Monday, March 17, 2014

Quvenzhané Wallis as Orphan Annie, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. Looking at the differences.

The Oscar-nominated ten-year-old actor,  Quvenzhané Wallis, is playing Orphan Annie in a new adaptation of the original musical (Annie).  Several sites have gathered together tweet comments expressing racism or anger about the actor not being white and read-headed as in the original musical and book it was based on.

It's hard to know how common those kinds of comments are, without going back to gather all tweets about this news, but some people obviously feel that the character Annie should never be played by an actor who doesn't exactly match the original specifications and some of those people are racists*.

To compare this to related decisions, consider the classical film Gandhi.  Because it came out before we had the blessings of Twitter it's not easy to find out if people were at all outraged that a British-Indian white actor**, Ben Kingsley,  was to play Gandhi.  After all, Gandhi's essential characteristic for the purposes of that film was that he was an Indian leader of the people.

Then there is Waiting for Godot Evidence suggests that the playwright, Samuel Beckett, was opposed to having female actors play the roles in his play:

Beckett was not open to most interpretative approaches to his work. He famously objected when, in the 1980s, several women's acting companies began to stage the play. "Women don't have prostates", said Beckett,[79] a reference to the fact that Vladimir frequently has to leave the stage to urinate.
In 1988, Beckett took a Dutch theatre company, De Haarlemse Toneelschuur to court over this issue. "Beckett [...] lost his case. But the issue of gender seemed to him to be so vital a distinction for a playwright to make that he reacted angrily, instituting a ban on all productions of his plays in The Netherlands."[80] This ban was short-lived, however: in 1991 (two years after Beckett's death), "Judge Huguette Le Foyer de Costil ruled that the production would not cause excessive damage to Beckett's legacy", and the play was duly performed by the all-female cast of the Brut de Beton Theater Company at the prestigious Avignon Festival.[81]
The Italian Pontedera Theatre Foundation won a similar claim in 2006 when it cast two actresses in the roles of Vladimir and Estragon, albeit in the characters' traditional roles as men.[82] At the 1995 Acco Festival, director Nola Chilton staged a production with Daniella Michaeli in the role of Lucky,[83] and a 2001 production at Indiana University staged the play with women playing Pozzo and the Boy.[citation needed]

Setting aside the difference between the creator of a work of art opposing recasting and the possible audience for the work of art opposing it, these three cases do share a similar smell.  Or should share it, because I doubt that the casting of Kingsley as Gandhi caused much protest outside India (though I may be mistaken about that).

The essential question in such casting decisions is probably whether they change the central messages of the work of art.  I don't see how that would be the case for the musical Annie or even for Waiting for Godot (as some menopausal women have to pee pretty often, say) because neither piece explicitly demands a certain race or gender to keep its central message the same.  On the other hand, something like A Raisin in the Sun would be hard to recast with white actors at this time and in the United States, because it would stop making sense.

Not allowing more flexible casting of roles hurts actors belonging to racial minorities, because there are fewer works explicitly written for them.  If we are never allowed to rethink casting, minority actors will have more trouble staying employed. 
*Hunger Games' casting decisions caused similar complaints about the race of some characters, even when the book had specified them.
**Sorry, got that wrong.  Kingsley was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji.  But he is British. Thanks to pixelfish for the correction.  For a better example of this phenomenon, the 2013 remake of the Lone Ranger might do:

Despite the producers citing the presence of an adviser from the Comanche Nation, some debated the advisability of casting of Depp as a Native American and whether the film would present a positive and accurate representation of the Comanche.[97] Depp has stated he believes he has Native American ancestry, possibly from a great-grandmother. He has said that he considered the role a personal attempt "to try to right the wrongs of the past", in reference to portrayals of Native American culture in the media.[98][99]