Non-Traditional Casting the Classics

At the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.,
the Movement is Toward Colorblind Productions

For Five Weeks, 12-year-old Charles dUMAS rehearsed for his theatrical debut, but was forced to wait nearly three days more while his classmates performed their selections. When his turn finally came, he began Macbeth's tormented soliloquy, "Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?" He was not aware of the spell he cast over the class until he spoke the line, "I go, and it is done; the bell invites me." At that moment, a bit late on its cue, the school bell rang, but not an impatient foot stirred until he finished: "Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell." Whatever the fate of Duncan, that moment summoned dUMAS to a career on the stage and the dream of playing Macbeth.

Carlos Juan Gonzalez attended a Catholic school in Texas and, at about the same age as dUMAS, was already seized by the desire to act. A nun advised him, "The classics; you must study the classics. You have a gift for it." But he had only seen movies and it was not until high school, when a teacher took his class to see a performance of King Lear, that he understood.

"I fell in love with it. And I knew what role I wanted to do." His chance came in a college production of King Lear. "Edmund was mine. They tried to talk me into playing Gloucester, because I always did old men, but I said, 'No! No way. I want Edmund.' And I got it."

 For Gail Grate the classics were "not special -- just a part of training" at Carnegie Mellon University. Not special . . . until she began studying Shakespeare. "I immediately loved Shakespeare. I don't know why." Leah Maddrie is drawn to the classics for "artistic reasons [and] because you've made the decision that what you bring to that work of art is more important than your own gratification."

The talents of these actors were on display in The Shakespeare Theatre's successful production of Antony and Cleopatra, where they were featured players in the court of Franchelle Stuart Dorn's Cleopatra. Like Dorn and most of the Egyptians, dUMAS, Grate and Maddrie are black, and Gonzalez is of Mexican-American ancestry, reflecting The Shakespeare Theatre Director Michael Kahn's commitment to “non-traditional casting," as well as to attracting minority actors to the classics.

Gonzalez and dUMAS were in the Theatre's 13-week Intensive Classical Training Program for Professional Minority Actors (a program conceived by Kahn) last spring. While the academic community is skirmishing over the white, European emphasis of the humanities, he is casting actors in the classics; which, as Kahn said in a different context, have been viewed as being the product of a "European cultural clique," noting wryly that its shining star, William Shakespeare, would be dismayed to find himself included in any establishment. Not surprisingly, these actors do not accept any suggestion that the classics are elitist.

"I reject the idea that you lose your culture if you want to do Shakespeare," Maddrie declared. "I'm an actor. I don't feel I have to separate who I am -- that I have to betray who I am -- to play a role." Gonzalez, never at a loss for a vivid quote, said, "College professors told me, 'Whoever heard of a Mexican-American Shakespearean actor? Why do you want to do that bourgeois crap?'" while fighting off the criticism of friends who say, 'Shakespeare is not done with salsa'."

"But it's human. It's living thought. I already had it in me. I just got to do it."

One happy dividend of Kahn's casting is that he is also attracting minorities to see Shakespeare. The results can sometimes be unexpected -- to the delight of dUMAS, who sees his place on the classical stage as something he needs to do for black people. In the middle of a scene one night, Dorn was taken aback when a black woman in the audience had become so involved that she cried out, "Tell 'em, honey!" However, dUMAS recalled being thrilled. The overriding question, though, is white acceptance of blacks in roles that have been the property of white actors.

"What I think is strange," said Leah Maddrie, "is I have never seen anyone object to Placido Domingo doing Otello or Elizabeth Taylor doing Cleopatra, but when it is a minority actor cast in a role that has traditionally been cast white, all of a sudden it's a big deal.

"The whole country accepted Amos and Andy -- those were two white men in black face," she added. "People will accept whatever is put in front of them as long as it's done convincingly. There has to be a willingness to move out. People know, whether the play is Sam Shepard or Shakespeare, when somebody sticks a knife in himself, that person is not really dead That same acceptance is in all of us." After all, as Maddrie later remarked, "An artist interprets the human truth and not the stereotype."

Clearly the audiences at the Shakespeare Theatre have recognized this truth and accept it. Dorn won the Helen Hayes Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, and critical acclaim for her Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. But as she had said, it is easier for audiences to accept minorities in classics, which are "a world removed." For there are modern classics which, but for such exceptions as James Earl Jones's Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are still whites only.

"There are plays that don't work cast non-traditionally," Gail Grate observed, "but there are so many plays that do. And there are so many roles that don't distinguish whether the character is black or white. I think we have to explore these avenues. What I have been hearing is either all the way on one side or all the way on the other side. We have to be more creative about the way we look at it."

Whatever the vintage of the classics, the Shakespeare is one of a very few theatres that offer opportunities for minority actors. Meanwhile, Carlos Juan Gonzalez will continue doing most of his acting in industrial films -- "'Yes, Carlos, but can you make him more Latin?' I know what that means: turn on the grease." -- and hope that the chance to play the role he covets, Titus Andronicus, will somehow come his way. And several decades after his boyhood triumph, Charles dUMAS still waits for the call to come to enact Macbeth.  

Michael Kahn was in his third year as the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre when this production of Antony & Cleopatra was staged. In his 15th season with the Theatre (2001-2002), non-traditional casting is a tradition of the company, including Patrick Stuart starring as a white Othello in an otherwise minority cast (1997), and a stunning all-black production of Sophocles' Oedipus Plays in an African setting (2001).

For more information about The Shakespeare Theatre, click here.

This article, with minor changes, originally appeared in
The Hill Rag in December 1988.

© Irvin Leigh Matus
Created Wednesday, June 19, 2002
Updated Sunday, April 20, 2003

Carlos Juan Gonzalez as Mardian, Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Cleopatra, Leah Maddrie as Iras and Gale Grate as Charmian, in The Shakespeare Theatre's 1988 production of Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Kahn.