Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Color Blind Casting: A Streetcar Named Desire

Are we really still talking about color blind casting?

The cast of A Streetcar Named Desire: Wood Harris, Nicole Ari Parker, Blair Underwood, Daphne Rubin-Vega

I know this is old news — heck, the current Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire has been in performances since the beginning of April — but director Emily Mann recently tore open that pesky old wound whilst moderating a plenary at this year’s TCG National Conference. Complaining about critic John Lahr’s request from way back in December that there be no more all-black productions of Tennessee Williams’s plays, she was vindicated when the New Yorker appointed Hilton Als to review the production instead of Lahr.

Always and forever a huge Williams fan, I still questioned why we needed a revival of this play, but beyond that I couldn’t care one iota about Mann’s multiracial casting (though this does mark the first such casting of the play on Broadway since its premiere in 1947). Apparently, no one besides Lahr did either (while most critics did find fault with the casting of specific actors) — which is as it should be.

On the other hand, Lahr’s request included the snide addition “unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson.” This comment is ridiculous for one obvious reason: Wilson’s characters reference their blackness. So unless some ballsy  (read: idiotic) director-dramaturg totally mangles Wilson’s work by deleting such specificities, one cannot actually stage a production of Fences starring white folks. But what if Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle wasn’t focused on issues of race throughout the century — would we then be able to have white casts perform his plays?

Probably not. And while that is Lahr’s point, and it’s a good one to an extent, he’s still a little misguided in making it. Streetcar — and Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey Into Night and all those other great (white) American classics — don’t explore the characters’ whiteness. But Ruined, Topdog/Underdog, The Brother/Sister Plays — and almost every play written by a black artist — deal with racial issues that keep them from being subjected to color blind casting to this degree. Sure, there’s the infrequent work such as David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (working class whites in Southie) that requires whiteness to some degree in its casting, but those works are much fewer and farther between.

While there isn’t much of a “conclusion” here,  another, larger, question looms in my mind: Can an artist of color write a play that doesn’t deal — intentionally or intrinsically — with race? And if s/he can: Can we (critics, audiences, etc.) let it be seen in that way?

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2 comments on “Color Blind Casting: A Streetcar Named Desire

  1. Aaron
    July 1, 2012

    The reason Lahr is wrong (and the reason his comments are inappropriate, I think) is that he behaves as though there is some sort of racial equality on Broadway. There is not.

    I think that many artists of color have found that their color is the most important factor defining them in their lives in the United States. It therefore makes enormous sense for them to write specifically about color. If this is not true for white Americans this is because whiteness is privileged in the United States and because a part of that privilege has to do with the very invisibility of that privilege. So that white artists (and white people in general) have not in the main understood their whiteness as their most defining feature. And they do not feel it as their most defining feature precisely because the privileged position of this most defining feature allows them not to feel it.

    • Julie
      July 1, 2012

      You are of course correct, and I’ve read other commentary in response to Lahr that has basically said the same thing. I agree with all of you; Lahr was clearly speaking from a place of privileged white obliviousness.

      I suppose the Lahr comment was really just a very roundabout way (we’ll blame the codeine) to get to what I find much more interesting: examples of works by artists of color that are not largely about race/ethnicity. And your comment makes me also ask: what are examples by white playwrights of works that explore whiteness? Do any even exist?

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