Theater World Takes to Casting Across Color
(Washington Post) — A few days before opening in “Sabrina Fair” at Ford’s Theatre last fall, Susan Heyward found herself bawling in front of the cast. “At first I didn’t understand why I couldn’t stop crying,” Heyward says in an interview from New York. Heyward was playing the lead — the Audrey Hepburn part, if you think of the movie “Sabrina” — in Samuel A. Taylor’s 1953 Cinderella romance. Chauffeur’s Daughter Captures Heart of Rich Employer’s Son, goes the story, only Ford’s made the play about race by isolating Sabrina and her father as black figures in an affluent white milieu.
The script itself remained unchanged. But even though the characters did not mention the new theme, it was blatant. “It hurt so much to be in a world where something so elemental to your being was ignored,” Heyward says, explaining her sudden eruption. “I had to acknowledge that for Sabrina.” There may be power yet, then, in an idea that last seemed vanguard a couple of decades ago: nontraditional casting. Latinos, blacks and whites in Arena Stage’s “Oklahoma!” last fall, and now an African American version of Horton Foote’s 1953 “The Trip to Bountiful” at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. The concepts don’t necessarily seem fresher than Arena’s “Pygmalion” with an African American Eliza Doolittle 20 years ago or an all-black “Waiting for Godot” on Broadway in 1957.
But Timothy Douglas, director of “The Trip to Bountiful” (best known as the 1985 film that won Geraldine Page the Academy Award for Best Actress), suggests that nontraditional casting is enjoying a renaissance. The flurry on Broadway in recent seasons has included Morgan Freeman in Clifford Odets’s “The Country Girl,” S. Epatha Merkerson in “Come Back, Little Sheba” and an all-black “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — all 1950s plays, curiously, like “Bountiful.” “I don’t think we’re beyond it,” says Douglas, adding that the notion of the Obama era as post-racial is fantasy. “There is this other huge section, and I belong to it, that says no, the conversation just begins. So, on that level, nontraditional casting has a potential for even greater impact now.”