The Contrarian

A Racial Tempest in a Teapot

Was APT wrong to cast white actor in play ‘Blood Knot’? No.

By - Jun 25th, 2018 03:06 pm
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Jim DeVita & Gavin Lawrence, Blood Knot, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Jim DeVita & Gavin Lawrence, Blood Knot, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The Journal Sentinel’s shrunken news hole forces editors to make tough choices about what warrants coverage. Yet, in a telling sign of the times, the paper found room for a lengthy, 1,000-plus word article last week about a theatrical casting issue at Wisconsin’s famous American Players Theater in Spring Green.

Jim Higgins’ piece — headlined “American Players Theatre’s casting of a white actor as a black man in ‘Blood Knot’ stirs controversy” — begins as follows: “The casting of a white actor as a light-skinned black man in American Players Theatre‘s (APT) production of ‘Blood Knot’ has generated sharp criticism from other theater leaders around the country, and a related petition.”

To Higgins’ credit, he explains that the original production of Blood Knot, in apartheid-era South Africa, featured exactly the same casting as chosen by APT. Higgins explains that the two brothers in the play are “both black but one light-skinned enough to pass for white.” And, as it turns out, the play itself highlights that issue. The white actor in the premier production was none other than the play’s author, Athol Fugard. This makes the APT decision eminently reasonable. Indeed, Fugard told the APT he approved of its casting decision.

But APT’s choice doesn’t pass muster with “other theater leaders.” For example, Milwaukee Repertory Theater managing director Chad Bauman doesn’t “accept [APT’s ] reasoning” in replicating the original casting decision. And there’s this from Journal Sentinel drama critic Mike Fischer: “I couldn’t get past the knowledge that I was watching a white man playing a black man, in a country (ours) where that sort of appropriation has a long and troubled history. APT would never cast [Jim] DeVita as a black man in an August Wilson play. It shouldn’t have cast him as a black man in this one.”

In truth, the “controversy” is a phony, manufactured effort by people who want to draw attention to their supposed racial sensitivity. Fischer’s “reasoning” would mean that non-white performers would find substantially fewer roles at classical theaters such as APT. In the many years that I have delighted in APT productions I have lost count of the times that black and Latino performers were cast in roles historically reserved for whites. These efforts have been so successful my wife and I no longer “notice” when a non-white performer is cast in a “white” role.

Last Saturday we saw a powerful Chicago Shakespeare production of Macbeth. To state the obvious, blacks did not play a role in the play’s time period of medieval Scotland. Yet black performers played the pivotal roles of the Macduff family. Like APT, Chicago Shakespeare has a long record of such casting. In this particular case, Lady Macduff was portrayed by Jennifer Latimore, a black actress who appeared frequently on stage at APT. She likely is glad that the “logic” of “theater leaders” and reviewers such as Bauman and Fischer is seen for the phony preening that it is.

54 thoughts on “The Contrarian: A Racial Tempest in a Teapot”

  1. PMD says:

    Cause George Mitchell is best known for his thoughtful commentary on race. This got widespread news coverage. Shocking that an old white guy thinks it’s silly. Publishing this nonsense makes you look bad UM.

  2. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    Ageist

  3. Kelley Faulkner says:

    This is shockingly out of touch. Shows a true lack of understanding of racism in this country. Do better, Urban Milwaukee.

  4. stacy says:

    Shocking?

    I will go to my safe place before I read this.

  5. roz says:

    it is not totally the same thing—-black actors playing white roles. who said lady macbeth couldn’t be black. dumas, pushkin and benedict the moor all black men at times in history when we only think whites existed in western culture. so this 86 year old man in south africa thought the casting of of the apt production okay. well, i think not in america, it is more poingant, disturbing and dramatic to have a light skinned african saying how tough it is to be black then to have a white man say the same things.

  6. Rita says:

    I’m confused…A white actor can’t play a black character, but a black actor can play a white character?
    Are we that sensitive about our humanity?

  7. roz says:

    yes, again who says that every character in shakespeare is white, except othello.

  8. Cathy Dills says:

    Obviously, most of you didn’t read the part that Athol Fugard, who is white & wrote the play said no problem since I played the light-skinned role.

  9. AD Powell says:

    Excuse me, but the character Jim DeVita is playing in “Blood Knot” is a WHITE character despite racially mixed ancestry! If the character is NOT played by a white actor (“white” being defined by color and phenotype and NOT racial purity), the whole play makes no sense at all.

    Perhaps the idiots who claim that DeVita is playing a “black” character expected American Players Theater to make a national search for a white actor known to have some “black blood.”

  10. roz says:

    didn’t miss it. do not think it relevant in 2018 and in the us of a. fugard is a great playwright especially the play boseman and lena. that doesn’t mean he is right,

  11. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    Mike Fischer and the Rep’s Bauman owe APT and DeVita a public apology.

  12. An “idiot” says:

    AD Powell, you are incorrect. The character was born to a black mother.

  13. An “idiot” says:

    Why was my previous comment deleted? It stated a fact: the character is not white with some vague black ancestry but indeed biracial with a black mother.

  14. Dave Reid says:

    @An Your comment was not deleted… Just stuck in moderation. Likely due to your changing of your handle to include quotes and the word ‘idiot’. WordPress can be picky.

  15. PMD says:

    Every single time I post it gets stuck in moderation. Quite frustrating.

  16. Dave Reid says:

    @PMD I’m not sure why, but it’s true your comments do get stuck a lot.

  17. AD Powell says:

    “Idiot” has a racist definition of “white.” If you LOOK white because of genetics, then you ARE white. In reality, the white-skinned brother would not be born to a black mother. A mixed-race mother could produce white and black offspring with different fathers. Let’s drop the “light-skinned black” nonsense. The term is based on the assumption that the race you claim to champion is genetically inferior. You know that, don’t you?

  18. Unreal says:

    AD, you need to brush up on the definition of racism. And science, if you believe that a black mother could not produce a very light-skinned son. Also, you wanna tell all the lighter skinned biracial people out there that they’re not really black? I mean…wow. While you’re at it, go tell all the people of color who are hurt and offended by this casting that they’re wrong. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so terrifying that people actually think this way. 🙄

  19. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    The history of the play, along with the input of its author on APT’s casting choice, makes much of the comment here completely irrelevant. The standing ovations that audiences have provided, including at the performance I attended three days ago, speak volumes.

  20. PMD says:

    As long as old white males are not offended, there’s nothing to see here. No one else’s perspective is valid. Certainly not people of color. George says it’s fine, and we can hardly expect people like him to spend five seconds thoughtfully considering whether or not it’s possible there are other valid perspectives.

  21. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    Given the topic at hand, what are the chances that PMD sees the irony of judging someone’s views based on their age, race, and gender?

  22. roz says:

    fugard’s play was written in 1964—like another world from today. his opinion is irrelevant. sorry fugard. mid -westerners seem to stand at the drop of a hat–again not impressive. the discussion of race is relevant. i don’t quite understand unreal’s point, however, what do we think about totally white european folks playing native americans. rankles a bit. this seems the same issue.

  23. Unreal says:

    Roz what don’t you understand? Thought I was pretty clear.

  24. Unreal says:

    George, someone commenting on white supremacy – – older white male opinions itaking precedence over all others – – is not racism. There are many wonderful resources out there about racism and white supremacy that I think you would find helpful. You should probably avail yourself of them.

  25. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    Unreal: Thanks for clarifying that PMD was “commenting on [my] white supremacy.”

    Roz: The playright’s opinion is irrelevant?

    I am reminded as to why people post without identifying themselves.

  26. Unreal says:

    The playwright is white. He doesn’t get to decide what is correct for an oppressed people. He also has never said that the role should only be played by white people…he is open to any casting. Secondly, I was speaking of white supremacy in a broader sense which yes, you are a part of. I am white, so so am I, but it is my duty to help dismantle it in today’s society. By taking this stance, you are choosing to perpetuate it. And I’m quite happy to sign my name to this statement. – – Kelley Faulkner

  27. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    Unreal, er, Kelley: So, I am perpetuating white supremacy by defending a casting decision. Have you bothered to read the APT online discussion of the decision? Is the Black actor who plays next to Jim DeVita perpetuating white supremacy? How about the Black director of the current production? How about the Black audience members who stood to applaud Sunday’s performance?

  28. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    Kelley: I assume you are the Milwaukee actress. If so, this takes your critique to a different level entirely. Portraying an APT casting decision as a manifestation of white supremacy? You unwittingly validate my original observation about virtue-signal preening.

  29. Kelley says:

    Of course I have read those statements. I believe that the people of color involved in this production are entitled to feel exactly how hey do. I do not think APT should be ignoring the unintended consequences of their decisions, though, when it has upset a huge number of people. Your notion that because a white playwright says it’s ok, it’s acceptable, and your continued accusations of reverse racism are what is perpetuating white supremacy.

  30. Kelley says:

    And yes, I am an actress. That changes absolutely nothing about what I said. We have to stop being so afraid of words like racism and white supremacy…it doesn’t always mean hoods and crosses. It’s vast and far-reaching with many subtleties. I think APT is a wonderful theater. I also think they’ve missed a huge opportunity here by not defending their artistic choices while apologizing for their unintended consequences at the same time.

  31. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    In your portrayal of Patsy Cline I am sure you highlighted her attendance at segregated Virginia schools. If only she had possessed your insights about “white supremacy.”

  32. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    “Unintended consequences”? Which one? Your silly accusations of white supremacy? Mike Fischer’s disappointment in being uncomfortable watching the play? APT is supposed to apologize to whom, exactly?

  33. Kelley says:

    Well, now it’s clear that you have no interest in actually addressing the points that I’ve made, but defending your thoughts at any cost and now taking personal pot shots that don’t even make any sense. And you were wondering why people don’t want to use their real names? There you go. Have a nice day, and all the best.

  34. Kelley says:

    Do you want to look all of the black artists who have complained about this in the eye and tell them that their feelings are “silly”? And why are you putting white supremacy in quotations as if it doesn’t exist?

  35. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    What “points” have you made? That APT’s decision manifests white supremacy? The racism is “vast and far-reaching with many subtleties” (as apparently indicated by the APT casting decision)?

  36. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    I would be interested in knowing which Black artists have complained and reading their complaints. Please elaborate. Thanks.

  37. Kelley says:

    I need to get on with my day, and I’ve made all the points that I wanted to make. But I’ll leave you with with one more thing. These are the words of a local black artist. If you can tell her that she’s being silly and feel good about that, well then…that speaks volumes about you.

    “Here’s a suggestion, don’t do allegorical plays where there is a black character that has a white character play said character. Don’t use the historical reasoning of a white writer as to why it is important for a white audience to see a white man play this black character so they can’t shirk from responsibility of racism. Don’t produce plays that are about black people apparently written only for white people to humanize black folks. Don’t use a 1961 South African allegory written by a white man and pass it off as diversity and representation in 2018 America.

    I have family that passed for white. I have letters from an aunt discussing the peril when she lived in Chicago in the early 1900’s. My family intimately knows the struggle these characters faced. There have been other productions that cast a black man instead of a white man. The author himself does not object to a black man playing this role. The black director even mentioned how he would’ve cast it differently had he the chance.

    I’m profoundly disappointed in our arts community that continues to support this production and the many reasons and *justifications* that are used to deem it acceptable. It’s not. It’s modern day blackface and it’s offensive and wrong.

    EDIT: If you cannot stand up for racism in your own community then how can I expect you to stand for me in real life?”

  38. Kelley says:

    I just read your most recent comment. As you can see, I’ve already posted an example above, but I’m not gonna do anymore work or research for you. Google is your friend, and social media is also quite accessible. It wasn’t hard for me to find several examples and it won’t be hard for you to find others. Perhaps, next time, don’t assume that a community isn’t hurt just because you haven’t thought to seek out any statements beyond the theatre’s. Be well.

  39. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    This statement — Don’t produce plays that are about black people apparently written only for white people to humanize black folks — is a classic straw man. It’s a false argument grounded in imaginary assumptions. The fact that a “Black artist” says something doesn’t make it valid. It’s demeaning to imply validity based on race, a dynamic that serves as the foundation for your entire argument.

  40. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    At your suggestion I Googled the topic. Did not find examples of “all the Black artists” you cite.

    I’m interested in reading what they say.

  41. AD Powell says:

    “Unreal,” a truly black mother would not have a white-skinned son. However, the word “black” is often applied to people who are far from pure black. Meghan Markle, for example, is a brunet white not only because her father is white but because her “black” mother obviously has some mixture in her background. By contrast, Barack Obama’s father was jet black. That’s why Obama said he was rarely taken for biracial unless he told people about his white mother.

  42. AD Powell says:

    Kelley, the “light-skinned” character in “Blood Knot” is WHITE. He is not “light-skinned” like Beyonce. Tell us exactly what kind of actor you would cast in that role. Some black actor with a slightly lighter skin tone than the actor playing the dark brother? Perhaps you think that APT should have conducted a national search for a white actor with “black blood” to play the white brother? Or is it also important to you that a white actor with some “black blood” identify with blacks to get the role and not with whites? Should all actors who apply for a “Fiddler on the Roof” production provide proof of Jewish ancestry?

  43. George Mitchell says:

    So, Milwaukee actress Kelley Faulkner questions whether I’d be willing to “look all the Black artists…in the eye” who have complained. I asked her twice for names. Crickets

  44. Kelley says:

    George, the fact that I’m a Milwaukee actress is 100% irrelevant, and I’ve already told you that it’s not my job to do your research. I also explained that I was moving on with my day. If you can’t locate anyone in the community without my help, that’s not my problem. Please refrain from mentioning me again. I’m done here, where it’s acceptable to refer to human beings as “jet black” but not acceptable to disagree with the author.

  45. TransitRider says:

    PMD, regarding posts being stuck “awaiting moderation”…

    I’ve found one sure-fire way to bring on moderation is to cite more than one source (URL). One URL is fine, but add a second and you post will be delayed 24 hours.

  46. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    Kelley, Your being an actress is irrelevant (in a discussion of theatrical casting) but my being an old white guy is not. Having tagged me as a white supremacist your are now moving on….perhaps because you threw out your line about all the Black artists and can’t back it up. You are the epitome of the phony. An actress in real life.

  47. Kelley says:

    For a “journalist”, your comprehension skills are interesting. I never called you a white supremacist, I said your stance and your tone perpetuates white supremacy. Not my problem that you don’t understand the difference. I also quoted an artist of color, but refused to do further research for you. Again, for a so-called journalist, this should be basic, but apparently it’s not. You have resorted to name-calling and bullying, which I’m sure your editors will love to see. I was trying to take the high road, but I have no problem saying that if this is Milwaukee journalism, it’s an embarrassment and we truly need to do better. I will not engage you further. Once again, I wish you well.

  48. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    “I never called you a white supremacist, I said your stance and your tone perpetuates white supremacy…I was trying to take the high road.”

  49. AD Powell says:

    People like Kelley whine about “white supremacy” as a form of moral posturing. There are REAL white supremacists and they are not hard to find. Go bother them. Of course, you prefer to take the coward’s way out and harangue decent people with ridiculous “racism” accusations.

    You STILL haven’t told us how YOU would have cast the white character in “Blood Knot.” Tell us exactly what kind of actor you would cast in that role. Some black actor with a slightly lighter skin tone than the actor playing the dark brother? Perhaps you think that APT should have conducted a national search for a white actor with “black blood” to play the white brother? Or is it also important to you that a white actor with some “black blood” identify with blacks to get the role and not with whites? Should all actors who apply for a “Fiddler on the Roof” production provide proof of Jewish ancestry?

  50. GEORGE MITCHELL says:

    San Francisco’s renown ACT produced Blood Knot a few years ago. With a white and black actor.

    http://www.act-sf.org/content/dam/act/education_department/words_on_plays/Blood%20Knot%20Words%20on%20Plays%20(2008).pdf

  51. roz says:

    oh, ad and george, give it a rest. how entrenched do you have to be that you can’t even acknowledge another’s perspective.
    i don’t care how many theater groups cast a totally white person to play the other brother, that doesn’t make them correct. in this society with a president who can’t stand brown people, one cannot be unmindful of the fall out from the same questionable casting.

  52. AD Powell says:

    Roz, you people who are upset about the “Blood Knot” casting make no sense at all. You want your whining to become unofficial law. If it’s not too oppressive and taxing for your little brain, explain what you think APT SHOULD have done. Are you saying that they should have initiated a nation-wide search for a white actor with “black blood”? “Mixed” white or “pure” white is still white.

  53. roz says:

    oh really, i am outta here. when you start attacking personally, you’re done.

  54. AD Powell says:

    Can ANY of you critics of the “Blood Knot” casting answer this question?

    Explain what you think APT SHOULD have done. Are you saying that they should have initiated a nation-wide search for a white actor with “black blood”? “Mixed” white or “pure” white is still white.

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