Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Color Blind Casting

NPR did a story today about the opening of yet another GREASE: the musical revival on Broadway--but this time, the twist is that the leads of Danny & Sandy (played in the film version by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John) were selected from a reality tv show called "I'm the One that I Want" in which (ala American Idol) viewers selected the winners of the show, who would then go on to be the leads in the Broadway production.

I didn't watch any of the show, but I did remember seeing a promo for it and in the original cast of wannabe Sandys and Dannys there was an Asian and black face among the crowd. They were not the winners--and I guess it doesn't surprise me that it fell out this way. Yet, it did make me think about color blind casting and the decision of the tv producers to put these visibly marked non-white contestants in the show. Was it to highlight the idea of color-blind casting? One of the guest judges of the show, who is also a producer of the Broadway production, said that she was gratified to see the winner of the reality show be a brunette because it proved that viewers had more imagination about who Sandy was--that she didn't have to be a blonde or look like Olivia Newton-John. But of course, this is a musical set in the 1950s--could we really expect Sandy to be anyone other than a white woman? Could Danny be Asian? If color blind casting were truly a reality, wouldn't we be seeing more visibly non-white faces on Broadway? For all the Audra McDonalds who have broken down doors, there are still too few roles that go to black and other non-white actors because of the perception that the role was either originally conceived as "white" or because of a certain default to whiteness in our collective imagination.

But how do we get more actors of color out on stage? And on tv? In my version of GREASE, Danny would be Asian, Sandy would be black, Rizzo would be American Indian, Kienickie would be Latino, and Frenchy...well, Frenchy could still be white--after all, in color blind casting anyone is free to play Frenchy.


jordynn said...

I bet if Hollywood ever did a multriacial Grease, they'd have to make race an issue. So it wouldn't just be that Sandy and Danny were from different social groups (preps vs greasers or whatever)... it would have to be race-based in some way. It would turn into West Side Story or something.

Although Friends did cast a black woman as Ross's girlfriend and didn't make a big deal about it. And I don't watch Grey's Anatomy but I don't think they make a big deal about Sandra Oh dating Isaiah Washington's character...or about the Latina woman and the white guy (forget their names)... so maybe we are now in a time/place where they could pull off such a colorblind cast???

Jennifer said...

You're right--we may be turning a corner, in some respects, with race casting. I just read on the Angry Asian Man blog that Kal Penn (of Harold & Kumar/Namesake fame) will be joining the cast of HOUSE as a new intern. And last night on ER (a show I haven't watched for years) I caught a snippet of the Indian-British castmember (the woman from Bend it Like Bekham) out with a group of women, who included a Latina nurse, a black nurse, and a hapa woman (who I think is a new intern, or maybe also a nurse, I don't know).

And these are good things, but I guess what I want is for shows not only to start casting more people of color in roles that are not necessarily racially inflected, but at the same time, it would be nice for the shows also not to whitewash the characters, to actually have a situation, for example, where Sandra Oh and Isaiah Washington discuss inter-racial relationships, for example, and they don't even have to do it in oppositional tones, but simply to acknowledge that racism is still a problem and then to go on and just be characters. I guess I want a lot...wonder if I'll ever see it.