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ESSAY

Non-traditional Casting

By Jack Marshall

That Championship Season, when it played on Broadway in 1972, was about five white, middle aged men in the Lackawanna Valley of Pennsylvania. This was where Jason Miller grew up. In transferring the drama to Alabama and casting the play with African American actors, The American Century Theater and director Ed Bishop are to some extent changing the author's intent and veering from the company's usual production practice of trying to stay as close to the spirit of the original show as possible. This is the still-controversial realm of non-traditional casting, and That Championship Season is an excellent case study of the practice.

First, let's get our terms straight. "Non-traditional casting" is not the same as "color-blind casting," though it is frequently used to describe the practice of casting without any regard to race and sometimes gender, age, and physical disability. The latter practice, illustrated locally by the Arena Stage's provocative revival of Our Town and on Broadway with the revival of Carousel, often becomes a case of sacrificing the audience's enjoyment and understanding of a show to political objectives. When siblings are presented as belonging to different races in a 19th Century New England town, it is likely to create confusion and distraction that are impediments to telling the playwright's story.

The common argument defending color-blind casting, that audiences "get used to it" over the course of the evening, is no argument at all. Audiences will "get used to" a too cold theater, a rickety set or an actor's annoying mannerisms too, but that doesn't mean that they are good features to have, or that there is a justification for making ticket-buyers endure them.

The primary objective served by color-blind and gender-blind casting is to increase employment opportunities for groups of actors who are historically under-represented among the characters of major stage works. When that can be accomplished without undermining the script, it is laudable, but this is more likely to be the case when the race or gender of the original character is irrelevant to the story. Charley, Willy Loman's soft-touch neighbor in Death of a Salesman, could be cast with a black actor and there would be no resulting confusion. Charley could be black; he just wasn't written that way. But casting Biff, Willy's oldest son, with a black actor would be confusing and suggests a back-story to Miller's play that would be a distraction. A black actor would have to play Biff as a white man, a too-difficult assignment. But playing him as a black man in a white-bread '50s house-hold makes no sense.

Sometimes non-traditional casting can run afoul of copyright laws. U.S. copyright laws give the playwright ownership of all "derivative works" arising from his or her creation. Thus the all-female version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple was, in effect, a different play derived from his original hit; only Simon could do it, because it substantively changed the original play and its characters. A female version of That Championship Season would require substantial re-writing and require permission from Miller's estate or license-holder, even though women's basketball is common enough at high schools and college to make such a production conceivable.

This version of That Championship Season was not significantly changed, with the exception of a change in local and the alteration of few ethnic and racial references. Still, African-Americans have not been cast to portray white men. The championship high school team in this production was an all-black team, and they live in a community with a substantial African-American population, unlike the Lackawanna Valley. This cast turns the play into a drama about the reunion of a black high school team, twenty years after its life-altering triumph, in a Southern town. Is that fair to Jason Miller's work?

One could argue that it's a gift to the work. If Miller's play proves versatile and successful with a different kind of cast than it traditionally employs, then it becomes accessible to more companies, artists and communities. Its chances of survival and lasting popularity have been increased. But is it a legitimate change, one that does not overstep the director's artistic right to interpret a playwright's vision?

Answering this question requires an answer to a different one, and the inquiry must be an honest. I once saw a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore in which the Captain, a character who rejects his daughter's choice of a sailor as the love of her life because he is "beneath her station," was played by a terrific black baritone. Now, Pinafore is a satire on the British class system in Victorian times; a black captain who was a class snob simply didn't and couldn't exist during the show's required time period.. But H.M.S. Pinafore is an absurd comedy and musical entertainment; the class issues are simply a plot device, and one that hasn't had much connection to the real world in decades. The famous trick resolution of the story, in which a nurse reveals that the Captain and the lowly sailor were switched as infants, so the Captain is really the sailor and vice-versa, was always ridiculous (the Captain is about twenty years older than the sailor), and simply more so when the Captain was black and the sailor was white. The operetta's objective---to be funny, fun, and musically enjoyable---was not impeded and quite possibly enhanced by the non-traditional casting. But musical theater is an easier case: look at opera, where black divas are routinely cast as "Carmen." What counts isn't "Does she look Spanish?" but rather "How well can she sing the part?" A non-musical drama, however, may be less forgiving. Thus the key questions are what the objective of the work really is, and whether non-traditional casting help it, undermine it, or make no difference at all.

That Championship Season is a VietNam era play; in many respects, it is the epitome of a VietNam era play. It premiered in 1972, at a tense time in the public debate over the war. As anti-war candidate George McGovern headed to a landslide defeat by President Richard Nixon, many Americans felt that the country had lost its way. The World War II generation was living on the memory of its past triumph, a predominant theory held, while the intervening years had eroded its values and idealism. 1972 was still in a hang-over (or LSD flashback?) from the deep Sixties; the graduating college classes of that year had seen sit-ins, campus strikes, riots, protests and violence. The feeling lingered that anyone over the age of 30 (the "heroes" of That Championship Season are all over 35) was corrupt and couldn't be trusted. Miller's characters and script reflect all of this. His aging basketball team is a stand-in for the country as a whole; its trophy the reputation and ideals of the past that are being tarnished with each passing year.

An all-black team communicates this as clearly as an all-white team. The metaphor survives. Moreover, the casting choice makes the play universal; it clarifies Miller's point by eliminating any chance that he intended to comment on the ennui and desperation of struggling Pennsylvania mining town. It is a play about America, not Pennsylvania.

But it is also a play about bigotry. The strongest objection to the non-traditional casting of the American Century Theater production is that the bigoted and hateful comments against Jews and blacks now come from a Coach who is black himself, rather than the red-necked white coach originally played by Charles Durning. Isn't this a distortion? In the view of Ed Bishop, it is not.

In 1972 the Civil Rights movement was still teetering on the edge of violence; calling attention to the casual racism of Middle America was still vibrant theme in American drama and film. Today, there is a greater understanding that all forms of hatred can infect any group. Bishop strongly believes that it is important to show that African Americans, as Americans, are fully capable of the same habits and conduct incubated by our culture. Again, the message is more powerful if it is more universal.

That Championship Season is an ideal play for a non-traditional casting approach, which is why the American Century Theater decided that it was fair to both play and playwright. The perplexing challenges of non-traditional casting for artists and audiences continue, however. New York City's Non-Traditional Casting Project continues to take the lead in exploring and encouraging the practice, and its web site (www.ntcp.org) provides a wealth of information on the topic. Among the many provocative essays on the organization's site is one by theater critic Jeremy Gerard, writing in 1994. He concludes,

Mixing up race and gender have long been tools used effectively by politically-oriented directors, and some of the theater-going experiences that still stand out in my memory -- Gloria Foster's Mother Courage, Morgan Freeman's Coriolanus, Raul Julia's Petruchio, Diane Venora's Hamlet, to name just four from the Papp legacy -- were electrifying precisely because of the way race and gender were employed to force an audience to view a familiar work in a completely new social context.

It goes without saying that we are still a long way from a theater in which talent prevails over other casting considerations, particularly in the mainstream. But in those places where non-traditional casting, and especially colorblind casting, has long been established, audiences and critics alike are confronted with an interesting challenge. For if we suspend disbelief on matters of race and gender, we risk willfully ignoring a key point of a production. But if such casting prompts us to wonder about the political implications of a production, we must do so by putting aside the very notion of non-traditional casting. It's a dilemma I haven't fully worked out, and one I suspect stymies many of my colleagues as well.

The test, in the final analysis, is whether or not non-traditional casting results in good art as well as a memorable theater experience. And that will always be affected most by the power of what is on the page as well as the talents of those on the stage.


~ Originally published in 2007 in the Audience Guide for TACT's production of That Championship Season.


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