- The Welcome Table : Casting for an Integrated Society
I’m gonna sit at the welcome table I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, Halleluyah I’m gonna sit at the welcome table Gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days.—Spiritual
James Baldwin titled his unfinished, final play The Welcome Table, describing legendary performer Josephine Baker’s home and her practice of adopting young people of all backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities into her family. As I complete work on this essay in November 2012, several events coincide, confirming that it is a significant moment to be reexamining questions of representation and plurality in US theatre. First, President Barack Obama was reelected due, in part, to the overwhelming support of African American (93%), Asian American (73%), and Latino (71%) voters (Robinson). In addition, both the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the “national organization for the American theatre,” and the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the professional union for stage actors, have launched initiatives to explore this topic. The TCG held its Fall Forum on Governance titled “Leading the Charge” because, as Executive Director Teresa Eyring explains, the organization “decided that we must bring trustees and theatre leadership more deeply into a thought process around diversity and how we make concrete strides in thought and practice—as individuals, as organizations, and as an artistic ecosystem” (Eyring 2012). And, in the lead article on the front page of its October/November newsletter, the AEA reasserts its commitment to “access” and “opportunity,” both artistically and legally, having participated in the twentieth Federation of Actors World Congress in September where the topic was discussed in depth. The Broadway League has also introduced an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) committee to examine hiring practices across the industry (McColl). There is clearly a renewed commitment to making US theatre more of a welcome table, with room and food enough for all.
I propose that the first step in a sustainable future for our beloved profession and art lies in reexamining the terminology that defines contemporary practices. In some cases, this language serves as an obstacle to more complex narratives about US society; in other cases, the words are misnomers. I have great respect for the work done in the arenas of “non-traditional” and “color-blind” casting; at the same time, I have concerns about the continued use of these and similar terms. Although the introduction of these concepts ignited a crucial process of change in the industry, the terms themselves have now ossified a collective imaginary within the theatre, which works against their original progressive intentions and inhibits practices from changing. In this essay, I will discuss the current language used in US theatre casting, cite examples of work that defy the assumptions embedded in that language, and propose strategies for engaging audiences in dialogue around these important sociological concerns. By troubling the authority of this language I hope to create even greater possibilities for casting, while shifting a national dialogue around identity and identification. [End Page 1]
“Your fictions become history.”—Barbara Kruger (1983)
“By saying something we do something.”—J. L. Austin (1962, 94)
The AEA introduced the language of non-traditional casting because, as Harry Newman, founder of the Non-Traditional Casting Project (NTCP), writes: “A four-year study . . . completed in January 1986 revealed that over 90 percent of all the professional theatre produced in this country—from stock and dinner theatre to the avant-garde to Broadway—was staged with all-Caucasian casts” (23). In the past twenty-six years, these numbers have not improved significantly. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) was founded in 2011 to “expand the perception of Asian American performers in order to increase their access to and representation on New York City’s stages” (Bandhu 36). In a five-year study of 493 shows in the New York area from the 2006–07 to the 2010–11 seasons, the AAPAC discovered that 80 percent of all shows were cast with European heritage actors.1
Regrettably, many of the challenges that the NTCP worked hard to address still exist, as evidenced by these numbers and several high-profile casting...