In the wake of the Signature Theatre’s revival of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, much has been made about the racial implications of turning a one-person Anna Deavere Smith play into a multi-cast affair.
When producing such a race-centric piece, theaters must decide how true-to-race the casting should be. Mismatching the race of the actor with the race of the character actually hews closer to Smith’s original vision: she, a black woman, played every role, including characters who aren’t black women.
Given the now-familiar conventions of one-person shows, this one-actor-fits-all approach can largely fly under the further-consideration radar. But with a diverse cast, who plays who becomes freighted with potential meaning, particularly when an actor is playing a race different than their own.
It’s fair game to analyze the relationship between the actor’s race and the character’s race for intentional commentary, in the same way it’s fair to posit that Smith’s theatrical modus operandi bears a distinctly humanitarian bent: cross-race casting can be viewed as a “we are all one human race” sentiment.
BUT, to me, no matter if her plays are performed by one person or many, the racial component of the cast strikes a similar effect.
What happens when we’re forced to glean a character’s race solely through what they say, and not based on their appearance? If you know the real historical figures they’re playing, or if the text makes their race obvious, then no thought required. But for generally unknown interviewees, how does our relationship to the characters and their words change after we figure out their race, or/and especially when we can’t?
It’s a study of words and characters not so much detached from their bodies, as interpreted by differently-identified bodies.
And let’s not forget the definition of the word ‘twilight’: “a period or state of obscurity and ambiguity.”
Parsing racial dynamics is never as simple as our eyes would have us believe.