Thursday, January 08, 2015

Non-Traditional Casting

Can a White Man Play Nat Turner?

            Back in the mid-1980s, when I landed my first living-wage job as an ensemble actor at the venerable Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, PA, non-traditional casting, as it was called, was encouraged in professional theater. There was an Asian-American in our company, for instance, who played parts written for Caucasians, and I myself played an Asian buffoon in one of the productions.
            Later, as a director myself, I cast African-American actors in a variety of non-traditional roles. Among other considerations—like availability and talent—I stood behind the policy of making more choice roles available to good actors who didn't happen to be white.
            But something I never considered before last weekend is how rare it must be for a white actor to be cast in a role written for a black. In fact, without a background in non-traditional casting, I might have shied away when Patti Wray called at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 4 and asked me to play Nat Turner in “Nat’s Last Struggle,” her one-man play scheduled for a staged reading before a live audience at 7:30 that evening.
            She’d had a black actor cast, but she’d just found out that he was sick and couldn't make the gig.
            How could I say no? Patti is my friend, and she’s also my boss at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk, VA, where I’m artist-in-residence. I told her to email the script to me. We joked about doing the role in black face.
            The script came around 5 p.m. I printed it out and began reading. Though I’d seen the play before—in fact, written a review of it in 2009 in Thinking Dog Reviews—I remembered little about it or its protagonist except that George Davis, the black actor who played Nat, turned in a powerful performance.
            I read the script through carefully twice, making notes to myself in the spaces and margins. I dressed myself in somber shades, ate a slice of Jala’s nutritious, freshly baked quiche, and we set off for The American Theatre in Hampton, just across the water from Norfolk, where the reading would be held.
            We arrived around 6:45. Aside from artistic director Jeff Stern, Patti and her Venue co-owner Lucy White, and Kaitlin Koch, the sound operator, no one was there. I checked out the lecture room. Not many chairs were set up, but not many people were expected. The Lighthouse Series, as it’s called—this trial relationship between a well- appointed professional touring house and a local playwrights’ group—had yet to draw much audience.
            What chairs there were faced a playing area along one wall of the room, where props were arranged at different stations. The actor originally cast presumably knew when and how to use them, but I didn't. I asked for a music stand to be placed center stage, giving me a base from which I could expand—or not—as the spirit moved me.
            I got some notes on sound cues from Kaitlin, then I sat down in a chair on the set and began reading through the script again.
            It was about 7:15 by then, and two or three people had drifted in. As I read, still making notes, more people arrived. More chairs were being set up, more people arriving, still more chairs. By the time we started, not long after 7:30, the chairs had overflowed into the halls. Most of the people, by far, were black, and some of them were looking at me through furrows of doubt.
            Jeff introduced the evening, explaining, of course, what had happened with the original actor, though I don’t think he ever actually uttered either the words “black” or “white.” For my part—naively but fortunately, as it turned out—I saw no reason why I couldn't read the script with sufficient conviction and authenticity.
            The play begins with the prerecorded voice of a judge ordering Nat Turner to stand, which I did. My reading glasses in place, I moved to the music stand to hear the judge sentence me—that is, Nat—to be hanged by the neck until “dead, dead, dead.”
            I've always had a fascination with the whole process of execution. What would it be like, after committing some heinous crime, to hear that sentence, absorb the finality of it? Of course any of us could die at any time, and often do, but to know the date, the time, and the method, then be led away to wait until they come for you, gives me a very weird, primitive feeling of damnation and hell and longing for redemption. In that sense a death sentence offers the opportunity to enter a  sacred space where execution is transformational, the door to a delirious freedom.
            I tapped into that emotion as I absorbed Nat’s death sentence, and when I began to speak a voice I hadn't rehearsed and didn’t quite recognize in my repertory of voices boomed forth in an accent I wasn’t sure I could control, and I launched into the play—an approximately 40-minute monologue—feeling a bit like a white-water rafter shooting forward through unpredictable rapids.
            But my audience went with me, offering an example of the validity of non-traditional casting. In the talk-back, which customarily follows these staged reading events, a good bit of time was spent on the credibility of a white man playing Nat Turner, especially before a crowd who expected a black man and, whatever their reasons, were not so ready to accept non-traditional casting in this instance.
            But before it was over—in this instance—they did. That was the consensus, and added to it was the fact, surprising to some of them, that the playwright is a white woman.
            There was a full Moon that evening, culminating a holiday season of much sectarian and racial tension. But in the lecture hall of The American Theatre there was a palpable relaxation of that tension. Everyone was surprised, everyone turned on by an evening that started out as a predictable disaster.
            I don’t know what lesson to take from it. But I can say for sure that I’m glad on that particular night I happened to be in the right place at the right time.


At 2:28 AM , Anonymous Julia Glasse said...


At 2:18 PM , Blogger sydney shenk kissinger said...

Thanks for sharing your step by step process of this experience! Only an excellent actor could pull this off. This speaks accolades to your talent

At 8:37 AM , Anonymous Ann said...

Wonderful, D!

Thanks for detailing your process.
And bringing people together, again.

At 3:04 PM , Blogger Tom Ellis said...

This was a fascinating account of this challenge, to allow yourself, as an actor, to be "possessed" by such a powerful, disturbing, and charismatic historical character! I quite agree with you that casting actors for roles outside of their own ethnicity is a commendable enterprise, for it helps to break down barriers and enables us to see that we all have within us the same basic stuff--it encourages, that is, a kind of imaginative empathy, both for actor and audience. I hope to see a lot more of it. It would be interesting, for example, to do an August Wilson play with white or Asian actors--or, as Patrick Stewart recently did, stage an inverse Othello, where he played Othello against an all-black cast of Venetians. For some reason, the British seem much more open to such experimentation than we are here.

At 3:56 PM , Blogger Delaney said...

British theater is the pinnacle, plus they don't have the same racial heritage as we, meaning a tad less toxic. I wish I'd seen Patrick Stewart's Othello! Fascinating concept!


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