Balbulican

Colour Casting

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comedy tragedy 2.jpgOccasionally, in my ceaseless pursuit of moral and political perfection, I find myself processing an experience in which those finely tuned principles seen to collide with each other. Once such experience occurred last night at the National Arts Centre.

Both Mrs. B. and I share a shameless affection for Broadway musicals, the cheesier the better, in any venue from a high school gym to…well, Broadway. So we couldn’t pass up the NAC Theatre Company’s production of “The Sound of Music”. And we were pleasantly surprised; a great Maria (Eliza Jane Scott), cute but generally non-smarmy kids, good voices across the Board, simple but imaginative direction and choreography, and some striking performances in the secondary roles. None, however, was quite so striking as Quancetia Hamilton in the role of Mother Abbess.

Ms. Hamilton is an excellent actor with an impressive voice and tremendous onstage presence. She is also a black woman with a strong Caribbean accent, whose rendering of “Climb Every Mountain” owed more to the Ray Charles than the Gregorian school of Gospel.

I have to admit I found this a bit jarring. The Mother Abbess in the Sound of Music, while not described as “white” in the script, is an older woman running a convent in Austria, 1938. Now, far be it for me to disparage the catholicity of Austrian Catholics; but, well, a black mother superior in 1938? I mean, we’re talking about Hitler’s homeland, a country about which a travel writer recently commented: “Try to avoid the more racist regions of Austria. You will be able to identify these easily on a map, as they will be the bits that are within the borders of Austria.”

I confess this is not the first time my colour blindness has failed me. I experienced a similar sense of cultural vertigo a couple of years ago at the Shaw Festival, at a performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. The role of the Reverend James Mavor Morell, a stuffy, self-important clergyman, was played by black actor Nigel Shawn Williams. Again, I don’t know how many prosperous, successful London clerics in 1904, but I’ll wager the percentage wasn’t high. Williams gave a terrific comic reading to the part - but at no point did the script, direction or performances acknowledge that there was something odd about this particular parson.

I find it all a bit confusing. You can choose to get offended, or not, by Laurence Olivier in blackface playing Othello or by Johnny Depp playing Tonto as some sort of bizarre Aboriginal amalgam; but the characters they played were still black and Aboriginal, respectively. I can also see the point of deliberate racebending for provocative effect; a black Siegfried or an Aboriginal Lear may not serve the author’s original intent, but they force audiences to experience the work through new lenses. But that wasn’t the case with either of these plays. Casting against character didn’t seem intended to make a point, or a joke; it seemed like an authentic case of complete colour blindness.

Which, I guess, would be a good thing. But it leads me to wonder - has the world moved on that quickly? Am I all alone in wondering why a black, soul-singing Mother Abbess is running an all-white European convent? Can we look forward to a Mandela biopic in which Madiba is played by Anthony Hopkins, or a Porgy and Bess revival with Ben Heppner and Meryl Streep in the title roles - because, after all, we’re into a post-racial world now?

As Yul Brunner (a Russian-born American actor of Buryat ancestry who identified passsionately with the Romani people) remarked while playing Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthra Maha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua, the King of Siam: “Is a puzzlement.”

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This page contains a single entry by Balbulican published on December 21, 2013 6:42 AM.

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