Race-blind casting: where do we go from here?

By Roshan Jacob

Race. A simple noun that carries an explosive potential when mentioned. Today, we have plays that include blind-casting that refuse to construct race as an important feature of an actor’s persona and at the same time, calls are being made for a larger presence of minority actors in the Western world. The question being asked: is how do we move forward? There are inherently two directions the world of cinema and theatre can take. Those directions are either to ignore race completely when casting, or to acknowledge it and be conscious of the representation of minorities.

Hamilton is essentially the first theatrical production that comes to mind when questioning the issue of race. Thomas Kali, the director of the West End production has defined the multiracial casting as the ‘core’ of the play. It was essential and was hardly ‘colour-blind casting.’ It was a conscious decision to have people of colour playing what most people would have claimed to be roles intrinsically not suited for them. Race simultaneously became relevant and irrelevant. Lin Manuel-Miranda, writer and original star of the musical, operated in this realm of juxtaposition as he presents a cast that most people in the world can connect with, in some degree. After all, how else would the giant figures of the white, male founding fathers been presented as people that the melting global pot of an audience were called to connect with?

Recently, Quentin Letts has been attacked for holding a racist attitude towards the casting of Leo Wringer in the play The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich. Stating that the actor was only cast because he was ‘black’ was not only politically incorrect but was a comment that invited the backlash of the ‘troubled’ directors. It cannot be denied that there has been an effort to push for the inclusion of minorities in theatrical productions across Britain. Some would label this an agenda. With the multicultural identity of Britain growing and evolving, the ethnic stamp of the country no longer resembles a homogenous population. It is inevitable that people who buy tickets to go to the cinema, would often want to see people on stage who look like themselves. However, should casting be compromised on the back of the policy of inclusion? 

Essentially, the question of race depends on what the director values more: is it a case of achieving cultural or historical accuracy or a case of wanting a diverse cast that achieves the goal of somewhat equal representation? One is not necessarily better than the other. Letts’ misplaced statement is the sum of a clash between these two ideals. Either way, the goal should be to find the best actor for the role. To me, the answer is clear. Different directors, companies and plays will seek to speak out about different issues. It is not about product or result of the plan as much as it is about intention. 

Photograph: Joan Marcus

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