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  • Power and Problems of Performance across Ethnic Lines: An Alternative Approach to Nontraditional Casting
  • William H. Sun (bio)

In discussions about nontraditional casting, especially in the articles published so far in TDR and in the February 2000 online discussion of the American Society for Theatre Research group (2000),1 I often see a major discrepancy between theory and practice. A universalist theory—as articulated enthusiastically and polemically by Richard Schechner in his TDR Comment, “Race Free, Gender Free, Body-Type Free, Age Free Casting” (1989) and widely echoed in the ASTR discussion—promotes a humanist’s color-blind approach to theatre based on the belief that race and ethnicity, along with gender, are relative after all. Leslie Radford’s 8 February 2000 entry in the ASTR discussion gives strong support to this theory. Radford describes what she sees as life in Los Angeles:

I’m in Los Angeles, where, perhaps too often, life imitates art (and entertainment). Here, gender and ethnicity are becoming truly subjective, or perhaps just revealing that subjectivity: I routinely ask students about their cultural identity before I use that ethnicity in discussion. Parents, as often as not, do not resemble their offspring, and to assume they should (“Oh, who’s child is that?”) is in the worst possible taste. […] I routinely have students who assiduously adopt some subculture that their appearance belies.

So life here is looking like the casting we thought dangerously experimental in grad school. In many theaters, to cast an apparently racially homogenous family is to distance the play, to reinforce the differences between the audience and the characters in time or place. The truth of staged life seems, to me, to be relative to the real life around it.


This picture certainly indicates that nontraditional casting, if it still needs to be described as such, should be anything goes, any direction is OK. In practice, however, nontraditional casting is always very specific in direction. In [End Page 86] two TDR articles elaborating the practical ramifications of nontraditional casting (Newman 1989; Schultz 1991), the focus was on “providing opportunity for minority actors” (Schultz 1991:7). Therefore, the issue was limited to nonwhite actors playing traditionally white roles. As Harry Newman reports, Actors’ Equity simply defines nontraditional casting “as the casting of ethnic and female performers in roles where race, ethnicity, or gender are not germane to the character’s or play’s development” (1989:24), brushing aside other types of nontraditional casting—ethnic roles played by actors of Caucasian or other ethnicities. Given that Actors’ Equity is a trade union, its focus on fair employment is understandable. Nonetheless, job opportunities for minority actors are only one of the many issues involved in performance across ethnic lines worth exploring.

As the universalist theory stands, nontraditional casting logically should translate into mixes of all kinds, just as Radford sees in her life around L.A. So why are its applications almost only one-way? Why do I hear so little about performance across ethnic lines in both directions? The aforementioned Schechner TDR Comment advocates a sweeping overhaul of traditional casting, which he sees as race specific, gender specific, body-type specific, and age specific. Schechner cites many bold possibilities, suggesting that his approach is more ambitious and comprehensive than that of most people debating nontraditional casting. What is conspicuously missing, however, is a specific mention of a very obvious possibility and a potentially explosive question eagerly awaiting candid discussion: Should, or can, non-white roles be played by actors of different ethnicities, especially whites?

Few people want to address this question because there is still a sometimes dangerous tension between ethnic groups. The picture Radford paints is heartening but I cannot help doubting its accuracy. I have also lived in L.A. and can see a lot of truth in her description. Yet we must not overlook the other side of the coin, which is equally, if not more, important. One doesn’t have to have lived in L.A. to know how severe the tension between ethnic groups can get there. The video clips of Rodney King, the 1992 riot (or uprising), and the O.J. Simpson trial are still fresh in our...


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pp. 86-95
Launched on MUSE
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