Theatre Thoughts: Arts and Society

Oscars So White...

Yep, I'm going to wade into this. I've been debating this subject since the row broke, but I wanted some time to make my thoughts coherent.

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Yesterday I read an article from the BBC - in it a young black actress says she's tired of being stereotyped, and that even her mother, now, is tired of turning on the television and seeing her cast in the same old roles.
Surely this is the fault of the casting directors? If they are casting black actors in the 'typical' roles? Maybe they should think outside the box a little? As the wonderful J.K. Rowling said, during the mild furore over the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in 'Harry Potter And The Cursed Child', she never specified that Hermione had white skin. This is a wonderful example of casting directors thinking differently, and refusing to be swayed by what has gone before.
If the role doesn't specifically call for a white man, maybe try mixing it up a little? I understand this is difficult in the case of biographical films, if the person being depicted is a real person. It's also the case in films or plays which are aiming for historical accuracy, but there are plenty of powerful, historical and fictional characters that could be played by actors of ethnic origin.

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Mentioning Ms. Rowling brings me onto my next point: writers need to write more strong roles for people of ethnic origin.
I watched a video of the infamous Marlon Brando boycott, when Sacheen Littlefeather spoke out about the negative portrayals of American Indians, and the stereotypical roles that were being written for them. That was in 1973. We are now in 2016 and it seems that very little has changed.
Writers need to present strong characters of ethnic origin, or use their influence on casting decisions to reflect a more diverse society. (N.B. I originally wrote 'take risks' here, but then reconsidered - it shouldn't be a 'risk' to cast an actor against the stereotype)
Another argument here, for the Oscars, is maybe that not enough strong roles were written for actors of ethnic origin this year? Maybe it's not the fault of the Academy? Maybe it's that there weren't enough Oscar-worthy performances this year from the diverse spectrum of actors and performers, and this is the fault of the writers.

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We hear this a lot: The arts must show our more diverse society. The arts reflects life, and here, it isn't. I'm going to argue from the other perspective and argue that life actually reflects art.
I'm going to use the example of Ninjas. Bear with me. In the movies ninjas are always dressed in black and covered from head to toe. It's an iconic image, but it's wrong: actual ninjas usually wore blue. We get the idea of the ninja from Kabuki theatre, when stage hands would wear entirely black; the convention being, if they were dressed in black they were not part of the action of the play and could therefore be ignored. However, occasionally a play would break with this convention and have one of the 'stage hands' suddenly become an assassin, killing one of the 'characters', and from this we get the idea of the ninja which persists to this day - society now reflecting art.

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So this brings me round to my point - the arts (film, theatre, television etc) permeates our lives more than ever before. If those who make the arts and present it to the public choose to show more ethnic and sexual diversity on our screens and stages, it will become the norm throughout society and therefore the arts. (This also relates to my previous 'Theatre Thoughts' blog)

What are your thoughts?


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