In a May 6th article for the Los Angeles Times, playwright Neil LaBute questions why in modern society whites are denied theatre roles because they do not fit the racial background of a character. If Lawrence Olivier were alive today, a great portray of Othello would never have been. "In these troubled times", he states, "the man would never be allowed to put on blackface and play that role".
From there he goes on to say William Spacey should be given a role of Othello just as easily and without incident as Denzel Washington would be allowed to play Richard III, arguing the strength of one’s skill should outweight the presence (or lack thereof) of melanin.
I don’t expect a man who dismisses four hundred years of black genocide with "I understand about slavery and all that" to understand the painful history behind blackface or how its origins make it impossible for me as an African American woman to look at William Spacey as Othello without expecting him to at some point start shucking and jiving into a rousing chorus of "Aunt Jemima". Similiarly, I doubt anyone asian could look at an all-white (is there such a thing as "yellow face") version of "Miss Saigon" without having despicable "gook" caricatures from years past permeate their thoughts, marring their theatre experiences.
It can only be because white people have no point of reference for racial denigration that this has to even be explained.
But let’s back up for a second – why is it so difficult to believe that the best person for a black role might just be *gasp* a black person? Mr. LaBute apparently believes white actor + blackface = black character casually dismissing the societal and cultural experience a black actor brings to a black role but then that’s to be expected by someone who suggests we should "get over" slavery. Apparently it’s too much to believe that Denzel Washington could bring his own feelings of racial isolation to Othello’s spiral into madness that William Spacey simply can’t relate to.
And I can’t help but wonder why Mr. Labute was even prompted to write this article. Honestly, just how many roles are there specifically calling for an actor of color that white actors are so unfairly and cruelly being denied? Could he really be so bothered that the darkies are hogging up a handful of roles? Or is it a sense of entitlement that prompted his keystrokes? I mean how dare an actor of color be allowed to do something a white actor is not, that simply isn’t fair! Black actors of course have no concept of double-standards, right?
But I suspect thoughts of painful racial caricatures, cultural relevance and the small amount of race-specific roles would be lost on Mr. Labute so let’s try something else. At Mr. LaBute’s prompting, I took a look his picture. Now, let’s say there was to be a stage production of a "Confederacy of Dunces" (*ahem*), Mr. LaBute would be a perfect choice for the role of Ignatius, an overweight, narcissist who spends his days writing elaborate reprobations on modern society and while another actor could do the role justice, what a tragedy it would be to be denied all the experience and insight Mr. Labute would bring to the role.
Playwrights put character descriptions into each of their plays to convey what they need that character to look like for the purposes of the story they’re trying to convey. Granted, you can put white people in black face, thin people in fat suits or short people on stilts simply because they have enough talent to perform the role, to do so asks the audience to overlook an obvious lie beyond the supension of disbelief we bring to any theater performance making it uncomfortable for everyone involved and an unfair denial of yet another role for actors of color who are more than capable to bring the intensity and depth needed in the role.
Marquita Thomas can be reached by clicking here.