Stagestruck: Crossing the Color Line — Area theaters give (some) stage space to artists of color

Mountaintop
Mountaintop

In my last column, “Closing the Gender Gap,” I tallied the representation of women performers, playwrights and directors in the area’s professional theaters in 2016. I found some improvement in the gender balance, though we’re still a ways away from true parity. I wish I could say the same for that other group of chronically underrepresented artists — people of color.

My year-end report for 2015 (1/7/16) noted 23 “minority” performers in significant roles in the Valley and Berkshires. This year I counted 25 in the 39 professional productions I saw, just three of which were written by playwrights of color, with only two directors of color. That said, several companies stand out, acting affirmatively to bring artists of color to their stages and their predominantly white audiences.

Just a handful of plays this year focused centrally on people of color. At New Century Theatre, this past summer’s Jar the Floor was one of only two area productions that featured not just African-American casts but directors and playwrights of color. Cheryl West’s all-woman dramedy, directed by Gilbert McCauley, starred a quartet of dynamic black women representing four generations’ aspirations and regrets.

At Barrington Stage Company, Jiehae Park’s grisly comedy Peerless — the summer’s only Asian-American play — found a pair of teenage girls (Laura Sohn and Sasha Diamond) plotting to murder their way to the head of the college admissions queue. Barrington’s American Son followed an interracial couple (Tamara Tunie and Michael Hayden) through a harrowing night of soul-searching and home truths after their child is involved in an “incident” on inner-city streets.

Chester Theatre Company offered the summer’s other “trifecta” of playwright, director and actors of color. The Mountaintop, by Katori Hall, directed by Colette Robert and starring Jordan Mahome and Shelley Fort, counted off the last hours of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, in the company of an impudent black angel. And early in the year, the Majestic Theater presented Butler, about a Civil War-era battle of wits between a Union general and a fugitive slave, featuring John G. Williams as the fiercely determined freedom-seeker.

Ko Festival of Performance always makes a point of presenting an ethnic diversity of performers and perspectives. This summer saw two multiracial casts exploring contemporary issues, as The Freedom Project looked at the “school-to-prison pipeline” and First Generation’s Tenderness embodied an array of immigrant experiences.

 Casting for Talent

In addition to finding these purposefully race-conscious plays, I was particularly heartened by the instances of “color-blind” casting — actors of color playing traditionally (or specifically) white roles. These artistic choices not only enlarged the field for performers but invited audiences to broaden our expectations and expand our imaginations.

Shakespeare & Company has from its inception made room for actors of color in its productions. This summer, for example, Thomas Brazzle played Launcelot the clown in The Merchant of Venice and one of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, with no hint of racial “concept” in the casting. In the same spirit, Nehassaiu deGannes, in Or, played Nell Gwynne, an actual historical white person, along with two other presumably white characters. In the S&Co. season’s only piece of color-specific (and slyly satirical) casting, Tangela Large played the black aide to a white southern U.S. senator in The Taming.

In two more cases where you’d expect to see white performers, actors of color were cast almost as a challenge to the material. In Chester Theatre’s My Jane, a free-form take on Jane Eyre, provincial-English Jane was played by a Latina, Camila Canó-Flavia. And in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo at Williamstown Theatre Festival, actors of color occupied several roles clearly written for whites: African-Americans Medina Senghore and Portia as the comically quarrelling Bessie and Flora, Asian-American Katie Lee Hill as the teacher Miss Yorke, and Latina Lindsay Mendez as the gossipy Giuseppina.

In another step toward race-neutral casting, New Century’s children’s show, A Year with Frog and Toad, one of the title roles was taken by African-American Kyle Boatwright — a welcome break, she told me, from having her color be the determining factor for being cast (or not cast) in a show. Boatwright got a similar break in the Majestic Theater’s most recent production, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, where she was one of an ensemble of eight women playing a diversity of roles.

Contact Chris Rohmann at stagestruck@crocker.com.

Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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