The Playgoer: "Insane" Producing

Custom Search

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"Insane" Producing

Riedel entertains us today with the hilarious shenanigans behind a crazy-but-true producers' scheme to do another Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway (despite a tepidly received revival just a few years ago) but this time with an all-black cast. Make that an all-star all-black cast. Hey, with good actors (Forrest Whitaker, Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, Anthony Mackie) and a good director (Kenny Leon) who would begrudge.

The artists were apparently into it, until they realized who (or what) they were working with:

But two weeks ago, Leon and Whitaker pulled out of the project after repeatedly clashing with the producers, a group of extremely wealthy hedge-fund managers with no previous theatrical experience.

Whitaker, says a source, was annoyed to learn that the producers, tired of waiting for him to sign his contract, were threatening to replace him with Danny Glover.

Leon, meanwhile, was fuming that the producers were second-guessing his casting. They called McDonald a "regional theater actress" (her four Tony Awards notwithstanding) and were trying to replace her with either Whitney Houston or Beyoncé.

Why? Why? Why??? Who are these people who keep wanting to exploit and ruin our dramatic national treasures on Broadway. I guess hedge-fund managers do like risk. But even for robber barons, Broadway is

My guess is they were inspired by the success of the P-Diddy "Raisin in the Sun"--which Leon directed and Rashad starred in--and figured they too could cash in on the black audience out there ready to come to the theatre to see a headliner.

It also has to be said--not that these weirdly misguided moneymen would even pretend to be doing a service to African American Drama--that this seems like a classic case of something August Wilson once decried as fake black theatre. Doing Death of a Salesman (his example) with an all-black cast does not a "black play" make. Of course, Wilson's views on this--and "color-blind" casting in general--were controversial. But I think his point was well-taken, from a writer's standpoint, at least. Playwrights like Wilson, and Williams, and Miller, wrote out of a specific social milieu. To simply erase the original social backgrounds of the characters implies race is irrelevant in our society. Yes, all families have "universal" struggles, but might not the Loman family or the Big Daddy clan have some different issues--and face some additional obstacles--if they were black?

All great art works on both the level of the universal and the highly culturally specific. So, true, sacrificing one aspect does not necessarily mean losing everything that's great about it.

Of course, the proponents of "color blind" casting usually end up taking the actor's perspective. Let any actor play any role. Fair enough. Especially actors of color, who--if one is to cast them strictly on the skin color character breakdowns of "the repertoire--have more limited leading roles. Personally I would love to see Whitaker play Big Daddy. Maybe Tennessee Williams would do. Hey, Arthur Miller went to direct Salesman in Beijing at the height of the cold war, and loved it. But while a black "Cat" might be a fascinating production, surprisingly relevant to the African American experience and provoking new readings of the play, from a social and political perspective, it's not the same play.

The problem is not just race, though, but genre. Or style. This really is only a big problem in naturalistic drama. Because naturalism not only demands you look at "appearances", but also depends on the social forces of the environment acting upon the character. This is why color-blind casting in Shakespeare--and opera, for that matter--has been going on already for a long time, without raising an eyebrow. In naturalistic acting, the total bearing of a character is , ideally, informed by their full social upbringing and deepest psychological motives.

Wilson (who's last play "Radio Golf" Kenny Leon is also currently directing on Broadway) had the views that he had because, stylistically, he was one of the last of the committed naturalists, even if a poetic naturalist, like Williams. Which is why Williams, I believe, stopped a all-black "Streetcar" production from happening at the Public back in the 70s. Was he unnecessarily limiting his own work?

And speaking of Williams, back to his interests:
Sources say the producers' option on the play expires at the end of the year, and I hear the Tennessee Williams' estate would like nothing more than for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" to pass into the hands of experienced producers.
In the end, a story like this does make us realize that as playgoers, we're really just thankful for good actors doing good plays. So hopefully we all can at least agree on an end to talent-blind casting.

No comments: