Saturday, October 29, 2011
Changes in Race and Gender
Three times this year we have seen plays where the gender or race of a major character in a play was changed. In Richard III at Stratford, a woman played the part of Richard. Although it didn't affect my reading or enjoyment of the play, I have friends who couldn't get past it--the physical differences were too great. It didn't bother me much to have a woman play Richard, because we were not supposed to see it as a shift in genders. The actress was still playing the role as male.
Then in THE HOMECOMING, an African-American actress played a part that was traditionally played by a white actress.
But in THE HOMECOMING, a play about working class Brits, having a black actress play the wife of a character, changed it quite a bit. Were we not supposed to notice this working-class bloke had married a black woman? Or was she supposed to be interchangeable with a white actress?
Pinter did not mean for the issue of race to be addressed-the means of discussing it were not in the script. So we had to treat her as a white woman although she was not.
Can a white actress effectively play the part of a traditionally black character in works like A Raisin in the Sun or The Color Purple? Can a man play a woman without it being a statement about sexuality? Does race/sex matter?
At the Shaw Festival, the male lead, a nineteenth century British clergyman, was played by a black actor. Was he supposed to be a typical Englishman? In this case, I doubt it made any difference.
Clearly there are far fewer black playwrights and black characters in plays. And in many cases it makes little difference to have black actors play the part. But in some cases, and I would say THE HOMECOMING might constitute one, it does matter. The character is too pivotal-- to change her race.
What do you think? Does changes in gender or race affect your reading of a work?