I'm having this conversation with Dayenne, the actor in question, who has a different perspective from many of my readers here, as an actor and a black woman and the person in the spotlight.
But since I've had such valuable conversations about it here in the past, I would like to get any thoughts that you have. I'm making this a public entry so that you can feel free to point other people to it that you think would have relevant perspectives, but I'm not going to post it more publicly, both because of its work-in-progress nature and because I simply do not have the available time this week to monitor and participate in a wider conversation.
As most of you will remember, in 2009 there was an extensive discussion
about my previous casting of a black woman in Never After
. In Pride & Prejudice
I have a similar situation. I think that some of the significant details are different and it is my hope that I can handle it better this time around.
Dayenne, a black woman (the description she uses of herself), is playing the role of Mrs. Bennet. She is a fantastic actor (some of you may have seen her as Vera in The Oldest Profession
). I am delighted to be working with her and she is excited to have been cast in a role for which she is not "to type". As in the Never After
situation, she is the only major character of color in the show, due to the demographics of our audition pool (something Theatre@First continues to work to address). Unlike the Never After
situation, Mrs Bennet is not a villain. She is a silly, self-centered, rather vulgar and stupid woman whose sole purpose in life is to see her daughters well married. I do not think that these qualities play into strong stereotypes about black women and it was my hope that, if anything, Dayenne being a black woman would make audiences reconsider the character and possibly find her more sympathetic.
Once again, however, I've failed to consider all the ramifications. Dayenne has pointed out to me that her being a black woman makes the higher class characters' disapproval of Mrs Bennet take on a potentially racist tone. The two characters whose disapproval is strongest (Lady Catherine and Miss Bingley) could be said to be villains and to each receive defeat, while Mrs Bennet comes out a winner, so that's something. Her children and husband reveal exasperation and condescension towards her--is that also going to be perceived as racially tinged?
We've still got a couple of weeks before opening night. Do you have any suggestions on what I can do on-stage to affect audience perceptions of the overall show's attitudes? I have asked Dayenne for her thoughts and if she would be comfortable with me including something about this in my Director's Note in the program, which was a suggestion last time around. I've got some ideas, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on what--if anything--that should be, and any other thoughts and suggestions you have.
In the long run, I'm going to keep reaching out to actors of all descriptions and encouraging them to audition for me and casting them primarily on the basis of their talent and feel for particular roles. And I'm going to keep stumbling and learning and trying to do better by individual actors, by T@F, by our audience and by our community. And I expect that I'm going to keep falling short and begging pardon and hoping to do better, show by show, year by year, being stung by my shortcomings yet grateful for the opportunities, as best I can. Your help in this process is profoundly appreciated.