When is a black actor black? And when is a black actor not black? These questions arose out of my last On Stage column which was about Mozart and Salieri, as depicted in Peter Shaffer`s play Amadeus. A friend who is a real NCPA member (‘real’ as in someone who rarely misses a concert or an NT Live recording), wrote a long email to me in which he made many interesting points. One of them began ‘I am not a racist, but….’.
When people start a sentence with those words, it generally means they are about to say something which could be deemed racist. My friend, let`s call him A, had a problem with the casting of Salieri: he was played by Lucian Msamati, a British actor of Tanzanian origin, hence black (actually ‘chocolaty’ as Msamati jokingly said in the production`s introduction). Since I know A is not racist, it`s only political correctness which makes discussion on this subject touchy.
And complex. The title role in Shakespeare Othello is one every great actor wants to play, but Othello is a Moor, hence black. In a theatre world dominated by white people, he was generally played by white actors in black face: I remember seeing a film version where Laurence Olivier played the role. What the film did was to make one of the world`s greatest actors look quite ridiculous. Theatre, lacking the enormous close-ups of cinema, is more forgiving, so it was white actors who generally played Othello. (Notable exceptions were Paul Robeson, James Earl Jones and Laurence Fishburne). That does sound like a straightforward quid pro quo, doesn’t it? If a white actor can play a black character, why can`t a black actor play a white character?
One obvious answer to that question is the limitation of make-up: on the stage at least, you can make a white actor look black; to make a black actor look white is virtually impossible (a ‘white face’ is generally used by a mime artist or a clown). So if you are going for a conventional and ‘authentic’ rendition of a play, almost all of classical Western theatre would be forbidden territory for black or brown actors.
This, of course, applies only to what we call the old classics; modern classics like Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire, could be set, with a bit of tweaking, entirely in a black American house-hold or even a Latin-American milieu. In cinema, we could soon have a black or brown James Bond – after all, Bond is a British Secret Service agent, and Britain now is a multi-cultural society. Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars series, which is set in the future, could be any race or colour, although that may need some explaining to do in the back story.
Incidentally, in what was truly a startling departure from the expected, two years ago the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford upon Avon cast the same Msmati as Iago in Othello. The title role was played by a black actor, but so was Iago. That changed the race equation which generates its own underlying tension in the play: originally a white man resents the boss being a black man; now a black man resents the ‘black-brother’ who is his boss because he doesn`t help him in his career.
Forgive a personal note here, but it’s relevant to the points being made in this column: my daughter Ayesha played Iago`s wife Emelia in the same production; last year she played Titania, Queen of the Fairies in RSC’s A Midsummer Night`s Dream, while Oberon was played by a black actor (why do fairies have to be of any particular colour anyway?). She also was Scheherazade in RSC`s Arabian Nights, directed by Dominic Cooke a few years ago, while the ruler Shahryar was played by a white English actor.
If we were to be absolutely authentic,shouldn`t Arab/Persian actors have played these roles? Or in Othello, Desdemona be played by a Venetian, but an authentic Venetian, not an Austrian, because Venice was then a republic by itself. By the same logic, the action of A Midsummer Night`s Dream takes place in Athens, but at that time, was it a part of modern Greece? The play portrays the events surrounding the marriage of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, the former Queen of the Amazons. Where on earth is Amazon? National identities get blurred with time; so should colour.
It makes sense, then, to remember Shakespeare`s line from Hamlet :‘The play`s the thing’. If a ‘colour code’ had been strictly enforced, would we have had Othello played by (apart from Olivier), Richard Burton, Orson Welles, Anthony Hopkins, Patrick Stewart, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, all brilliant white actors who brought their own interpretations to the role? By the same reasoning, Salieri (or even Mozart), or to take the epitome of acting, Hamlet, could be played by a black actor. In short, to be colour blind in the theatre is to enrich oneself. Lucian Msamati proved that in Amadeus: in no time at all you forgot his colour, and admired the brilliance of his performance instead.