Black Actors in Theater: An Examination of Their Perceptions and Experiences through Critical Race T
Theater has been an integral part of how communities tell stories and impart morals. I have been acting for over a decade and theater is a very big piece of my life. As a Black actress – I’ve identified myself as Black because that is typically how I’m viewed in terms of roles and casting – I have encountered little discussion, academically, about the perceptions of Black actors in racially themed/charged plays. The lack of information has fueled my desire to conduct a case study about the perceptions of Black actors in racially themed/charged plays, specifically those participating in a local theater production of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Blacks/African Americans make up 3.3% of the population of Albuquerque (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). This population is small, and because of its size, is generally marginalized. This marginalization seems to increase when taken to the stage. There are little historical artifacts and scripts to help construct a picture of Blacks’ experiences and contributions to theater. Theater is a predominantly White participant and patron dominated art form. When enslaved Africans were brought to America, they brought with them their music, dance and pieces of their cultures. In the 1830s, Blackface was born and many art forms experienced cultural appropriation and mockery for the enjoyment of White audiences (Hughes and Meltzer, 1967). Black performers eventually followed in their footsteps, using Blackface and exaggerated speech, songs and dances. Even with the introduction of a stage adapted version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, White actors would portray Blacks while in Blackface (Hughes and Meltzer, 1967). Blacks had their speech and way of life mocked and portrayed by those of other races. Their works didn’t begin to get published until the nineteenth century. Putting Whites on stage in a position of power to mimic and portray Blacks without respecting Blacks or their culture, made it a societal norm to not only disrespect Blacks but to keep them in a position in which their voices are limited and their experiences used solely for the purposes of entertainment.
The purpose of this project is to give voice to performers that are typically typecast, marginalized, and only used for plays like To Kill a Mockingbird as well as to provide information on a rarely considered, but still valid issue. Theater and musical theater has garnered success, prestige and fame for many, but hearing about the struggles actors of color go through as well as their perceptions of their position in society related to the roles available needs to be examined and discussed in order to identify and challenge structures that have been marginalizing Black actors and Black playwrights. The goal is to be able to answer the following question: how do Black actors in a race based play such as To Kill a Mockingbird perceive themselves and the roles they are given, as well as the roles available for them in a predominantly White theater community such as Albuquerque? In order to understand why Black actors’ voices are being marginalized in theater, one must understand the historical context of African Americans in theater, impacts of typecasting, colorblind casting and considering all of this through the lens of Critical Race Theory (CRT).
In order to develop a deeper understanding of my topic, I created the following literature review. This literature review focuses on three central themes. The first theme I focused on was typecasting and the plight of the Black performer. Typecasting is the practice of casting an actor solely on their physical appearance, and it is something that happens quite frequently with actors of color. How typecasting affects minority actors – for better or worse – will be explored. The second central theme will be the issue of race on stage and Critical Race Theory (CRT). While members of a society may choose to refrain from discussing race, how does this issue and other race related issues translate to the stage? Lastly, I will examine varying interpretations to the play To Kill a Mockingbird and the metaphor for which it is named.
Typecasting seems like it may be an unavoidable aspect of any kind of performance medium. While this may very well be the case, it is essential to understand the benefits, negatives, and rationale for typecasting. Typecasting occurs when minority performers are repeatedly cast in the same type of role (Rees, 1983). In an interview Rees conducted, his participant, Jeff Henry, stated that the problem wasn’t typecasting, but stereotyping. Henry goes on to say: “Casting minorities in inferior, subservient roles and White males in superior roles has been the general rule in movies, television and theatre. Blacks are still playing the foot shuffling Negro servant, the lovable but incompetent sidekick, the buffoon” (Rees, 1983, p. 10). Because of this unwritten rule, there are limitations on the quantity and quality of roles available for Blacks (Rees, 1983). The stereotypes they portray are not real characters, not real people, but rather caricatures. Casting minorities as stereotypes can be damaging to the actor’s ability to grow in their craft, and for those watching the stereotypes. When children see minorities in inferior roles, they don’t desire to be similar to them or in their position, but instead yearn to be more like the White protagonist whom the story is about (Rees, 1983). “For non-Whites it breeds a sense of inferiority, shame in one’s heritage and lower expectations of achievements” (Rees, 1983, p.10).
Black actors are in a position where they have to learn how to handle being typecast while trying to grow in their skills as an actor when typecasting stunts growth. That being said, there are other things to keep in mind. Theater has acknowledged the concept of race and race relations since its inception (Young, 2013). You can see this in Grecian dramas and comedies, Shakespearean and contemporary pieces as well. Acknowledging the race of the actors is okay, but judging them because of their race is not. In viewing race on stage, one must note that race may or may not be pivotal to the narrative. New playwrights are generally taught not to establish the race of their characters unless that detail is essential to the plot (Young, 2013). This practice is to ensure flexibility during the casting process. “Since it’s impossible to imagine a person as being race-less, the default assumption is that most unspecified characters are White” (Young, 2013). Because of this default assumption and lack of specificity in roles, it appears as though roles are not being written with minorities in mind.
Typecasting is a double-edged sword; while actors are ensured a role based on their race, the role is typically not challenging and only presents a one-dimensional character. Black actors are “defined by and confined to an exceedingly narrow image of Blackness” (Yuen, 2010). This Blackness is typically viewed from a White perspective (Yuen, 2010). Lack of plays for specific minorities is due to playwright training programs and workshops that teach them not to specify race, which almost justifies not casting minorities because the race wasn’t written in the script.
Continuing with the themes of the prospectus, I would now like to discuss the issue of race on stage through the lens of CRT. Race is a sensitive issue for many, putting race and issues related to race on stage takes the issue into an art form that can either challenge or conform to stereotypes. Examining theater in terms of writing and casting through CRT will contribute to a body of research that is almost nonexistent.
CRT is a tool in which to comprehend, deconstruct and challenge racial inequality in society (Rollock and Gillborn, 2011). It is a growing body of scholarship that is based on the assumption that race and racism are both products of social thoughts and power relations and aims to expose how racial inequality is institutionalized that seem normal (Rollock and Gillborn, 2011). CRT relies on the following principles: (1) centrality of racism – racism is normal and because it is ingrained it appears ordinary and natural, (2) White supremacy – maintains and normalizes White privilege and reinforces racial subordination, (3) voices of people of color – minorities’ insights into racism are valued as well as their understanding of being racially minoritized, (4) interest convergence – the belief that minorities’ interest in achievement will only happen if it is in the best interests of Whites, and (5) intersectionality – even though CRT is concerned with race relations and racial inequality in societal structures, it does not disregard other forms of social injustice but fosters an understanding that there are complex ways in which various systems of subordination can collide (Rollock and Gillborn, 2011).
Because racism is normalized in the greater society, it has become embedded and nuanced. This is illustrated on stage through a variety of practices. First, there are more plays written by White playwrights than minorities that are currently produced on stages across the nation. These plays typically tend to have Whites in leading roles and minorities – if any – are used to illustrate the White lead character’s admiration for diversity or to reinforce stereotypes of the “token” minority friend or some other subservient role. Also notable, is the fact that many Black roles available are not contemporary, but slaves and domestics set in the pest.
The issue of White supremacy can be daunting to approach since it – almost undetected – permeates interactions and art forms in our society. The normalization of racism institutionalizes it and White Supremacy. Theater is not exempt from this symptom as Whites lead the way in most plays being written, produced and acted. This could also be due to the fact that there is a lack of literature of African American theater history (Krasner, 2000). There are five possible barriers to the development of African American theater: (1) loss of primary sources, (2) a severely “circumscribed” definition of theater, (3) a “paucity of scholarly publications” in Black theater history, (4) a “disgraceful absence of theater scholars who know both Black and White theater history,” and (5) an “abundance of institutionalized racism” (Krasner, 2000). These barriers mainly exist because African American theater and African Americans in theater were not valued by the White theater community.
African American – as well as many other minority – voices have been nearly silenced. This goes down to even the playwrights as they are trained to write scripts without mentioning race unless race is essential to the narrative (Young, 2013). In doing so, one the default assumption of the characters as those of the dominant race, White, and excludes others. If minority playwrights are being asked to do the same thing, then their voices will be silenced. The fact that it is frowned upon to mention race without it being pivotal to the storyline is already infringing upon those voices. Only 4.4% of the writers in the Writer’s Guild of America are Black (Yuen, 2010). This contributes to the lack of realistic Black characters portrayed on stage.
Interest convergence is a rather intriguing concept. The notion that in order for minorities to succeed or progress has to be in the best interests of Whites in order to allow them to do so, is one that can be seen in To Kill a Mockingbird. It was in the best interests of Whites involved to find Tom guilty so that the community would no longer have to deal with the disruption in the status quo that Tom created when he refused Mayella’s advances. Had Tom gone along with Mayella’s advances, she would not have cried wolf and had him arrested and ultimately killed. Since he refused, she felt as if she had no choice but to turn him in for a crime he did not commit. Interest convergence also relates to the issue of art directors choosing what plays to perform. For example, in Richmond Virginia, local theaters avoid the topic of race by doing a well-known, comfortable play such as To Kill a Mockingbird (Griset, 2013). Regardless of the large amount of shows produced in that community, only a handful addressed race (Griset, 2013). It is believed that the audiences – predominantly old White patrons – would rather see uncomplicated pieces like Annie (Griset, 2013).
While CRT is focused with structural racial inequality, it doesn’t ignore that there are other forms of injustice (Rollock & Gillborn, 2011). “Intersectionality’, as originally advanced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, speaks to an understanding of the complex and multiple ways in which various systems of subordination can come together at the same time” (Rollock & Gillborn, 2013, p. 3). Adopting this intersectional framework fosters the exploration of differences within and between communities and groups taking stock of historical issues and socio-political contexts while still maintaining awareness of racial inequalities. The intersection of race and gender on stage and in television is experienced differently for Black females and Black males. While Black males are typically portrayed as rappers or athletes in contemporary writings, Black females are portrayed as “ghetto” and hyper sexualized playing “crack heads” or the “neo-Mammy” (wise, all-knowing, quick-witted mother figure) (Yuen, 2010).
To Kill a Mockingbird
Finally, I’d like to discuss the meaning of the play and the metaphor To Kill a Mockingbird. Art, for many is subjective and open to various interpretations. I think it’s important to examine interpretations and analyses of the narrative. The story can be divisive or uniting in what issues it addresses and how it chooses to address those issues.
While To Kill a Mockingbird has been hailed a literary and theatrical classic, there are those that oppose the play. For example, some believe that the narrative is “a fairytale that fails to engage with the corrosive reality of racial inequality in the United States” (Ajayi, 2010). One of the main problems with the story is that Atticus Finch – the White Lawyer defending the Black man accused of raping a White woman – comes at the price of flat representations of Black characters (Ajayi, 2010). The critique of Finch also extends to his stance on the injustice that occurred in the courtroom when Tom was wrongly sentenced. The case that the narrative focuses on illustrates the absurdities and the horror of segregation and racial bias (Ajayi, 2010). “If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t” (Gladwell, 2009). When Tom is found guilty, he tells Finch that there is no use in trying and to give up. That very day, Tom get’s shot to death, his body now carrying seventeen bullets because a guard claimed he saw Tom, a man with a useless limb in a small prison yard, charge the fence in an attempt to escape (Freedman, 1994). Finch appears to believe this story that he is told by the sheriff; however, it is suggested that Tom was goaded into running for the fence for threat of being shot where he stood (Freedman, 1994). The story is told from the eyes of little White girl named Scout. Atticus, Scout’s father, attempts to teach her empathy and walking in one’s shoes over the course of the narrative, but what is empathy and understanding without action? When the White lynch mob – led by Walter Cunningham, a friend – came to the prison that Tom was being held in, Atticus chose to put his personal ties to the Whites first (Gladwell, 2009). He dismisses Cunningham’s actions as “blind spots.”
It just happens that Cunningham’s blind spot (along with the rest of us?) is a homicidal hatred of Black people. And when Jem replies, with the innocent wisdom of a child, that attempted murder is not just a “blind spot,” (Freedman, 1994, p.476)
He treats everyone amicably despite their racial prejudices and defending Tom seems to merely be his job, not his duty nor a point of pride.
Nothing should be exempt from critical re-evaluation. It is helpful to examine things within their social and literary context in which they were written and compare those to the present. Some argue that “presentism” is unfair as it compares moral standards of the past to the ones we recognize today (Freedman, 1994). However, “presentism” rejects the idea that there are any absolute moral values, which equates morality with the notions of right and wrong that are recognized within a given culture at a particular time and space (Freedman, 1994). Freedman believes that there “are prima facie principles of right and wrong (which can be called Natural Law), which each of us is capable of recognizing by the use of experience, intellect, and conscience” (1994, p. 477).
Black actors in theater are very rarely asked about their experiences on and off the stage. When producing a play with strong racial themes and language, conversations about the subject matter and its impact don’t appear to be happening. Theater has long been thought of as a White art form. Most plays are written with Whites in mind, in terms of performers and audience. Engaging Black actors in discussions about their roles, stereotypes, typecasting and roles available for them in a predominantly White theater community, such as Albuquerque, is vital as these marginalized voices participating in this art form need to be heard in order to gain a new perspective on Blacks in theater and how institutionalized racism still operates even in a medium most would consider liberal.