Tuesday, May 30, 2006

In 'Romeo et Juliette,' love is colorblind

Casting decisions in two productions at this year's Spoleto Festival USA might put a smile on the faces of some Parisian theater students.

Young actors who attend opera director Jean-Philippe Clarac's talks on the influence of politics on European theater often ask why more actors of color aren't chosen for theatrical roles traditionally played by white actors.

The French students wonder if it is possible for a thespian who is not white to be believed in a European drama set in the Middle Ages, Clarac said.
In theater, where the audience is asked to suspend reality to accept the unbelievable, the answer is usually yes. But with some roles, reality is vital to understanding the part.

The answer was yes Friday as the curtain rose on "Romeo et Juliette" at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium.

Nicole Cabell, an emerging opera diva who describes herself as multiracial, sings the role of Juliette, which has traditionally been played by a Caucasian. Juliette's cousin, Tybalt, is played by Victor Ryan Robertson, who is black.

And for the second consecutive year, baritone Nmon Ford, who is black, will play the title role in "Don Giovanni" when the Italian opera based on Spanish lover Don Juan opens Thursday on an elaborate set at Memminger Auditorium.
Two decades ago, eyebrows were raised as colorblind casting emerged in American theater. It is still rare to see a black actor in a role written for a white character, but the trend is becoming more widely accepted, said Clarac, who along with Olivier Deloeuil co-directs "Romeo et Juliette."
The stage directors said they didn't make the opera's casting decisions. But they are happy to have Cabell, a soprano, because of the quality of her voice. Her ethnicity fits their updated version of Shakespeare's classic set in America.

While Charles Gounod's score will carry the drama, Cabell's mix of African-American, Korean and European ancestry helps her embody the role of a modern-day Juliette, Clarac said.

"The fact that she is black is not a problem because that is America today. It is a multicultural society," Deloeuil said. "Opera has to speak to the society who attends it. Most of the time, the period setting and period costumes keeps it far away from you. If you see something that looks like your neighborhood, it speaks to you directly, and I think that is most important."

In an operatic performance, Cabell said, the performer's voice is more important than the singer's ethnicity or race. Society, she said, has relaxed the rules that reserve classical roles for whites.

For example, she said, operatic stars Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson "have paved the way to make it possible for people like me to come onto the scene." But the number of black opera performers is still small, she said, making their appearance rare.

Emanuel Villaume, Spoleto's artistic director for orchestral music, said a literal interpretation that the actor who plays Julius Caesar, for example, must look like Caesar, has been "an excuse for discrimination." He added: "Fortunately, this is changing."

Villaume selected Cabell after she won the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World contest last year in Wales.

"People are accepting more and more the idea of an African-American singer for a role that is not originally an African-American role," he said. "After all, Otello was always played by great white tenors who were putting black faces on themselves. People accepted that. So why couldn't they accept it the other way around?"

Unlike their Parisian counterparts, young actors at the College of Charleston have seen colorblind casting in campus productions. For more than a decade, Todd McNerney, chairman of the college's theater department, has put the idea of colorblind casting before new students. Few have been surprised, he said.

Although McNerney said the best available actor should be cast in a role, regardless of race, that comes with one condition. McNerney said colorblind casting should be ignored if the race of a character is important to convey a specific political or sociological message. Colorblind casting fits better with classical pieces that tend to be mythical, unlike a contemporary play that is more realistic.

Art Gilliard, artistic director for Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, agrees.

Gilliard is directing Javon Johnson's play "Hambone," a Piccolo Spoleto production that opened Friday at the Footlight Players Theatre on Queen Street. "Hambone," in part, is the story of a black family's struggle to hide the secret that the lead character, Bishop, was fathered by a white man.
In this play, Delvin Williams, a black man, plays Bishop. It is important that a black actor portrays Bishop, Gilliard said. If not, the play loses its meaning, he said. Colorblind casting "is fine as long as it does not stop the story from being told."

Herb Frazier
Post and Courier

Photo Credit: Devon Cass

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