Over the last two years, I've thrown virtually every superlative imaginable at Tracy Letts' Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. I love this show for its gritty "truth."
Come Tuesday, the composition of the Weston family will experience a dynamic change when one of the stage's most celebrated and accomplished contemporary actresses, Phylicia Rashad, assumes the mantle of matriarch. When I first learned that Rashad would join the cast, I was positively intrigued. I had wistfully imagined whether she might be joined by James Earl Jones, along with some of the stage's top African American actors, so they might do for August what they had done for other classics like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.
However, in the latest attempt at color-blind casting, Rashad's Violet will just happen be mother to three white daughters. Will it matter?
Robert Brustein, founding director of the Yale and American Repertory Theaters, assesses how he believes audiences will respond:
My guess, and it’s an educated guess, is that after 10 minutes you’ll forget what color anybody is.The New York Times reporter Felicia R. Lee today writes:
There were no changes in the script to reflect Ms. Rashad’s race.Yet, interestingly enough, she adds:
And though she was picked foremost because of her talent, Mr. (Jeffrey) Richards said, she was also viewed as a Violet who could expand the play’s audience, especially of black theatergoers.Is the production now trying to have it both ways?
One of the things I long have appreciated about live theatre has been its innovative casting irrespective of color, particularly when it makes sense or matters little to the central theme of the plot. In the realm of entertainment, live theatre can proudly stake a claim as the true leader in this area. As Rashad herself points out, she's being reteamed with John Cullum for the second time as her stage husband; they appeared alongside one another in the superb 2007 production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline.
There's no question that entertainment can and should do a better job in casting to better mirror today's America. To that end, color-blind casting could easily be employed in more stage shows. Among Broadway's newest plays like reasons to be pretty and God Of Carnage, or in new musicals like 9 To 5, what difference would any of the primary character's skin color really make? The stories would still play the same without anyone even questioning the decision.
On the other hand, when race is truly central to the plot, it would be pure folly. Can you imagine any production for a show like Raisin In The Sun or Joe Turner's Come And Gone to substitute its principal characters with actors who aren't African American? It would be considered a contrived nuisance and rightly so.
My quandary about August: Osage County is wondering how audiences will respond to this substantive change. It's not just because of the play's starkly realistic portrayal of a rural Oklahoma family. It's particularly because of Violet's own acid-tinged racist bile directed at her Native American caretaker Johnna. Violet's reflections on race pose an interesting challenge to Rashad and the rest of the August ensemble. Is that insurmountable?
While the verdict on this choice remains to be seen, I'm still intrigued.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).