Albee, McNally, Childs and Others Discuss Race and Politics at Panel

News   Albee, McNally, Childs and Others Discuss Race and Politics at Panel
A panel discussion on "Race and Politics in Theatre," put on by the The Dramatists Guild of America at their headquarters on Dec. 15, turned out to be an illuminating night of talk with some of the nation’s best playwrights.
Edward Albee, with Sally Field
Edward Albee, with Sally Field Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Hosted by Patti Cohen, the New York Times theatre editor, the panel of five playwrights—Dael Orlandersmith, David Henry Hwang, Kristen Childs, Edward Albee and Terrence McNally—shared personal reflections on issues such as the definition of a "political" play and ways to encourage non-traditional casting.

The work the assembled writers deemed "political" varied. Albee said he considered his play The Goat, Or, Who Is Sylvia?, about tolerance in the face of sociallly unacceptable behavior, to be a political work, and reminded the audience of leftist plays from the 1930s that "weren’t very good," but examined how people lived, and affected the political process.

"All serious art is political" said Albee, a point on which the panel generally agreed. Hwang said that trying to write a political play is like trying to raise a child—you do everything you can to send a child in a certain direction, but what they chose to do will surprise you. Similarly, as long as a play is extant, its meaning will shift with the tide of current affairs. "Certain playwrights will appeal to certain eras," he noted.

The diverse group of artists had a surprising amount in common. Several said they had received flack for writing plays that didn’t include members of their minority group. Moderator Cohen pointed out that playwrights are often pigeon-holed if they belong to a certain minority group and that writing for characters outside of that group will attract criticism. McNally recalled hearing, "None of the characters are gay, it’s irresponsible of you," at times in his career.

Orlandersmith, too, said she had received complaints when she wrote a play without an African-American character, but tells her detractors: "I will write what I want to write, and if you don’t like it, don’t come to see me." She told a funny story about two women in a beauty salon arguing over the "correct" way to make cornbread to illustrate to the audience that there is no right or wrong way to address racial issues in theatre; a playwright can write valid stories about other ethnic groups as well as their own. The subject of non-traditional casting brought on some debate between panelists. Discussing the hypothetical casting of a man in The Vagina Monologues or James Earl Jones as southern patriarch Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, McNally declared both to be "not political; that’s art!" But Cohen reminded him that, "If you have a black actor [such as Jones] saying racist lines, race is not going to fade into the background."

Hwang pointed out the differences between race and culture are rarely thought of when it comes to non-traditional casting in the United States. Mentioning an all-Asian production of Falsettoland, he recalled the cast telling him that they felt they had much more in common with the characters in Falsettoland than with characters in shows like The King and I or Flower Drum Song.

Several playwrights acknowledged that non-traditional casting with a "name" actor is much easier than with an unknown. McNally even said he believed there is no political statement in casting a talented minority actor in a part they are well suited for (for example, the casting of Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar), while wondering if he would ever see a talented black actress cast as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Here, Childs chimed in that she herself had played the part in her junior high production, a touching performance that she jokingly assured us had "left the audience weeping".

During the question and answer segment, the panel had several suggestions for an audience member wondering the best ways to support ethnic theatre. Orlandersmith said actors can do their part by not being "seduced by pilot season" and remaining dedicated to building careers in the theatre. Both Childs and Orlandersmith said they began writing plays when they saw a lack of roles for minority actors while pursuing acting careers. McNally said that, to a certain extent, all writers start writing when they see a need for their story to be represented, and that the process of finding roles for minority actors "begins with the playwright."

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