Del Shakes asked its two Arts Journalists-in-Residence, Christian Wills and Gail Obenreder (one BIPOC, and one white), to both share reflections on Del Shakes’ October online discussion. We hope these reflections add another dimension to the conversation. You can view the original panel HERE.
by Christian Wills
Everyone can enjoy a cast of colorful characters, but it’s important to see how impactful color can be on and off the stage. For some, the narrative around color-blind casting has been heard time and time again, but for others, the conversation has only begun.
On the evening of October 29th, Delaware Shakespeare hosted a panel discussion focusing on “Color-Blind vs. Color-Conscious Casting in Shakespeare” with seasoned Del Shakes actors: Newton Buchanan, Bi Jean Ngo, Tai Verley, and J Hernandez. Each panelist, being a person of color, brought their fair share of knowledge and experience when it came to the subject of color-blind and color-conscious casting.
Defining Color-Blind Casting and Color-Conscious Casting
Before questions were answered, panelists defined what color-blind casting and color-conscious casting meant to them. Color-blind casting (or non-traditional casting) is the practice of casting without considering the actor’s ethnicity, skin color, body shape, sex, and/or gender. Color-conscious casting, then, is the opposite of color-blind casting: taking into consideration the actor’s skin color, body shape, and other characteristics.
Ngo argued that the “idea of color-blind casting” needs to be cut entirely from the language of the arts. Hernandez added that the term can be simplified to casting “without consideration.” Being conscious of an actor’s skin color or ethnicity should be considered when casting someone for a specific role. Ngo later stated that “unless you’re actually blind, we see color;” a statement true for those with seeing eyes on and off the stage.
Conversation on Race in Shakespeare
The atmosphere around these sensitive topics were equally heavy and light in tone, as there were moments of laughter and intensity ringing throughout the call. Verley opened up on how Shakespeare plays were more open to interpretation, since the roles were more diverse and universal for actors of any color to participate in. Buchanan stated how the disconnect and imagination of these plays could set anyone of any background into any role they choose to become.
On the flipside of the coin, others can see this kind of adaptation as a threat to their own reality and social consciousness. As Ngo mentioned, some audience members would have a problem seeing a diverse cast of characters play in roles created over 400 years ago, originally made for European actors and audiences. These problems present underlying themes and “certain layers of race and racism” that are greatly embedded within American society today. For many, and as Ngo also stated, “the default is white,” which leads into color-blind casting from producers. However, when we add consciousness to it, we see how everyone can have a chance in the spotlight.
Tokenism vs Diversity
During the program, the discussion of having performers that represent tokenism and performers that add diversity to a stage show came into play. To create tokenism is to bring the allusion of diversity and inclusion; this can be achieved by bringing in a minority character or group to a production to prevent criticism from others. In contrast, diversity within a production is added when the minority roles are used to add or build inclusion within a homogenized environment. These are the differences between portraying a stereotype and exemplifying culture and purpose within a role.
Hernandez had asked an important question when it came to minority groups in theatre: “How do you open up the playing field”? Ngo addressed this question in how she had observed other token roles in the past. BIPOC characters were seen as “monstrous,” “goofy,” or the “other” archetype while the main majority cast were all white and exhibited none of these qualities. In order to give other minority actors space to become themselves within any given role, we must allow them to give purpose, include them into our narratives, and drive them away from a false sense of diversity.
The importance of tokenism and diversity settled into the conversation more when the focus shifted on the audience. As Buchanan mentioned, “the audience comes in and brings their own experience.” If an all-Black, younger audience witnesses a Black man portrayed as the “goofy” or “monstrous” individual, it’ll contrast with the rest of their real-life experience. Showing to an audience of all colors that everyone matters, no matter the role they play, can significantly impact the people you want to reach, both as an actor and producer.
As a person of color, writer, poet and host, I’ve seen how my actions have affected others; those that look like me and those that don’t. Performing poetry for POC and white audiences gives perspective to my life and theirs as well. Some can relate to my stories because of the color of our skin. Some can understand my background because of our similar past experiences with culture or race. For the few remaining, they can see into a world that, for them, previously didn’t exist before. After watching the panelists and seeing their responses, I’ve now entered into another world previously unknown to me, yet familiar in some way. Though their experiences with color on stage may look different from my own, I can see their colorful storytelling in a new light and respect the differences each one holds.
This discussion of color-conscious and color-blind casting highlighted the importance of seeing race and why we should always acknowledge it, on or off the stage. When it comes to diversity, Buchanan mentioned that, as people of color, “we can live in these characters…and play in these truths.” No matter the role we play, let’s remind ourselves to stay true to who we are.
Looking not with the eye, but with the mind . . .
by Gail Obenreder
As someone with a long theatre history – audience, student, costumer, actor, producer, and now a critical writer – I was especially interested to see Delaware Shakespeare convene the panel “Color-Blind vs. Color-Conscious Casting in Shakespeare.” This lively hour-long discussion featured four BIPOC Del Shakes regulars with extensive regional experience as actors, producers, and directors – Newton Buchanan, J Hernandez, Bi Jean Ngo, and Tai Verley.
The group first looked at two casting theories commonly used by Shakespeare companies. The term “color-blind casting” hit the theatrical mainstream in the 1960s, before I began working in the theatre, and it was in full force as I began my career. At the time, this novel idea was something toward which theatres actively began to work. Its goals included widening the roles available to actors and encouraging “traditional” Shakespeare audiences (mostly white) to take a broader view as producers and directors introduced casting without consideration for race, sex, or age.
Color-conscious casting is a practice that is more inclusive, rangier, thoughtful – and thus it’s harder to pin down and define. Verley cited a definition given by the Harvard Business School as the ability to cast a play knowing the person’s ethnicity. All agreed that this encompasses more BIPOC inclusion and a more diverse onstage world, and it’s now become both the term of choice and a frequent theatrical goal.
Moderator David Stradley noted that the Bard seem to lend himself more readily to this kind of flexibility and exploration than other playwrights, engendering a lively consideration of why. Verley noted that contemporary playwrights often give specific directions in the script about place and race, but Shakespeare allows more universality. Hernandez – who has worked extensively in Shakespeare – felt that (with some exceptions) many roles in the canon are interchangeable and thus more available to BIPOC actors. “Everyone is given the invitation,” he said, noting that “Shakespeare is the reason why I have a career now.”
As the group began to discuss how theatre can be made safer and more viable for BIPOC actors and audiences alike, the four cited situations where they observed that “color-blind” casting went wrong.
Hernandez said that as an actor who has portrayed a range of Shakespearean characters, he has seen and experienced many micro-aggressions, especially in playing Shakespearean comedy. He cited how productions of Love’s Labor’s Lost often make a joke of the character of Don Armado, “that fantastical Spaniard.” As a Latino and someone who has played the role, he finds that particularly difficult.
Ngo cited that she’s experienced how often the “token person of color” is cast in the role of “the other,” made silly or the butt of a joke, or otherwise distanced.
Verley told of her experience playing Nerissa in Del Shakes’ production of The Merchant of Venice, noting her initial reluctance about being cast as a Black woman serving Portia (played by a white woman). After much thought, she accepted the role, and during the production worked with Stradley (who directed it) to find a satisfying pathway exploring that dynamic. “I’m a funny person and I’m probably going to play more comic parts,” she concluded, “so I’ll have to always have that conversation.”
Stradley then urged the panel to consider two Del Shakes Summer Festival shows that worked diligently to achieve color-conscious casting. The first was the 2018 production of Much Ado About Nothing. As the director of this production, Ngo set a goal “to fill the world with a multi-racial cast,” using this comic masterpiece to explore intentional representation that reflected the world through both the actors and the designers. She felt it important to discover “who we want to bring onstage and normalize.”
Among a range of Ngo’s color-conscious choices was her intentional casting of Hernandez in the rangy role of Benedick, the play’s charming and witty leading man. The actor was taken aback to get this role after seasons of playing back-to-back monsters and servants. “My type, my niche, is not the romantic lead in Shakespeare. Except for high school, I never got a romantic lead, and I never saw a person like me onstage.”
The group also discussed Del Shakes’ 2019 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Krista Apple, which approached color-conscious work differently. In this comedy, the Pages are the family that everyone respects and aspires to imitate, and Apple wanted them to be a Black nuclear family. She cast Buchanan as the father, a role central to the narrative. The family had other unifying features than race – they all wore glasses, for instance – and Buchanan (who had come to audition for another role) reveled in playing the truth of that family unit. “These are the people where everyone went to their house to have a party,” he noted, and for him, that was a rare and welcome playing experience.
Stradley’s query about how these four actors decide to accept a role elicited more lively discussion. Sometimes, says Hernandez with a laugh, you take the role because “everyone has to eat,” but he always analyzes what opportunities (professional or financial) it may afford him later. Ngo looks to determine that in the role – whether small or large, comic or dramatic – the character has “agency and a great story. If it’s a character that perpetuates a stereotype, I’ll refuse it.”
Advising younger BIPOC actors about their profession, Hernandez said, “Whenever you go on stage, this is your story, and there’s no getting away from that. I am always proud of my story.” Verley said, “You can ask us for help. Reach out to other BIPOC actors. We’re around.” Buchanan advised them to remember that “you are enough. More than enough.” And Ngo brought the discussion back to the Bard, saying that “whatever role you get in Shakespeare becomes whatever race you are. That language becomes yours. Fight for what you believe in the room.”