The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.
A year and a half ago, Alchemist Theater in Milwaukee staged a production of "Oleanna," one of the best plays from Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet. He wrote the play in the aftermath of the Anita Hill hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
The show is about the sexual and power politics between an older male college profession and a younger female student. Alchemist, however, kept secret until opening night that the role of the student was going to be played by a young man who was obviously gay.
That same season a white man and a black woman played Bob and Mrs. Cratchit (Jonathan Wainwright and Marti Gobel) in the Milwaukee Rep’s production of "A Christmas Carol."
Both of these casting decisions were made in response to one of the most troubling challenges facing theater around the world and in Milwaukee: how to increase the diversity in theater productions. And both productions pointed out both the perils and promise of diversity efforts.
The Alchemist production was hit with a cease and desist letter from Mamet, while nobody said a thing about The Rep’s production.
The phrases that companies everywhere are dealing with vary from "genderblind" to "colorblind" casting.
What all of that means, of course, is that theater is trying to open itself to more women, to more people of color and to more people of different ethnicities. There is no disagreement that a lack of diversity is a legitimate issue for the world of theater. For far too long, professional theater has been the purview of white men.
The disagreements arise when discussions begin about what to do to change the situation. There are a couple of different camps. One is illustrated by The Rep and its annual Christmas pageant. A white and a black family made not a hair of difference to the story.
August Wilson is a playwright whose works include a series of 10 plays, "The Pittsburgh Cycle," for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Each is set in a different decade, depicting the comic and tragic aspects of the black experience in 20th century America. He talked about the issue of colorblind casting in a speech at Princeton University.
"Colorblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of cultural imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection ... ," he said.
"To mount an all-black production of a 'Death of a Salesman' or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history and the need to make our own investigation from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans," Wilson continued. "It is an assault on our present, our difficult but honorable history in America; is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.
"We do not need colorblind casting. We need some theaters to develop our playwrights."
In recent years, the Milwaukee Rep has emphasized its commitment to create opportunities by staging productions reflecting the black experience and giving opportunities to black writers, actors and directors.
The Rep has also created an agreement with the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble to have the company in residence at The Rep and to stage a production with the full support of all of its resources. For instance, "The Mojo and the Sayso," by Alisha Rahman, will be staged Jan. 28-31 in the Rep’s Stiemke Studio.
There are also examples that take the concept of colorblind casting to absurd lengths. Recently, a college production of "The Mountaintop" – which received a production at The Rep two seasons ago – cast a white actor as Martin Luther King.
Katori Hall, the decorated playwright who wrote the play, was amazed at the decision and wrote eloquently about the issues raised.
"Black writers dedicated to using black bodies, who remain at the center of a devalued narrative, are committing a revolutionary act," she wrote. "We are using theater to demand a witnessing. Our experiences have been shaped by a ragged history, and dark skin has proved to be a dangerous inheritance. From Eric Garner to the Charleston Nine to the latest black girl slammed to the ground by a cop, our bodies have been used as a battlefield where the Civil War has mutated and continues to claim the lives of those who should have been freed from the sharp knife of racism centuries ago.
"The casting of a white King is committing yet another erasure of the black body," she continued. "Sure, it might be in the world of pretend, but it is disrespectful nonetheless, especially to a community that has rare moments of witnessing itself, both creatively and literally, in the world."
The issues of racial and ethnic diversity in Milwaukee’s theater community won’t be solved by putting black actors in white roles or Latino actors in black roles. These activities are mere subterfuge for the kind of serious action needed.
There needs to be more support for and encouragement of the theatrical and life experiences of different cultures. When First Stage produced the exceptional "Luchadora," about a Mexican girl and the culture of professional wrestling in Mexico, it was a profound statement about diversity.
What we really need in Milwaukee, as well as every other theater center, is to give more opportunities to different races and ethnic groups, both onstage and off.
To have a black man play Willy Loman or a Latina woman play Blanche Dubois doesn’t create a climate that is both diverse and meaningful. Instead, it's a mere attempt to get off the hook easily.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.