Playing the race card

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Drama is breaking down colour barriers in schools, writes David Mosford.

THE Royal Shakespeare Company's decision to cast a black actor - David Oyelowo - as Henry VI has been hailed as a breakthrough in the quality press.

In choosing a non-white actor to play an English monarch for the first time, it brings to prominence the practice of "colour-blind casting" which is now the norm in the country's leading theatre companies.

For many schools, where the practice is long-established, the decision will be welcomed as a model for black and Asian

children, who are often reluctant to get involved in drama

productions. Too often teachers have to struggle to get ethnic- minority pupils to participate because drama is considered not to be "cool".

Nigerian-born Oyelowo, who was supported through drama school on a scholarship from director Nicholas Hytner, says he hopes his Henry VI will help others. "My ambition is to play parts that are not race-specific."

Although black actors have been playing Shakespearean roles for many years they have unanimously claimed that

producers, casting directors and agents are prejudiced against them.

Hugh Quarshie, who took over from Timothy Dalton as Hotspur at the RSC nearly 20 years ago, said: "This is not a defining moment for black actors. It is a lot easier to have non-traditional casting with Shakespeare. In fact this seems only possible in the classics

these days."

"Colour-blind casting" is what the director Michael Boyd is operating with his new Henry VI trilogy. Whereas all-black

Shakespeare goes back at least as far as Orson Welles, who directed a voodoo Macbeth, and to actors like Paul Robeson, who have played Shakespeare's one specifically black role - Othello - colour-blind casting sets out to cast the best actor with

deliberate disregard for his or her race.

For this reason Stratford

audiences can currently see a white Prospero (Philip Voss) who is father to a black Miranda and a black Henry VI (David Oyelowo) who is father to a white Prince of Wales. "And there is no hint of illegitimacy," says director Michael Boyd.

Boyd, who is working on a number of the history plays, believes that David Oyelowo's casting will help alert audiences to the game of theatre.

"This is not Henry VI. It's an actor playing Henry VI. His father Henry V and mother Queen Catherine are being played by white actors. There's no logic to it. Theatre isn't real. You can kill a character and then the actor gets up at the end of the scene and walks off."

This theatrical game can be seen too in the National Theatre's current production of Peer Gynt, where the hero, is played by three actors, two black and one white. Like the RSC, the National operates a colour-blind policy and half its current

ensemble is from ethnic


For many drama teachers, casting ethnic-minority students in leading roles in school productions is an essential way of promoting equal opportunities. One of these is Simon Futty, who teaches drama at Fitzalan high school in Cardiff. However, he has a problem with the concept in the theatre proper.

He says: "I think there's a

difference between Shakespeare in an educational context and in a professional production. In a school play anyone can do a role. "I don't see a problem of

mixed-race casts in the theatre because Shakespeare is rarely set in Elizabethan England these days. But I do believe directors have to take nto consideration an actor's suitability for the part. Germaine Greer recently criticised Simon Russell Beale for being too fat to play Hamlet. I saw another recent production, Brecht's Herr Puntilla, which is set in Finland during the 1940s and the fact that the two main actors were black was


As someone who works every day with casts whose ethnic origins include Somali, Bengali, Sikh, Yemeni, Malay and

Russian, Futty believes that

questions of race do sometimes get in the way of artistic

judgment in the professional


"There should be excellent opportunities for black actors if directors think out their ideas clearly enough. But I can see that if Henry VI is played by a black actor and his son is played by a white boy then my class will be asking 'Does this mean he didn't father his children?' This seems to me like directorial laziness, making a cheap moral issue out of 'colour-blind casting'."

Productions at Fitzalan in recent years have featured mixed race casts. Simon Futty says that while the gender mix of pupils volunteering for school

productions varies hugely the racial mix stays at around three or four black or Asian pupils per play.

The arguments for colour-blind casting are threefold. The recent Broadcasting Standards Commission report Include Me In highlighted the first when it concluded that: "There remains a burden of representation whereby non-white actors have to act the colour of their


According to Equity, the actor's union, there are more than 1,000 black and Asian actors (out of a total UK

membership of 36,000) and they do not want to have to justify their being cast in a part on racial grounds. This argument holds that producers should behave - as they do at the RSC - as if an actor's ethnic origins has no relevance to the part she is playing.

The second argument is that casting black actors against type will improve the perception of black and Asians in society. It was precisely for this reason that George Lucas responded to US criticism and included a black hero, Lando (Billy Dee Williams) in the second Star Wars film and two admirable black characters, Panaka (Hugh Quarshie) and Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) in Phantom Menace.

The final argument, is that black and Asian children will identify more with Henry VI when he is performed by an actor of their own race.

Chad Shepherd, a 29-year-old black actor currently appearing in The Captain's Tiger by Athol Fugard at the Orange Tree

Theatre, London, concedes the issue is a complex one.

The test, he says, is that where a character's skin colour is

mentioned they should be played by an actor of that colour. That would rule out a white actor "blacking up" to play Othello and would have stopped Jonathan Pryce taking on his

controversial role of a Eurasian in Miss Saigon.

With new evidence showing that children from African-

Carribbean and Pakistani

backgrounds are switching off at school, Shepherd believes drama could play a crucial role in

boosting achievement.

"A lot of black pupils who fail at school do so because of a lack of positive role models. They tend to look up to people like gangsta rappers. The trend is to be hard, to be wicked, to be cool.

"So I think it's really

important that kids from ethnic minorities can go to the theatre to see role models of people

playing the king and not just the fool and the servant."

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