Suspension of disbelief is an essential characteristic of being a consumer of the arts. Some times are easier than others to forget that we are sitting in front of a fiction, whether that is on our sofa watching TV, in a darkened cinema watching superheroes knock seven bells out of each other, or indeed in an auditorium watching a play or musical.
On any given day, a stage can be called upon to be a medieval battleground, a jazz bar that doubles as the gates of hell, the backstage area of a crumbling Vaudeville venue – all of these we take in our stride.
There is one area, though, where audiences sometimes struggle to cope. That is when a character is played by an actor with a different skin colour.
It’s not all audiences, of course – just as Gillette’s recent advertisement suggesting men could help each other reduce the negative effects of toxic masculinity was never suggesting that all men are evil, whatever some attention-seeking TV presenters may have you believe. But there are clearly some people who not only have difficulty with black actors in some roles, but feel the need to shout about their difficulties at some length.
While this is by no means a new phenomenon, two recent cases remind us that the ethnicity of performers is still an issue to some. At the Queen’s theatre, Amara Okereke has won awards for her portrayal of Cosette in Les Misérables, and yet she has had to deal with negative audience reaction. In a recent series of tweets she stood up for her craft:
Hi guys. Gentle reminder to audiences that you don't have to love every actors performance but going out of your way to make it glaringly obvious to me how much you didn't enjoy mine, during my bow, is slightly unnecessary and very hurtful. I do have feelings lol 🙃🙃 Unfortunately, being an actress of colour, the question often comes up 'did they not like my performance or did they not like the fact that I'm black?' And, while I'm aware it may have just been a case of this individual not enjoying my performance, the aggressive nature of their actions shown towards me along with some comments I have seen on social media about my casting in the show make me feel the need to say something I love playing the role of Cosette and I don't believe the colour of my skin, in any way, dictates whether or not I am right for the role. I don't want to be 'a black Cosette' I just want to be Cosette. Unfortunately it seems we still have a way to go until people can accept that
And earlier today, Matthew Hemley wrote in The Stage that Jamie Lloyd, director of this summer’s production of Evita at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, has issued a casting call looking for a black actress to take the part:
A casting breakdown for the lead role, seen by The Stage, says the production is looking for a black performer to play the part.
It states: “Appearance: Black. Other areas, black Caribbean, mixed race, African American”.
The backlash has already started on the newspaper’s Facebook page and elsewhere. Hemley shared one comment on Twitter from an anonymous contributor, expressing their disgust not only with a production of Evita that has not yet even started rehearsals, but also the Arts Theatre’s superb rock musical Six and Les Mis:
I can’t stand PC or colour-blind casting. It’s bad enough if a person of an inappropriate race for the context of a piece is cast – black Transylvanian peasants? Really??
But Evita was real and was NOT black. Neither were Henry VIII’s six wives...
Another one I’ll be giving a miss. I haven’t seen my favourite show Les Mis for years for the same reason.
I think it’s fair to say that whoever sent Matt Hemley that message exhibits all the signs of being a textbook racist.
It’s not as if we don’t allow variations in casting all the time. It’s just as well, or genuine Dane Sandi Toksvig would be so busy playing all the roles in Hamlet that she’d never get to visit the Bake-Off tent. We have no qualms about non-Danish actors inhabiting Elsinore, or Scots actors in Cawdor castle.
And when it comes to Shakespeare, having any woman on stage, whether they are playing Juliet, Cleopatra or Hippolyta, would be a casting variation from the original: not only because the actors involved will be unlikely to be Italian, Egyptian or Amazonian, but because the roles were written for, and originated by, men.
Shakespeare, of course, famously wrote one role whose portrayal was one of the first to trigger the race debate. These days, one would never see the title role of Othello played by anyone but a BAME actor: but Laurence Olivier’s 1965 film version is a startling recording of how it used to be deemed acceptable for a white man to “black up” to play the role. Thankfully, as a culture we are growing up, even if some of us are progressing at different rates and with different opinions. It is much more common to see BAME actors performing in the classical canon of works that was once the preserve of white actors alone. This year, Shakespeare’s Globe has formed a company comprised solely of BAME actresses to take on plays including Richard II.
We are also seeing shows where race is deployed to make statements, and to bring new elements to the story - Manchester Royal Exchange’s recent all-black Guys and Dolls, for example, which shifted the action to Harlem. And Hamilton – because we can’t have any discussion on race in theatre without mentioning Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical behemoth – opened with a cast that portrayed all the Americans as non-white, both symbolising how all the founders of the modern USA were immigrants, and also reclaiming the country’s history as something that belongs to all its citizens, not just the white ones.
Dissenters who have been decrying the casting call for Evita point out that Eva Peron was a historical figure, and the casting should reflect that. Says one tweeter:
Seems odd given that Eva Peron is not a fictional character. Wonder what would happen if they wanted a white actor to play Martin Luther King?
There is actually a precedent for this. In 2015, an Ohio university production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop split the role of Dr King between one black and one white actor for the show’s six-performance run. Hall objected to this casting, and I have to say I agree: Martin Luther King’s life, works and achievements are so tied up in the cause of gaining civil rights for black Americans that to cast otherwise would carry connotations that would run much deeper, and resonate for all the wrong reasons.
Could the same be said of Eva Peron? I’d say not. For a start, neither the real Peron’s politics, nor her husband’s, were tightly allied to their ethnicity.
But nor did she sing all the time. The Eva we see on stage in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical is a grandly fictionalised version, and the male lead character of Che (for years performed as if he was Che Guevara, thanks to an odd choice by director Hal Prince) is entirely fictional.
She was also Latina. Which means that, from Julie Covington’s performance on the original 1976 concept album and continuing with Elaine Paige’s origination of the stage role, Eva has been continually cast against ethnicity from the word go.
And long may that continue. I wish good luck to whoever wins the role in Regents Park’s forthcoming production, and am sure that their performance will bring out new elements of a forty-year-old score.
Scott Matthewman is a director, theatre reviewer and former online editor of The Stage. His next production will be part of Scratch at the Jack at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre on February 3.