Compulsory Casting: Is the Demand Legit?

Compulsory Casting: Is the Demand Legit?


Here’s the story: When playwright Rebecca Gilman adapted The Heart is a Lonely Hunter for the stage, she wrote speeches for a character who is deaf and mute in Carson McCullers’ novel.

Here’s the problem: Henry Stram, the actor playing this deaf and mute character, can hear and speak. The New York Times reports that the production at the New York Theater Workshop drew protests from deaf actors and advocacy organizations for the deaf and disabled.

Some insist that Gilman rewrite the character and that director Doug Hughes recast it. Gilman has said she will consider rethinking the role for future productions; Hughes will let his casting stand.

This isn’t the only time political considerations in casting have taken center stage. In 1990, for instance, Actors’ Equity Association, the union for American actors, rejected an application for a British Caucasian actor to play a Eurasian character in the Broadway company of Miss Saigon. Many in the media and in the union itself objected, and AEA reversed its decision. Some argued that casting without considering a person’s race, nationality, or other personal characteristics didn’t close acting opportunities for minority actors; it created new possibilities.

What if it didn’t? Must playwrights, directors, and theaters adopt social criteria for artistic decisions?

It would be a better world if there were more roles for deaf actors, sure. There are playwrights who tell stories to change minds and rouse people to action and directors who form companies to serve the disabled. These are valuable social/political endeavors, but they are not always primarily theatrical endeavors.

Art has a purpose, too, and it mustn’t be compromised.

I came to this view early on, while doing a book about the Chelsea Theater Center, which was once in residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Peter Barton, a playwright you will not have heard about, wrote an exquisite play called Dawn Song. In 1975, the Chelsea billed its upcoming production as “a collage poem of images, sounds, and words, evoking our loss in the story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce tribe.” It would “evoke hallucinogenic images, using words, video, and film instead of organic chemicals.”

Barton, a documentary filmmaker who had studied playwriting at Yale, gave me the play to read, and I knew why it attracted the producers. Thematically and theatrically large, with fights, chants, and dances, the play told the story of the wrenching compromises Joseph had to make and his determination to keep the struggle for Native American rights alive.

You’d have thought everyone in the Native American community would have been thrilled to see this show go up. You would have thought wrong.

Chelsea asked Charles Haid to direct. Haid was an actor and director for the TV series Hill Street Blues and Barton’s friend. He cast the show with the best actors available, many of them non-white, none of them Native American.

Members of the Native American Theater Ensemble (NATE) became enraged. Didn’t they have the right to play the roles in a play that depicted their culture? If Chelsea did not recast, NATE would do what they had to do to close it-sit in, perhaps, or picket.

Chelsea was not a political theater. “This time, because they knew they would be protested against, they were put in a position where they had to take a political stand,” said Dale Soules, who was to appear in the show.

Barton did not attempt to describe Native American life realistically. His characters leapt through time and space, confronting their former selves. Film sequences were to extend and comment on the action. The language was poetic, stylized, capturing the rhythm of the runners.

But if Barton was exploring his own culture or universal themes, NATE wanted to know why he was “using” their culture as a metaphor. “They didn’t know the first thing about us. The characters didn’t speak the way we speak…but we could have fixed the script, because the play said some very good things about us,” said NATE performer Jane Lind.

Although some sequences had been filmed and actors were in rehearsal, Chelsea dropped the play. Several months later, NATE lost its state funding, moved to Oklahoma, and soon folded. Barton tried to get funding to produce his play himself, without success. To the best of my knowledge, Peter Barton never wrote another play, and it is a huge loss.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter must go on, as written and as cast, or the integrity of theater art is jeopardized once more.


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Davi Napoleon is a theater historian and journalist who writes widely about the arts. Schoolbiz, her column on theater training, ran for four years in TheaterWeek, and her features on design have been more


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