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EDITORIAL – Can a black actor play a white character, and vice versa?  

(Image: Mel Rothenburger photo)

An editorial by Mel Rothenburger.

I’M CONFUSED ABOUT what ethnic origin you must have before you’re allowed to be an actor.

A Canadian director named Robert LePage is in hot water because his new play called Kanata, described as “the history of Canada through the lens of the relationship between white and Indigenous people,” won’t include indigenous actors.

An open letter denounces the casting of French actors for the opening production in a Paris theatre.  Given the location of the theatre, the casting doesn’t seem so inappropriate.

An earlier play by LePage was cancelled by the Montreal jazz festival because white performers sang songs composed by black slaves.

American actress Scarlet Johanssen also became a casualty of the issue last weekend, quitting an acting role in which she was to play a transgender man. That had drawn condemnation from the LGBTQ community because she isn’t transgender.

Similar concerns have been raised about the portrayal of physically challenged people by able-bodied actors.

It wasn’t so long ago, though, that an argument was made there should be no barriers to getting acting work based on the things you can’t change about yourself.

In other words, for example, why shouldn’t black actors or indigenous actors play white characters?

Indeed, why not? I recently had the thrill of seeing the Broadway musical Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson — both white and the latter a slave owner — were played by black actors. It in no way seemed out of place or detracted from the performance.

Just down the street, Denzel Washington was playing Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, the lead character in Iceman Cometh. It’s a role traditionally played by a white actor. And Washington was brilliant in it.

One could argue, then, that if a black actor can play a white slave-owner, or a white protagonist in a Eugene O’Neill classic, why should it be mandatory that blacks play blacks, and so on?

Because racism lives, and the playing field isn’t level. All things being equal, producers and directors should think about hiring actors from victimized groups to play characters from victimized groups.

But after that, of course, they’ve got to earn the job with their talent.

I’m Mel Rothenburger, the Armchair Mayor.

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About Mel Rothenburger (6109 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

1 Comment on EDITORIAL – Can a black actor play a white character, and vice versa?  

  1. R A George // July 20, 2018 at 8:49 PM // Reply

    Remember Amos and Andy? How about Al Jolson? It,s much easier to make a black man from a white man than vice versa?Then theres those old B color westerns where the Indians were white guys. Pure corn.Jay silverheels who sided the Lone Ranger was easier to watch despite ” Keemosabie”.Italian guys made reasonably good Indians as did Anthony Quinn..I can,t remember much about Little Beaver who was Red Ryders bud.Have you ever noticed how old Japanese men look just like some old white men? There are many fine Native American actors in films and television today and thats as it should be.
    Too many trouble makers about.

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