Omari Newton: “Colour blind casting” is an absurd and insidious form of racism

Omari Newton: “Colour blind casting” is an absurd and insidious form of racism

I’ve been a professional theatre actor for more than 20 years and yet – somewhat inexplicably – I’d never made the trek to New York to see a show on Broadway before this year.

So when I had the opportunity to spend a few days in New York [Editor’s note: Omari is in a stellar film called ‘The Shipment’ that screened at Tribeca Film Festival, and he received some impressive reviews! –SF], I was determined to immerse myself in as many plays as possible. I wanted to see living legends live on stage, performing critically acclaimed work, in historic theatres. My first Broadway visit was no time time for artistic gambling.

This criteria made the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s classic All My Sons an easy choice. The cast of the play’s revival was anchored by the legendary Annette Bening, and critically acclaimed playwright and actor Tracy Letts. The production was predictably solid from the standpoint of craft, enough so that I was in tears as the piece careened into its tragically inevitable end.

Despite all of the above, there was something that bothered me about the production throughout, so much so that it pulled me and numerous other audience members right out of the play, leading us to whisper questions into the ears of the people we came with. The issue in question was the inexplicable decision to employ the tactic of “colour blind casting.”

For the uninitiated, “colour blind casting” is the theatrical practice of casting actors from different racial or ethnic backgrounds in roles haphazardly, regardless of the very obvious implications this may have on the story being told. I have always loathed this practice in theory, but had never viscerally experienced just how absurd and distracting it can be before seeing this production of All My Sons on Broadway. 

Before I continue, I have to explain a bit about myself to properly contextualize my gripes with the practice of “colour blind casting.” I am a 39 year old Black man and a long-time theatre professional. I earned my full union card at the age of 19 thanks to a Montreal company called Black Theatre Workshop. The vitality of diverse representation in professional theatre was ingrained in me from the very start of my career, so much so that when I evolved from an actor to professional playwright and director, I gravitated towards stories that placed the lived experiences of people of colour at the very centre of the narrative.

In my personal life, I have volunteered countless hours as an activist, educator, and union rep championing the cause of diversity in the arts. I see it as a personal calling.

I express this to make it abundantly clear, I want nothing more than to see diversity on every stage in the world.

I just don’t want to see it done blindly.

“Colour blind casting” is rooted in systemic racism. It is a form of erasure. It is the theatrical equivalent of ignorantly telling your Black friend “I don’t see colour” when they try to engage you in a conversation about race. It is passively dehumanizing in the way that it dismisses the racism that is embedded in the very fabric of how colonized countries were founded. Never had I seen this more on display than I did in this otherwise impressive Broadway show.

An image from the Broadway revival of All My Sons. Source:  Time Out

An image from the Broadway revival of All My Sons. Source: Time Out

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons was originally produced in 1947, a mere two years after the end of World War II. It is set in a gorgeous backyard in Ohio that is connected to the equally beautiful home of a well-to-do family.

The drama in the play is centred around a dark secret with roots in World War II. A man who owned a shop that made airplane parts sold defective pieces to the American military. His negligence led to the death of 21 American pilots, which leads to one of the play’s central questions: Were these faulty parts sold knowingly, and if so, who made this fatal decision?

When the play starts, we meet a wealthy man named Joe Keller. He is the owner of the beautiful home where the play takes place. We learn that both he and his employee Steve Deveer have done jail time in connection to the sale of these defective airplane parts. It is unclear who in the neighbourhood, including members of Keller’s own family, knows who is culpable for the sale of these defective parts that led to the deaths of 21 America pilots.

All of the above makes for a gripping setup for an exploration of the complexities of capitalism, honour, loyalty, family, and community. What it did not deserve or require was the imposition of the completely unexplored dynamics of racial politics in the late 1940s tacked onto it.

Inexplicably, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word, we learn that one of Keller’s neighbours, a white man, is married to a Black woman. They even have a beautiful mixed race child. As a Black man who has been married to a white woman for nearly five years in the year 2019, interracial marriage is obviously not a big deal in and of itself. However, as a man with even a perfunctory understanding of American history, I realize that this would likely be a very big deal in late 1940s Ohio.

While an interracial marriage may have been possible in 1947 Ohio, it would have been very difficult due to the complicated history of miscegenation laws that made interracial marriage illegal in many states, including Ohio. While many states repealed these racist laws, this was an issue in America until the 1967 Supreme Court decision – Loving v. Virginia – determined that all state anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional..

This was all I could think about for quite a while when this interracial relationship was first revealed in the production. It raised many questions that pulled me right out of the play – questions which were never meant to be answered, because in the original play, the married couple were both written as white.

The resulting effect of this act of “colour blind casting” was forcing audience members to make a subconscious decision to accept the fact that this play takes place in a fictional, idyllic America where racism never existed. Slavery? Never happened. The Civil War and its far reaching ramifications? Non existent, I guess. I went from watching a well acted and produced classic of American Theatre to an insulting episode of Black Mirror.

As if this first act of “colour blind casting” wasn’t distracting enough, later in the play we learn that George, the brother of a character named Ann, who in this production was played by a white actress, is played by a Black man. Not only was this simply confusing on a basic level, but the implications of this dynamic raised even more profound questions about the exceedingly progressive politics that must have existed in the world  of this play – questions that by definition could not be explored because they were never meant to be in the original script that saw the entire cast as white.

I felt insulted by all of the above. I was also one of many audience members who were confused and distracted by all of this. I, like many others, leaned over to a person I came to the theatre with to double check if I had heard correctly, that this Black man who just entered was the brother of the white woman I had been watching on stage the entire first act of the play.

What made matters worse is the fact that the father of George and Ann was still in jail after taking  he fall for his boss. Instead of following the rich drama, I found myself wondering if the father was a Black man. This could be a poignant statement about racial bias in the legal system, only I was reminded that there was no such statement being made in this play, as the characters were intended to be all white. It all felt lazy at best, distracting and insulting at worst. It simply didn’t work for me. I found myself wondering how and why such a half baked decision could be made at the highest level of theatre in North America. This prompted me to do some digging, and the results were revealing.

It turns out this production was steeped in racial controversy from the very beginning. The original director of the revival, Gregory Mosher, a critically acclaimed Broadway director, originally wanted to cast both the roles of George and Ann with Black actors. He quit the production in protest after Arthur Miller’s estate, overseen by his daughter Rebecca Miller, objected to his concept making an argument that is the theatrical equivalent of #AllLivesMatter, saying:

“When Gregory suggested casting the Deevers as African American, I wanted to be sure the concept held water historically and thematically,” Miller said in her statement. She added that she worried Mosher’s casting “was in danger of white-washing the racism of 1947 suburban Ohio.” When she suggested that Mosher adopt a true “colorblind” approach — meaning opening all the roles to actors of any colour — “Mr. Mosher rejected that idea and chose to leave the production.”

In my opinion, the original director was right. While his concept of making both the brother and sister Black would have raised difficult questions, there would have at least been some form of logic at play. The director understood the optics of presenting the Deevers family as Black in the late 1940s. A lot of subtext can be added between lines of dialogue by a thorough director with a firm hand and clear vision. It may not have fully worked, but it would have made more sense and been less distracting than haphazardly placing Black people into a time period rife with racial discrimination and pretending it was non-existent. Instead, what we got was an unnecessarily messy, confusing, absurd fantasy play that demanded audience members ignore their own eyes and a basic knowledge of America’s history of racism.

A thorough explanation of the initial casting controversy can be found here.

“Colour blind casting” is insulting. It is confusing. It is a form of erasure rooted in white guilt and systemic racism. I encourage directors and producers to cast roles non traditionally, but not “blindly.”

What we need is “colour conscious casting.” If you want to introduce characters of colour into your story as a writer, director or producer, please do so in ways that encompass our complex history and our lived experiences.

Race matters. Race is not interchangeable. Pretending that it is irrelevant diminishes the struggles many of us still face today. If your concept can not account for the inclusion of our bodies on stage or screen in ways that actually integrate us into your story authentically, in ways that are honest, real, and humane, then don’t bother to include us at all. To do otherwise is asking performers to further diminish ourselves to appease white liberal guilt, and asking audiences to continue patting themselves on the back for living in a fantasy world where racism never existed. “Colour blind casting” is the theatrical equivalent of #AllLivesMatter. It needs to be retired from the theatre like it’s ideological relatives “Black Face”, and segregation before it.

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Editor’s note: Omari Newton is a creative force who has made a mark in multiple cities across Canada: in Montreal, where at 19 years old he won accolades for his performance in Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!’ with Black Theatre Workshop, Canada’s oldest Black theatre company; in Ottawa, where his play ‘Sal Capone’ will run in the second half of the National Arts Centre’s 2017-2018 season; and in Vancouver, where he’s straddled the screen and theatre worlds as an in-demand actor (‘Continuum’), producer (‘The Shipment’), playwright (‘Sal Capone’), and teacher. Omari won a 2018 Jessie Award for his performance in ‘The Shipment.’ Social justice issues are important to Omari – he writes about them on his Facebook page, Visible Minority Report – and are central to his work in the arts. Omari writes about social justice issues – and how they intersect with the entertainment industry – for YVR Screen Scene. Omari directed a production of David Harrower’s ‘Blackbird’ that ran at the 2018 Vancouver Fringe Festival.

Top image: Shutterstock. Used with permission

Episode Ten: Luvia Petersen

Episode Ten: Luvia Petersen

Episode Nine: Paul McGillion

Episode Nine: Paul McGillion