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The Case Against (or For) the Case Against Colorblind Casting

A little over a week ago, an article written by Angelica Jade Bastien for The Atlantic made its rounds on social media. You can read it here for reference. The article was posted and re-shared, sometimes without comment, sometimes with words of support, a few with arguments adamantly against it. Bastien poses the question, "when does acceptance [of colorblind casting] become erasure?" and uses the success of Oscar Isaac's acting career as an example.

Because the author touched on so many interesting topics within her piece, we were curious to know how different Chicago artists felt about it. While some took issue with a few of her statements, we found it an incredible jumping off point for the dialogue we're just now delving into in our community.

Below are reactions from actors, writers and directors who generously gave of their time and words.

“Color blind [casting] is not a good thing. I am black. I don't want to not be black. But that shouldn't stop you from considering me in a film and allowing my black curly to come through the character. If they are colorblind they can't appreciate you and what you come from. You can't be proud of and share your traditions. You become null, void, which is a form of erasure.”

- Samuel Roberson, actor and artistic director at Congo Square Theatre

“I understand and see her point, but I also think it's a bit of a fine line. Where do we as artists get to a point where it is a non- issue, because shouldn't it be about the story after all and not the race or ethnicity of the actor? There is no doubt that there are inherit problems with the term ‘colorblind’ casting in general and I agree with that, but we also have to acknowledge that we are seeing actors able to break out of preconceived notions of what they can or should play vs. what will best serve the story they are trying to tell or tell it in a way that embraces a modern audience for today. Do we have enough of it yet? No, but I think if you see all types of artists adapt this mold, then it can not only be good for the industry in general, but to also inspire young artists who wish to emulate their success in being great artists and not just artists of color.”

Anish Jethmalani, Eclipse Theatre ensemble member, actor and director

“It's interesting because for the most part I've heard this particular argument from white directors who want to justify casting white people for everything unless it is a play that takes place in Asia or Africa. There is room for more than one way to cast, for more than one way to tell stories. "Color blind casting" is not damning minorities into being erased. But it isn't the only way to solve things.

Her point seems to be that she would like race to be addressed in all of those stories. And it doesn't have to - all the time. I didn't need Poe to have a soliloquy about Guatemala in Star Wars.

Just like with the Hunger Games casting controversy [with Amanda Stenberg as Rue], they actually created an opportunity for an excellent minority actor by re-imagining the character to make it a more universal story. Not trying to erase ethnicity.”

- Emjoy Gavino, Remy Bumppo ensemble member and casting associate

“When I read the article, my first response was 'Yes, and....' I think sci-fi/fantasy/future genre stories are well-served by casting that explodes gender/racial/ethnic boundaries. In a world with robots and aliens, human beings of all colors look more alike than not, which is a huge net positive.

In tackling The Grapes of Wrath, it's important for me to connect casting choices to very specific storytelling goals. Given that this story is rooted in true history and classic American literature, I am not looking to deconstruct race or gender, but to place them in historical context. Even if I were to have cast the play with all white actors (which was never on the table), I would have used it as an opportunity to explore and investigate whiteness.

How can we be inclusive, imaginative, specific, and personal all at once - without underrepresenting or erasing identity? It occurred to me that this production of The Grapes of Wrath [coming up at The Gift Theatre] could accommodate as many representational goals as true history allows –not without requiring some stretching, but we can rely on the story to handle it.”

- Erica Weiss, Gift Theatre ensemble member and director

“[The article] is loaded but not specific…What it seems to be saying is "Why can't his characters act more Latino?" which is weird. Maybe I'm missing something, but I think it’s GOOD when an actor is cast and it's not about their race, just, you know, their [talent.]”

- Ike Holter, Inconvenience Theatre company member and playwright

“The writer is like... "it’s this or this!"…If this happens, then this will happen! It’s so black and white. It’s a complex issue - it requires complex thought. She doesn't understand that. There are no shades of gray in her argument. In Fiddler on the Roof... someone says to Tevye, "this mule is 6 years old," and Tevye says, "You are right." And another guy comes up and says... "This mule is 12 years old," and Tevye says "…ah yes, you are right." And then a third guy comes up and says, “You just told two people that they were right, but they can’t both be right!?

and Tevye says "...Ya know.... you are also right!" There are lots of right ways and wrong ways... it's complex. It’s grey. We can't be so strict with our thought.

The amount of success, featuring people of color right now is astounding... Guardians of Galaxy, Creed, Straight Outta Compton, Star Wars, Master of None, Hamilton...I could go on and on...It’s selling!

I see it every day with Disgraced... seeing a wealthy Brown man and a wealthy Black woman on stage as successful lawyers in fancy ass clothes in a 8 million dollar upper east side apartment is inspiring for people of color in the audience every single day. I do the talkbacks every single night and it is brought up 95 percent of the time.

- Behzad Dabu, Timeline artistic associate and actor

“I do think that we could stand to have more roles written with culture and ethnicity in mind. However, ethnically ambiguous roles don't bother me as much because it is open to interpretation. And we cannot help but bring our personal experience and culture with us in our work, especially when you are creating something new. That's where we, as actors, can to step up and be the voice of change.

I am a little torn. It is important to continue to have these discussions about diversity and continue to make the leaders aware of their casting choices…but at the same time, when can we all just be human beings? When can we just see our samenesses and differences and embrace them?

I think "colorblind" or "non-traditional" casting was a good first step towards getting diversity on stage and screen. And maybe it is time to take this to the next level, to have "a broader middle ground for actors of color…between stories where race is everything and stories where it's not even an afterthought." Getting some of the leaders and writers of the industry to think different and to take risks isn't always easy. But I think anything is possible including this.

The hard part about being only an actor is that everything is dependent on someone else writing roles for you, fitting the director's vision and so on. At the end of the day, I feel like we have to make these changes happen ourselves. Believe that our perspective, our voice is just as important. Believe that we can write our own material, produce, direct it ourselves and/or act in it. Whatever combination, we can achieve anything we dream of. Be the example of change to show them how it's done.”

- Christine Bunuan, actor and director

What did you think? We'd love to hear from you...


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