A few months ago, the big news was that the new Harry Potter play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, had cast black actor Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger. I read this great article in Cosmopolitan, and saw lots of tweets and posts and comments and essays which made me want to throw in my two cents.
I am a huge Harry Potter fan, reading the books and watching the movies numerous times, but unlike some, I was not bothered by this casting choice. It did make me think a lot, though, about actors and roles and established characters and time periods, and our notions about who should play which parts, especially of those fictional persons who are dear to us.
When you cast a black actor as The Artful Dodger, for example, the public either already knows who the character is or can easily Google him to learn about him. He an an established character who has existed for close to two centuries in a story that has been performed, rebooted and read many, many times. We know what the story of Oliver Twist is about, what the themes are, and the horrible existence of the destitute in London of the 1830s. Having a non- white actor play this character changes nothing about the story. If you know the tale, you know the casting choice was about choosing the best actor and nothing more. Such was the case when my newly minted husband and I were in London for our honeymoon at a production of Oliver!, the musical version of the story. Two boys alternated playing Dodger, and on our night at the theater, the actor playing him was black. Of course I noticed, but as I knew the story, there was no reason to take further note of it.
Obviously, well-known and “classic” stories that we English speakers (and others) read tend to be more about white people and their experiences, mainly because of Who’s in Charge of the World at That Particular Time and What They Want to Publish is Stories About Them and Their World. They have the money, they make the rules. (This is also the reason that many women had to publish under pseudonyms, but that’s a story for another day.) These classics are great stories, to be sure, but they don’t tell everyone’s story. But if they are the only/main stories being told on stage or in the movies or on TV, where does that leave those actors who don’t look like our idea or the actual description of what a character looks like? What if the skin color isn’t historically accurate? Does that mean that a black or Filipino or (fill in the non-white nationality here) actor will miss out on playing roles that are traditionally white?
It shouldn’t. I will tell you that after Oliver! started and the familiar story started, it absolutely didn’t matter. As with any good actor, he was the Artful Dodger for those 2 or so hours. So it’s not so much whether the actor can do it but whether you, the audience member, will let them.
If I were an actor, I would hate to miss out on playing certain characters just because of skin color. Sure, the black actor can be Othello – but what about King Lear or Iago or Lady Macbeth? What about Willy Loman or Odysseus or Captain Von Trapp? Or Elizabeth Bennet, Marian the Librarian, or Blanche Dubois? Do all of the skin tones have to match up properly in order for us to believe that certain characters are related or are in love?
I can hear some of you saying that this has to go both ways. Well, I don’t (necessarily) agree. What if the story is about race, either wholly or tangentially? it would be strange or, dare I say, inappropriate to see a white Porgy or Tom Robinson. There’s also the issue, whether you agree with it or not, of cultural appropriation.
The only time casting could be confusing if it is a play or a movie that doesn’t have a familiar story line, and you don’t know if someone’s skin color is supposed to be relevant to the story. But, even then, as with any show, the script will explain that soon enough.
Ultimately, I would much prefer that the best actor gets the job. So please consider this my vote for Idris Elba to be the next James Bond.