I am not a Pollyanna about the continuing challenges of racial inequality and prejudice in this country and around the world. I fear that mankind’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity and compulsion to define an “other” is so deeply seated that it will take many more generations to eradicate, largely through what futurists and fantasists predict to be an eventual blending of all races. I will not live to see that day.
But I thought we were above this sort of thing in the arts, at least insofar as exploiting racial differences go. But with this morning’s announcement of a new Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet, featuring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad as the famed lovers, I find that neither the press nor those associated with the show are able to simply announce their production and its fine cast. Instead, words like “interracial” and “mixed race” pepper nearly every article I’ve seen since I first learned of the production; whether that is by design of the producers or the reaction of the press is difficult to parse. The director has already been quoted speaking about wanting to emphasize the division of the Montagues and Capulets through his casting; he notes that he didn’t start with the intent of separating the warring families along racial lines, but that it evolved once his leads were selected.
Why is calling out the racial element necessary, I wonder, especially at the very moment the show is made public. They’ve announced with poster art in place, so it’s fairly self-evident that Bloom is white and Rashad is black. The casting of the veteran actor Joe Morton as Lord Capulet is also noted. Do we need to have this color divide spelled out for us? I tend to think we would do well to discover it when we see the show, or simply become more aware as more casting announcements ensue. Certainly it’s something for feature stories closer to the opening.
I am, emphatically, not arguing against the show artistically in any way. It’s a perfectly valid approach and I look forward to seeing what David Leveaux does with it. I’m especially eager to see Rashad because she’s such a compelling actor and I want to watch her career and talent grow. It’s the racial emphasis of the initial news that concerns and surprises me, and it’s interesting to note that it has overwhelmed the observation that the actor playing Romeo is 35, which might otherwise draw attention.
Color-blind and color-specific casting has been used for years, especially with Shakespeare. At Hartford Stage in 1987, I did press for a production where a white Pericles married a black Thaisa, who was the child of a Latino father; Pericles and Thaisa’s child Marina was played by an Asian American actress. A year later, Jim Simpson, now of The Flea Theatre, directed a stage adaptation of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons in which the gentry were white and the serfs black, to bring home the class divisions viscerally for modern audiences; it was not in the text. That was a quarter century ago. I recall a Pygmalion at Yale Rep with an African-American Eliza. Just last year in a glorious As You Like It, Lily Rabe, Andre Braugher and Omar Metwally were among the denizens of Arden for The Public Theatre, all of different racial heritage, yet it mattered not a whit; in 2007 The Public offered us a Latino Romeo portrayed by Oscar Isaac. I’m sure there are countless other examples, which escape me only in the haste of my writing.
There are those who cling to ideas of what is historically correct with Shakespeare, but his work was both a product of its day and at times anachronistic unto itself (i.e. mentions of clocks in Julius Caesar). “Purity” would require the use of original pronunciation and all-male casts, both of which are rarely employed; I say anything goes if it is true to the text and illuminates the play. I reject narrow-mindedness.
But when it is instantly obvious to anyone with a knowledge of the actors already announced that the show is being cast along racial lines, and when there is imagery to point that out to the unaware, why must that be the beginning of every story? If Will & Grace, Modern Family and Ellen are now cited as leading Americans to greater acceptance of marriage equality, can’t the arts explore racial themes without using them as a marketing ploy? After 400 years, we all certainly know that the youthful protagonists die, in no small part because of the clannish enmity between their families; we’ll see that transposed in this production onto racial lines and yet, presumably, the message remains the same – the prejudices of parents must be eradicated, for the sake of children’s happiness and the betterment of society.
Talk to me about Orlando Bloom’s Broadway debut. Rhapsodize over Rashad’s talented family. Praise the acumen of the director. Embrace the timeless story of lovers separated by foolish divisions. But don’t parade out “interracial” and “mixed-race” as if such a casting idea is new to the stage, even when employed in a work where it is neither explicit or implicit in the text. In doing so, there is the risk of suggesting not how acceptable it is or should be, but rather that it is still something remarkable or strange. Frankly, I’d be thrilled if someone actually got to the show with no knowledge of the racial element, and discovered how it, perhaps, serves to bring the drama home, especially if it runs against their own expectations or prejudices.
“Mixed” romances and marriages, whether racial, religious, or based in some other bias, are certainly not fully accepted in every corner of this country or the world, but we are 40+ years past Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Sell me this Romeo and Juliet on its many merits, not by suggesting that it will be heightened by a portrayal of racial enmity. Let’s show the way in our art, not exploit retrograde ideas in our rhetoric.