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Onstage, steps toward color-blindness

Baba

Sept. 17, 2019

World of theater grapples with the question of diversity on the stage
In the past two seasons in Barrington Stage Company productions, a black man played a role normally done by a white woman, two white parents in 1890s Norway had a black daughter whose race was never mentioned, and a Filipino-American actor of Chinese-Malaysian ancestry played a Japanese-American who was the son of wholly Japanese parents.
The last of these roles was portrayed by Joel de la Fuente. Known for his work on TV's "The Man in the High Castle" and "Law & Order: SVU," de la Fuente was at Barrington Stage in the one-man show "Hold These Truths," in which he played about 30 roles. Chief among them is Gordon Hirabayashi, a real-life American-born man of Japanese descent who was prosecuted in the 1940s for refusing a federal order to register with the government and later report to one of the internment camps that eventually held 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry. De la Fuente is brilliant in the play, which he brings back to BSC in Pittsfield, Mass., for eight performances beginning Friday.
But the question that lingered from the summer run was whether de La Fuente, because of his heritage, was believeable — was right — to portray a Japanese-American in that role.
The issues are complex, nuanced and subjective. As the smash success of the musical "Hamilton" attests, audiences will wildly embrace a musical in which black and brown actors play historical characters who were white, but it is almost universally understood that, at least now in America, it would be inviting outcry for a play or movie to cast a white actor as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. Is color-blind casting — or, to put differently, colorful or color-conscious casting — much of an advancement if it only goes one way, by opening up traditionally white roles to nonwhite actors?
"I've had to navigate this my whole career — my whole life," said de la Fuente, chatting on the phone earlier this month from his home in New Jersey. Rather than specifically being about race, he said, "It's more about opportunity and representation."
For much of theater's history, white men played all the roles, including women and racial minorities. Female, black, Asian, Latin and other nonwhite, nonmale actors were rarely given a chance to participate, just as in many other fields.
"It was always the domain of white men to play all of these parts — on the stage and as writers and directors," said de la Fuente. "Storytelling was almost exclusively owned by white men."
And so, he said, colorblind or open-race casting in part was an effort to begin to level the playing field. It was also a way to correct some of the grotesque characterizations of minorities by white actors, from the blackface minstrel shows of 19th century to the yellowface of white actors playing the Honolulu police detective Charlie Chan in dozens of mid-20th-century movies to the disquieting sight of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles in dark makeup for the title role in "Othello."
"Maybe in a generation or two or three, when we're all the same color of beige, that won't matter so much," said de la Fuente. "But for now, there is an understandable sensitivity to making sure (minorities) have a hand in stories about them."
Casting diversity extends beyond race. David Girard, a busy Capital Region actor and director who is associate artistic director of Saratoga Shakespeare Company and co-founder/artistic director of Troy Foundry Theatre, once played a blind character.
"I don't think that I would do that today," said Girard, who is sighted. "I thought I did it well at the time, but looking back at it, there were probably blind actors who would do a much better and more truthful job at it."
Reflecting on how his thinking has changed, Girard says that, as a stage director and company manager, he once would have first considered all of the impediments to casting a blind actor, the accommodations that would need to be made.
But he said he realized, after talking to a friend who is a sociologist and disability advocate, "We should be making that effort. We're not doing it enough, being conscious enough, whether it's about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, gender identity, whatever. It matters, and it makes a difference."
For that reason, "Hold These Truths" author Jeanne Sakata, whose grandparents were Japanese immigrants of roughly the same generation as Hirabayashi, said an actor of Asian ancestry is essential for her play.
"Having anyone other than an Asian-American actor in the role would send the wrong message," said Sakata, on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. "Hold These Truths," her first play, premiered in L.A. in 2007 and was workshopped again the following year in New York City, when de la Fuente first became associated with it. He since has performed it multiple times in productions from off-Broadway to Seattle, Silicon Valley and Hawaii. About a half-dozen other actors have been in other productions, Sakata said, with heritages including Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
Sakata interviewed Hirabayashi extensively before his death in 2012. She said she told his widow, "We've really had a pan-Asian array in the play. I think Gordon would be very happy about that."
This is in part, de la Fuente said, because a unifying element of all of the actors who have done "Hold These Truths" is the "-American" part of their hyphenate identity.
"The play is a celebration of what it is to be an American, and my palette of experiences that I get to draw on are what made the role so attractive to me," said de la Fuente. Although Hirabayashi was from the Seattle area, and he and New York native de la Fuente were born half a century and a continent apart, the younger man felt a deep kinship.
"There are specifics to the Asian-American experience in the play — the feeling of being stuck between two cultures, the feeling of alienation, the patriotism, the fierce desire to fit in — that gave me a great appetite for the play," said de le Fuente. "I thought nobody could play it better than me."
For Julianne Boyd, founder and producing artistic director of Barrington Stage, de la Fuente's background never was an issue for "Hold These Truths."
"He had such a long history with the play, we knew he was qualified, and it shouldn't make a difference that he isn't Japanese," said Boyd, who said BSC has made a point of casting minority actors whenever possible for the past decade or so. This was highlighted in the company's recent world premiere of the musical "Fall Springs," which had white, Latin and Asian actors playing a variety of blended families. "We really set out to do that totally colorblind," Boyd said, an impulse encouraged by the creators of the musical, who say in a note in the script, "All characters can and should be portrayed with supreme and anachronistic diversity."
"I don't think people are color-blind yet," said Boyd, "but maybe in the theater we can lead them toward that."
In BSC's "Into the Woods" earlier this year, the role of the Witch — written as a woman and performed by the likes of Bernadette Peters, Donna Murphy, Cleo Laine and Vanessa Williams — was given to a man, Mykal Kilgore, a choice that received the blessing of the show's co-creator, Stephen Sondheim. No audience members objected to the change, Boyd said.
As evidence that there's still work to be done, Boyd cited the company's production last summer of "A Doll's House, Part 2," a sequel to Ibsen's "A Doll's House." The central couple, playing Norwegians in the late 19th century, were cast with white actors. Their daughter was played by a black woman, Ashley Bufkin, Boyd said, because Boyd, director Joe Calarco and the company's Manhattan-based casting director for the past 15 years, Pat McCorkle, felt Bufkin was best for the role.
"I had so many questions about that from audiences," said Boyd. "People said, 'Why was she black?' 'Why wasn't that in the script?'"
Boyd's answer: "Because it shouldn't matter in this case."
"This has been the No. 1 topic for us for the past few years," said Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, producing artistic director of Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, referring to discussions she's had with fellow members of the League of Resident Theatres. LORT, with 75 member theaters in 29 states, is the largest theater association in the country and hires more members of Equity, the actors union, than Broadway and touring shows combined.
"We're constantly talking about how to diversify not only our casts but our whole artistic teams: our directors, designers, staffs," Mancinelli-Cahill said.
What may seem a small if not insignificant choice — casting a nonwhite actor in a traditionally white role, or making the main characters' neighbors a minority or interracial couple — is in fact part of a profound and important evolution, Mancinelli-Cahill said.
She said, "As artistic leaders, we believe that the future of a vibrant arts scene is our ability to develop a diversified artistic canon that reflects a new America. It is essential."
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