Search This Blog

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

White lies

A theatre company is advertising for a white man to portray Jesus in a play to be shown in Trafalgar Square, London, on Good Friday.

This is ridiculous, but not for the reasons some antiracism groups might give.

It’s ridiculous because Jesus was no doubt a Palestinian by descent, if he existed at all. Even if he’s an amalgam or something imagined, a dark skin and dark hair are going to be par for the course.

What a story in the Daily Telegraph tells us, though, is that some companies have a colour-blind policy on recruiting actors, “with the National even having a group of white colonialists played by black actors in Death and the King’s Horseman last year”.

And that, too, is ridiculous (unless I’m missing some underlying artistic device, because I can’t claim to have seen the play or to have read the programme notes). Colour-blind casting is a good thing, the only right thing, when the appearance of the character isn’t important. If you want an ordinary detective sergeant, say, or a teacher or a lawyer you should choose who does the best audition.

If you want a white supremacist, you choose a white actor. If you want someone to play a plantation slave in Gone with the Wind, you choose a black actor.

So the National are probably guilty of a ridiculous amount of political correctness there.

This has been going on for years. I saw a Theatre in Education play in the Midlands some twenty-odd years ago, which portrayed a family who were white except for one daughter. She was Afro-Caribbean. Fine if there’s a suggestion that she was adopted into the family at some stage, but there was no such suggestion.

There should be plenty of scope for actors who are black, brown, yellow, white or green (don’t laugh: they have them on Mars), and it’s clearly unethical to cast according to colour prejudice.

But it’s silly to cast colour-blind when you need someone to play a character who has a particular appearance. You might as well not be ageist, and say you’ll cast a 16-year-old as an old woman or an 80-year-old as a schoolboy. You might as well say you’ll cast someone who’s wheelchair-bound as a Manchester United forward. Or you might avoid sexism and cast Jordan as a gravel-faced, 50-year-old miner in How Green Was My Valley. Try taking on Gabby Hayes to play Anne of Green Gables (apart from the fact that he’s dead, but you get my drift).

Peter Hutley, the producer with the theatre company staging this play, the Wintershall Charitable Company, says, “Jesus was white. If I was advertising for an actor in Sanders of the River I would specify a black man. We want a cast that is appropriate to Trafalgar Square in 2010. When we perform it in a black prison in Alabama or in Uganda we will have casts appropriate to the area.”

Not sure what he means there. Is he saying Jesus was definitely white or not? First he does, then he says he would cast according to where they perform. He seems to be contradicting himself – assuming he’s been quoted correctly. Perhaps they’re setting the Passion in modern Britain, but it does’t say. And even then you could use a black or Asian man without losing credibility. Hutley is right about the Sanders of the River part, though. Of course you would cast a black actor.

There’s been prejudice among TV casting directors and those in theatres, and stories have appeared from time to time over the years pointing this out. And it shouldn’t be so. If casting directors were truly colour-blind when the part demanded no particular racial type, they could then choose black, white, yellow, brown (or green) when it was appropriate, without criticism. If there hadn’t been racism in the first place, casting directors could cast as appropriate without fear of being branded racist.

No comments: