The Baltimore Sun has been reporting on a minor controversy which surfaced this week in Maryland. It regards a concept which has been accepted in the DC area for so many years that it is now almost quaint to hear it discussed: non-traditional casting. We are accustomed to multi-ethnic casts here; poly-ethnic families are so frequently found on our stages that they rarely arouse comment.
Maryland’s Glenelg Country School’s production of "Big River" was such a success that it won several regional high school awards, and they were invited to tape a musical number to be included in a C-Span program covering excellence in high schools. Rogers and Hammerstein Theatricals, which licenses "Big River," stepped in and refused permission for the excerpt to be broadcast. The high school’s production was headed by an African American youngster as Huck Finn, and a white student playing runaway slave Jim.
The R & H spokesman confirmed "... when you're dealing with a theatrical work, and race or ethnicity is a key factor, many authors or playwrights feel strongly that ethnicity has to be reflected in the actors who portray the characters."
Back in the 70s, the original Broadway production of "Pacific Overtures" was written for several dozen Asian American men to play all the roles, including Brits, Yanks, Dutch, French, Russians, and Japanese. Remaining true to Japanese theatrical tradition, they played the women as well.
Back in the 80s, the original Broadway production of "Miss Saigon" was almost unplugged when Cameron Mackintosh insisted upon using his West End star Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer, a character described as Eurasian. The Asian-American acting community openly revolted, threatening the derailment of the entire production. A compromise was finally reached, the white Pryce won the Tony, and he was ultimately replaced by a series of actors with Asian backgrounds.
We’ve come a long way to Signature’s current "Pacific Overtures," featuring ten of the whitest guys and gals in town. With nary an Asian in sight, this piece, which deals largely with differences in race and culture from the Japanese point of view, is being unabashedly played by a western cast in heavy white-face, black wigging, and bold eye make-up to reflect slanted eyes. The ethnic construction of this "P.O." has only received passing mention in the reviews so far, which must mean that we have indeed developed far beyond the Political Correctness of a decade ago.
That’s probably progress, but one wonders if a production of "Purlie," starring white actors in blackface, would receive the same collective shrugs as Signature’s current, all-white offering.