ensemble members to be black. Thus, it makes no sense for everyone to treat one character a certain way because he’s black but not Hickey. But I actually find that implication intriguing; it suggests racial exceptionalism, wherein white communities often ignore race when they view someone as an exception to their firmly-held stereotypes, which they still cling to as the truth even with clear evidence to the contrary literally staring them in the face. Shouldn’t revivals strive to add such new ideas to old plays?

And if two instances aren’t enough to be considered a trend, I can cite the uproar that greeted the announcement of Condola Rashad’s casting in the title role of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s new revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Join. Religious figures are of course touchy subjects, but it’s in no way insensitive to reimagine an icon whose very iconography has long been the subject of endless re-imaginations in all directions, towards all ends, a central focus of the play. Thus, Rashad only deepens this theme, obviously bolstered by her phenomenal performance.

Needless to say, the bad apples unfortunately represent many, and are indicative of a general philosophy that needs correcting.

Insisting on historical accuracy is a great way to keep theatre literally and figuratively vanilla, because a shameful amount of theatre’s past excludes everyone else. And I’m not even asking for color-blind casting here, because there’s no such thing as color-blind casting, because a vast majority of audiences aren’t fucking colorblind.

In some instances, the race of an actor will be a significant reflection of their character, which can be called color-conscious casting. In other instances, the race of an actor will have nothing to do with their character, especially if the play doesn’t seem particularly interested in race. In these instances, I find myself inspired to wax poetic on the possible meanings derived from this skin change…but I fear doing so could imply that the change needs a reason to justify itself.  It doesn’t. Sometimes, the best actor for the job happens to not share the role’s race, and we just need to accept it as yet another suspension of disbelief.

And that’s what feels so suspicious about these claims. Audiences demand corporeal truth…in an art form that requires us to understand that — to return to The Gentleman Caller — two dudes standing on a stage, in 2018, wearing costumes, using fake props, reading scripted lines, moving according to someone else’s blocking, surrounded by a largely two-dimensional set, under lights, are in fact supposed to be Tennessee Williams and William Inge. And despite all that artifice, the sticking point is…the race of the actors? Really?

I realize why it’s so hard to grasp for some; they’ve spent their lives ignoring the theatricality they’ve grown accustomed to ignoring. Since too many audiences are still wrapping their minds around color-blind casting — which is already out of vogue, thanks to the nature of our current high-speed society, fueled by social media offering a platform heard around the world for voices with ideas that back in the day would’ve been shunned by institutional gatekeepers — it makes sense that they wouldn’t be able to come to terms with any of this. But why do they fall back on blaming the casting, instead of blaming their own biases?

As always, we should listen to history. When female actors first started playing women back in Shakespeare’s time (hello, Shakespeare in Love!), audiences were aghast, bemoaning how their precious former theatrical worldview was being too forcibly jarred by these new ladies. And back in the days of blackface, audiences couldn’t tolerate black actors playing black roles, even though they were embarrassingly degrading. But you know what happened? Over the years, everyone got used to it, because it was the right thing to do, even if it didn’t conform to their tastes in that moment. Taste isn’t objective; it’s inherited and learned and should always be infinitely malleable. Just because it’s the way things have usually been doesn’t mean it’s the way things always should be.     

But we don’t even need to rely on history to prove this point. Rather, let’s simply borrow a philosophy espoused by these souls stuck in a bygone period.

Whenever any topic even remotely connected to affirmative action rears its head, naysayers always holler about “WE JUST WANT THE TOP PEOPLE TO GET WHAT THEY DESERVE, NO MATTER THEIR RACE!” And yet…that sentiment doesn’t apply to casting? When looking for the greatest actor for a part, wouldn’t it be in everyone’s interest not to limit that search in any way? Why are these questions only asked when it comes to actors of color? Why would anyone assume the actors cast weren’t the best who auditioned? Just because they don’t look like who’d you expect? Would you ask the same questions about an all-white cast?

And yes, I’m including gender here too. Earlier this season, The Public Theater hosted a workshop run of a new play called Masculinity Max, which explored our conception of gender by chronicling the story of a trans person in the throes of transitioning. To emphasize how much such concepts as gender and masculinity are societal constructs based more on traditional understanding than anything concrete, the ensemble was exclusively comprised of actors who didn’t look conventionally male nor female (credit where credit is due: Tony Kushner messed around with this very same idea in his mandated double-(though really multi)-casting in Angels in America). As I watched the play unfold, I became quite intrigued by how the variable identities affected the way their characters resonated with me.

As someone who sees too much theatre by any sane metric, this experience felt like something I’m always striving to find in art: something new.

If you’re still not convinced these are strides worth taking, that’s your prerogative. Can I just kindly ask you to shut up about it, especially inside the fucking theatre where it’s happening?!

Thanks in advance.

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