Through the last few decades, no choric group of white singers in the West would blacken their faces to represent black and white minstrels
“Oh Bachchoo what can you write
When your inspiration is gone
And the day of joy passed into night
And like a lone cloud forlorn
You drift across an empty sky
Propelled by a destined wind
And like sinners wondering why
And in what depth they have sinned?”
From Songs of the Randy Rundis by Bachchoo
Ann Boleyn, one of the wives Henry VIII condemned to be beheaded, was as white as an unburdened cloud or a ceramic sink or… You see, gentle reader, I am trying to get away from the cliché of “driven snow” because I have never understood what drives it. And yet in the now-running Channel 5 television drama, Ann is played by a black actress.
Idiosyncratic casting is not new -- black actors have been cast as Julius Caesar, women as Titus Andronicus and black actors, female so far, as the three Chekhovian sisters.
In the case of Ann, however, no commentator has openly objected but a lot has still been said. The writer-director of the series and Channel 5 put out a press release saying that their version intended to correct the prevalent view of Ann Boleyn as a manipulative schemer who deserved what she got. Though they didn’t say it, what the writer-director who cast the black actress and her black brother in their respective roles probably intended was to win sympathy for Ann as a victim and someone who resists this victimisation, all in tune with the zeitgeist of the Black Lives Matter explosion.
Another seemingly well-informed reviewer pointed out that most historians and three previous depictions of Ann Boleyn in drama and film, characterised her not a manipulative sorceress, but as precisely the victim of capricious power. The Channel 5 drama was pushing against an open door.
The story ends horribly and tragically for Ann and her brother and this cross-racial casting sets out to prove that the privileged white establishment is guilty of racism -- gosh! What a revelation -- why didn’t I think of it -- thank you, Channel 5!
My own viewing of the series, perhaps in total eccentricity, reminded me at several points of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and had me wondering whether Oprah Winfrey was about to appear in the role of marriage counsellor.
Integrated or gender-and-colour-blind casting has several purposes. It may be that it was introduced in Britain and America under pressure from black actors who complained of not having opportunities and work as there weren’t many roles for them to play. As a member in the 1980s of two theatre companies, the Black Theatre Coop (BTC) and the Asian Co-operative Theatre (ACT, geddit?), we were very much in the thick of the clamour for parts for non-white actors. Our solution was not to cast blacks in traditional white roles, but to find and encourage the writing and production of plays about the black and Asian experience, contemporary, international, historical, epic, mythical and even sci-fi and fantastical. That vein of theatre has prospered in part and floundered in part but seems to have established itself firmly in the theatrical space of Britain, moving from the venues and audiences we played in and for, into the terrain of the nation’s dramatic establishment. We were the proud and defiant fringe. Now black and Asian drama covers the whole scalp, sometimes scantily as “racial” concession, but also occasionally in rich, dramatic, Rastafarian ringlets.
There was a parallel impulse which prompted racially integrated casting, which was the contention that all the stage is a world, a self-contained world removed from, though portraying the realities of racial and nationalistic tensions.
It was this impulse or determination that caused the maestro Peter Brook to cast any and every nationality and race in his masterful nine-hour production of the Mahabharat. Japanese and Caribbean actors played Indian heroes, heroines and gods. Brook’s criterion was not race or nationality but something like “the best actor from all the world for the role”. Akin to the players of Manchester United not representing the city of Manchester but drawn from anywhere and everywhere.
The Brook impulse was certainly not shared by sections of the Indian population. Inspired by Brook’s liberality or, as some would say, liberties with the Mahabharat, I wrote a novel called Bombay Duck in which this same impulse -- of universally integrated casting -- results in tragedy. The book progresses to other instances and narratives to question all our notions of authenticity.
Perhaps Peter Brook would, with these colour-blind casting eyes, direct Othello with a white female actor playing the principal part? I am almost certain that Channel 5 would not but am a bit doubtful about Britain’s National Theatre or indeed the Royal Shakespeare Company, which might very well in the interests of “diversity” overcome the idea that the play depends to a large extent on perceptions of race and gender. When Laurence Olivier, palpably white, played Othello, he blackened his face to dramatise this dimension of the play. Through the last few decades, no choric group of white singers in the West would blacken their faces to represent black and white minstrels. If a white actor blacked up to play Othello there would be mass riots in the streets. But what if one of the established theatres cast a white female actor as Othello without a change into male clothes, skin colour or plummy accent? Interesting. Watch this space.