Currently that anger is directed toward American Players Theatre (APT) for casting a white actor in one of the two roles in their 2018 production of THE BLOOD KNOT. Written in 1964 by Athol Fugard, the role was originally played by Fugard himself (a white man), and most of the productions in the last fifty years have continued this casting choice. Fugard believed that casting a white actor made it impossible for the audience to disregard the issues confronted in the play.
This history of the play and its many productions seems to have been lost in the heated outrage about APT’s casting that now appears on social media. Also lost is that APT has made a deliberate and highly noticeable effort in recent years to diversify its acting talent and the shows it produces. Since the change of artistic directors only a few years ago, it’s impossible for this long-time audience member to miss a massive and welcome change. The old APT would never have produced THE AFRICAN SHAKESPEARE COMPANY PRESENTS RICHARD III – arguably the single best show I’ve seen in thirty years at APT, featuring a cast of only one white actor (as required by the script) among a group of brilliantly talented black actors. The old APT would not have cast a black man as the nextdoor neighbor in DEATH OF A SALESMAN. This casting choice was deliberate and strategic. It provided new layers to Willie Loman’s self-defeat, and injected an insightful consideration of race into what was already a powerful relationship. The old APT would never have produced THE BLOOD KNOT, a play that ripped open the ugly truth of apartheid in 1964, and that has great bearing on the racial divide in America in 2018. APT’s choice to produce THE BLOOD KNOT was not accidental. It was a deliberate invitation to its audience to engage in a discussion on race.
Do we need to be concerned about lack of diversity on Madison stages? Absolutely. Is APT the appropriate whipping boy for the problem? No. Quite the opposite. APT has been leading the way, as best they can, in addressing this issue and finding solutions. Have they solved the problem? No, but they are working on it. Is there more to do? Of course. But no Wisconsin theatre company has been more focused in its efforts to address diversity than APT.
Meanwhile, back in Madison, local theatre organizations are taking steps on their own. Theatre Lila comes to mind, not only for their recent production LINES – with five female playwrights of color – but for demonstrating how inclusion is not only right but makes for the best theatre.
In 2018, several of the for-all-practical-purposes lily-white Bartell companies are stepping out of the comfort zones in dramatic (no pun intended) ways. Strollers Theatre is producing my new play INFAMOUS MOTHERS, featuring four black actresses and one white and directed by a first-time black director. StageQ will present A LADY AND A WOMAN, a story of the courage of African-American women in the late 19th century. StageQ will also present ATTACK ON STONEWALL, an original play about the defiance of drag queens, many of whom were black. Krass will present TROUBLE IN MIND about a newly integrated theatre company.
In case you missed it, this is a huge change for the combined Bartell companies.
Is there reason to be concerned or angry? Yes. But there is also reason to be hopeful. And one of those reasons is APT’s aggressive efforts to change.