Questions of representation and ethnicity have been at the forefront of dialogue in Brock University’s Department of Dramatic Arts (DART) this year. In a talkback after the department’s Mainstage production of Gormenghast in November, a student audience member wondered about the fact that all the lead performers in the show were white, with performers of colour appearing in the voiceless chorus. This led to a searching debate that left many in the department – students, staff, and faculty alike – feeling that the dialogue needed to continue.

Faculty member Gyllian Raby hit on the inspired idea of restaging “On Cultural Power”, a famous debate between the now-late American-African playwright August Wilson and the white American academic and critic Robert Brustein about so-called colourblind casting (that is, casting actors who not match the ethnicity of the role). Drawing on a published transcript – down to staged heckles and cheers – The Brustein/Wilson Debate Re-Enacted was staged on March 16, 2017, some twenty years and two months after that historic clash of theatre titans. Professor David Fancy played Brustein, 2006 DART graduate Marcel Stewart played Wilson, and fourth-year student Lena Hall played moderator Anna Deavere Smith.

Photo by David Vivian.

Four DART students respond here to the event.

Helena Ciuciura writes:

IMG_8826-2Entering the theatre, the atmosphere was light, people were dancing, and David Fancy and Marcel Stewart could be seen at the top of the stairs behind the audience teasing each other in character. I expected the positivity and excitement to immediately be replaced by discomfort and guilt as the debate started, but was pleasantly surprised that comfort on stage and in the audience was maintained. A great deal of this general comfort can be attributed to Lena Hall who, playing Anna Deavere Smith, sustained a light-hearted attitude and positive view on the disagreements. The atmosphere of excitement and community made the gravity in the topics of conversation more accessible for a department that has been apprehensive to start discussions like this in the past.

I didn’t know much coming in about the speakers and their viewpoints; I was, however, informed enough to assume that the debate would be a clear landslide in Wilson’s favour. I was shocked when Fancy took the floor as Brustein and found myself re-evaluating my preconceived fantasy ending. The snappy, charismatic, and academic retorts made by Brustein were frighteningly convincing. There were moments where Fancy as Brustein would speak so condescendingly that the performance verged on the edge of satirizing the outspoken academic. Stewart’s Wilson, on the other hand, spoke colloquially, with an air of familiarity. This method of delivery allowed me to comprehend the arguments on a personal level. Stewart’s informal use of language and slower speed of response made the essentialist flaws within Wilson’s argument more apparent.

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Robert Brustein (David Fancy), Anna Deavere Smith (Lena Hall), and August Wilson (Marcel Stewart). Photo by David Vivian.

The debate ended on a hopeful note from Deavere Smith about commonalities and compromise, suggesting that the answers to the huge questions may lie between the two viewpoints. As these discussions continue in the coming months and years in our department, this idea of compromise and understanding may prove to be essential.

I hope our department, a predominantly white community, will provide more support for events discussing race on stage, and the Euro-centrism of North American theatre – and participate in these discussions without fear. As future theatre makers, actors, teachers, and artists this is the time and place to be having these discussions in such open and inviting events.

Tarndeep Pannu writes:

IMG-20150113-WA0024. TarndeepIssues of diversity in theatre need to be discussed and acted upon, and it is a topic that should concern everyone. If we set out to make art that is supposed to change the world, we need to make art that is inclusive. As an institution I feel that it is important for DART to show that we care about these issues.
Wilson believes that people of colour should be playing characters of their race on stage, whereas Brustein argues that colour-blind casting is the way to be universal. I agree with Wilson, that the colour of one’s skin should not be hidden behind a character: it’s visible, and therefore it should be a factor that is discussed. Plays often become about the negative elements that are associated with certain skin colours: plays about diversity often only tackle stereotypical elements of race such as brown people being portrayed as terrorists, or black people being ghettoized. I believe theatre makers need to get past tokenism and make stories that reflect the reality of diverse people.

The debate these two men started twenty years ago is just the beginning of a much larger issue, which needs to be tackled. Discussing it is the first step, and now it’s time for changes to begin.


Talkback lead by Shannon Kitchings. Photo by David Vivian.

Manchari Paranthahan writes:
16806763_10154430161338041_993581507843639517_nGoing into the performance I expected to see a debate demonstrating the willingness to reach a middle ground about the representation of race in theatre. The re-enactment displayed the complexities of the issue, as there were valid and problematic statements made by both Wilson and Brustein. They explored themes of inclusion versus exclusion, of assimilation, of cultural authenticity as well as of political representation.

The debate also demonstrated a power dynamic between the two men. When asked what Brustein learned from Wilson at the debate, he comments: “I learned that behind Mr. Wilson’s anger he is a teddy bear,” followed up with, “that remark doesn’t have any racial connotations that I know of.” To first portray Wilson’s frustration as anger, playing on harmful stereotypes of angry black men, then to dismiss Wilson’s argument that the obstacles of racial representation are systemic establishes a racialized power dynamic of which Brustein seems to be ignorant. He also mentions the need for all people to earn their spot in the theatre, but fails to acknowledge the inequalities that marginalized people face in accessing opportunities, and instead argues that the human soul “has no colour.”

Photo of August Wilson.

August Wilson.

This level of ignorance about the ingrained racial bias that is perpetuated through systems of power is a problem that continues to contribute to race representation in theatre today. Wilson’s argument for black ownership over black theatre underlines the need for black bodies to gain power over how they are represented. As problematic as Wilson’s discourse on gender representation in theatre was (at the original debate) in claiming women should only play female roles, and men should only play male roles, it dismisses cross-gender casting’s ability to disrupt culturally perpetuated ideas of gender hierarchies and gender fluidity. Brustein’s tendency to jump on those remarks and claim Wilson’s views as inconsistent is an intimidation tactic used by Brustein to prove his own points.

What stood out to me the most about this debate was how is showed that theatre has and always will be a politicized art form. Denying the politics embedded in theatre can indicate a level of privilege ignoring those who are on the outside looking in. In terms of the relevance of this debate to casting in Canadian theatre in 2017, I believe that there is still a resistance to acknowledge the hierarchy of white bodies over coloured bodies. When people of colour are not able to gain control over how they are represented, tokenization or misrepresentation can often result. Just as the debate demonstrates, this is a complex issue with no clear answer, but having these conversations and deconstructing them is a start.

Meryl Ochoa
17408342_789899524499207_287109422_oWhen I heard about this re-enactment I immediately thought: it is so easy for a white male to advocate for colourblind casting, and he is up against a black man who is fighting for black theatre and representation of other-than-white bodies on stage — nothing I haven’t heard before. It also posed an interesting question: why re-enact something from the past? Why not have an actual debate with arguments about the present? When I learned that the original debate took place in 1997, I realized that we haven’t made much progress on these issues. The conversations we’ve been having lately in DART are proof of how uncomfortable this topic can get — why that is I don’t understand. Why isn’t theatre, particularly in Canada, more diverse, and why is it taking us so long to get there?

Photo of Robert Wilson

Robert Brustein

Although some of the language and references made in the re-enactment were not entirely recognizable, the message came through quite clearly. For me, it was easy to agree that, to be against colourblind casting is to promote separatism. If we are striving towards equal opportunities, why can’t individuals be onstage without much regard to how light or dark their skin is? Like Brustein argued, souls have no colour. Like Brustein, many do argue that it’s up to what the actor brings to the table, not what they look like. But can we really say that these casting methods are being implemented? Can we say that actors in Canada are being given roles based solely on their talent? It is possible that forces of systematic racism, conscious or not, are still at work. I come from a background in which I’ve never felt the colour of my skin is a hindrance to my work — but I realize there are a lot more issues to factor in here, and that the what underlies this debate goes deeper than just visual representations of bodies on stage.

The talkback itself dealt heavily with the need for not only diverse bodies, but also for diverse stories for actors to tell. Wilson argued that it is not enough for black actors to be cast in roles originally written for white people, and asked why universality is associated with white people and white experiences. But is it still colourblind casting if a character was not assigned a race in the first place? There is a lot more for me to learn about this issue — but some people mentioned in the talkback that they’re tired of having this conversation over and over again. Perhaps it is just a fact that not everyone will agree on the ways to challenge the lack of diversity on stage, and right now, the conversations seem to raise more questions than propose solutions.

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