In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: An Experiment in “Race-Conscious” Casting
  • Melinda D. Wilson (bio)

My conscious casting choices may shift a few of the relationships represented in the play, but my first responsibility as a university professor is to teach. It is my sincere hope that all of the students involved in this production have learned something about the history and culture of enslaved Africans and their descendents that leads them (and you) to contemplate social constructions of race and privilege.

—“Director’s Note,” Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (2006)

I directed August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at California State University, Sacramento, in November 2006. The play, set in 1911, takes place in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse and follows the spiritual journey of Herald Loomis, a quiet yet foreboding man, who arrives with his eleven-year-old daughter in tow searching for his wife, Martha. Bynum Walker, a root-worker and four-year resident of the house, guides Loomis through his tormenting memories of enslavement and helps him to cleanse his soul.1 Prompted by the limited number of African American student actors in the department’s casting pool, I purposely cast certain roles nontraditionally by assigning select characters to actors whose social identity differed from their own.2 Although I could have easily recruited African American actors from the larger campus or, even, the Sacramento community, I viewed the production as a teaching opportunity, a chance to analyze nontraditional casting practices and employ theatre to examine perceptions of race and ethnicity. This essay frames my casting choices for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone within a larger discussion on the appropriateness and challenges of “race-conscious” casting.

When teaching or directing an African American play, I strive to provide my students with distinct points of entry into black experiences. Undergraduates, across the board, can be reluctant to engage works by African American playwrights, because they may feel that black plays do not reflect their views, values, or life experiences. I consider it to be my responsibility to illuminate the points of connection between my students and the playwright’s characters. For example, most college students should be able to identify with Beneatha Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun. Like many theatre majors, she is twenty-years-old; she flits and floats from hobby to hobby in an effort to express herself; and she knows that members of her family—her brother in particular—disagree with her career choice. If students view Beneatha only as a “black” woman and fail to examine her complete character, then they severely limit their ability to comprehend her given circumstances and personal objectives. This is not to say that students should be taught to overlook or ignore race: the race and ethnicity of characters, particularly those created by Wilson within specific sociohistorical moments, inform their experiences and determine their choices. The goal is to help students, who may find racial difference to be an obstacle to character identification, to recognize similarities between themselves and the character so they can then better appreciate specific African American experiences. I share this philosophy with Harry Elam Jr., who, in his Editorial Comment to Theatre Journal ’s 2005 special issue on black performance, wrote:

The black thing [that comprises Wilson’s works] is not something [non-blacks] wouldn’t understand. Rather, what Wilson claims through his cycle is that this is a black thing that we [all] [End Page 39] need to understand. We [all] need to appreciate the endurance, the pride, the struggle, and the survival that constitute African American history and experience [because it leads us to better understandings of ourselves and each other].

(ix, emphasis added)

The process of preparing an August Wilson play for production requires all actors to study African American culture and to promote understandings of black life in a way that simply seeing a production or reading the play for a class assignment does not. Why not immerse students of multiple racial backgrounds in African American culture by casting them in a Wilson play?

What Would August Wilson Do?

Wilson stated his opposition to colorblind casting on multiple occasions. His...