Theatre’s Iago problem: colour blind or racist?

Afshan Lodhi

Mellody Hobson puts it well in her TED talk ‘Colour Blind or Colour Brave’ – race ‘makes people extraordinarily uncomfortable. You bring it up at a dinner party or in a workplace environment, it is literally the conversational equivalent of touching the third rail.’ When you do bring it up you run a huge risk of being called a militant woman.

It seems that the world of theatre is no different. Colour blind casting first started to gain acceptance in the 80s and refers to non-traditional casting – i.e., where the race, ethnicity or sex of actors when casting is not relevant. Prior to this, it wasn’t common to see actors of colour in classical roles.

The truth is that even now in 2015, on the stage (and film/TV) the actors we see are not representative of the population. Previous arguments to justify this were usually variations on a theme: that there weren’t any actors available – which we know is untrue.

So how do we explain the lack of actors of colour on stage? How do we explain scenes set in New York or London that show mainly white men in the background (I’m not even going to mention the racial make-up of lead actors – that’s another article)?

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There was once an institutionalised and perfectly legal form of discrimination here, and it still shows in casting and the belief that underlies the claim that ‘James Bond can’t be played by a black actor’. He can – of course he can – just as Annie can be played by a black girl. It’s not the same as giving a black role to a white actor, either.

Should traditional roles meant for black people be given away to white actors, as we have done for many years, under the ‘colour blind casting’ guise, as Steven Berkoff argues in The Stage? No. Plain and simple. There aren’t enough opportunities out there for us to start casting non-black actors in the few black roles there are.

More importantly, there are already numerous examples of white men using their privilege to play black roles – both historically and even in recent years. Do we really need more of the same? Until black actors can occupy traditionally white roles with the same ease, we’ll continue to have an imbalance. 

There may be many of you that see this as unfair. If Maxine Peak can play Hamlet then why can’t a white actor play Othello? The difference is Othello is a play about race, and ignoring race in the play is a cruel irony. White actors arguing that they should be allowed to take up one of the few roles given to black actors is rather reminiscent of Iago’s determination to undermine Othello’s rare and exceptional position of power in white society. Lead roles, like political power, should belong only to white men, it seems.

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I’m not saying inversion can’t be done at all, of course – Patrick Stewart once played Othello opposite a cast of almost entirely black actors. That worked artistically because it intentionally subverted traditional readings of the play. The racial dynamic wasn’t ignored – it was reinvigorated.

Another issue is that if we were to be colour blind when casting Othello, and had a white actor play him (as we have done in the past), he’d probably black up. This creates another issue entirely.

In letting white men claim black roles, we’d be taking one of the few opportunities open to black actors (especially one where black men can play a lead) and giving it to actors who already dominate theatreland.

Non-traditional casting was brought in to rectify a problem not perpetuate it, and I still don’t think it’s enough.

I recently saw a production of Pride and Prejudice which saw Elizabeth Bennett and her mother played by black actors. Aside from the fact that Mrs Bennett (played by Michele Austin) made the show, there was something very unsatisfying about the race of the actors. It felt random, like no thought had been put into it – it was truly colour blind, and it was also shallow as a result. I noticed the race of the actors and it didn’t feel natural, or as if race were being explored in any way. There was an opportunity here to explore intersections of race and class that we just didn’t see.

When Mellody talks about colour blindness she talks of it perpetuating racism. Instead of rectifying a problem we are ignoring it; we pretend that if we don’t see race that racism doesn’t exist. But it does. Not seeing race only means we choose to ignore the racism many people still experience.

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We seem to be afraid of being proactive when it comes to having conversations about race. It’s not that we have to make a choice between casting a black actor and casting the best actor, we just have to be aware of the casting and the choices we make and how we favour white actors disproportionately already.

By having quotas and being conscious of how we fill them we can fight this disparity we see on stage in film and on TV.

One day I’d like to switch on my TV and see a good representation of the world I live in. I’d like to see people who are diverse in gender, sexuality, race and disabilities. Until then, colour blind casting continues to be a problem.

About Afshan Lodhi

Afshan Lodhi, born in Dubai, is of Indian/Pakistani descent. She writes plays, short fiction and works in publishing and theatre. She has worked with Manchester Lit Festival, Contact, The Royal Exchange Theatre, Eclipse Theatre and one day hopes to take over the world.