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NB: This article appears in Shakespeare Bulletin. Copyright © 2013 Johns Hopkins University Press. This article was first published in Shakespeare Bulletin 31:3 (2013), 405-430. Reprinted with permission by Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Shakespearean Glass Ceiling: the state of colorblind casting in contemporary British theatre

Jami Rogers

He dips his sponge into the pot and starts to white up his face.” ~ Lolita Chakrabarti, stage direction, Red Velvet

“It’s also a relief to hear that next year’s BBC Shakespeare season, under the control of director Sam Mendes, will feature colorblind casting – now standard in the theatre.” ~Mark Lawson, The Guardian (G2), 30 December 2011

Two images from British theatre in 2012 are brought to the forefront by the epigraphs above, which provide a frame for this article. The first comes from the final moments of Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet at London’s Tricycle Theatre in the autumn of 2012, which contained an astonishing act of assimilation. In his dressing room in Poland in 1867, the African-American classical actor Ira Aldridge (played by Adrian Lester, who made his name in the early 1990s as Rosalind in Cheek By Jowl’s all-male As You Like It) opened a pot of make-up and sat at his dressing table applying a layer of whiteface. The dying Aldridge then placed a white wig over his black hair, securing it with a crown. The actor’s transformation into a white King Lear was completed with a maroon brocade cloak and crown and—hiding the last bit of black skin—a pair of matching gloves (the script calls for white gloves, making the transformation from black to white more explicit than Tom Piper’s design). This image of Aldridge whiting-up in Red Velvet inferred a direct link between the racism Aldridge encountered in his major London appearance in 1833 and his subsequent use of whiteface. If playing Shakespeare in his natural skin color were unacceptable to audiences, then Aldridge would assimilate and perform Shakespeare’s roles as a “white” man. Although Chakrabarti’s (and Lester’s) depiction of Ira Aldridge reminded audiences of the effects of racial prejudice on the African-American actor, my second image illustrates the advances that have occurred in Shakespearean theatre in the intervening 150 years: that of Gregory Doran’s all-black production of Julius Caesar at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Also from the summer of 2012, Doran’s Caesar provides a useful juxtaposition with the image of a black man forced to “white-up” to play Shakespeare’s roles. With an entirely black cast, this Caesar was a high-profile assertion that—as Lawson states above—companies were providing opportunities in the theatre for black and Asian actors, even as television continues to deny them. The epigraph by Mark Lawson thus refers to the perceived equality in casting due to the long-standing practice most often referred to as colorblind casting, which my second image appears to reinforce.

That the reality presented by Lawson’s statement is complex can be seen in a brief look at the BBC’s casting and scheduling of its Shakespeare series, which—as Lawson infers—reflected contemporary theatrical practice. In June and July 2012, BBC Two aired a series of four films that were versions of the Richard IIHenry V tetralogy (under the composite title The Hollow Crown), directed by Rupert Goold, Richard Eyre and Thea Sharrock as well as the television version of Doran’s Caesar. Despite Lawson’s excitement about colorblind casting, if Caesar is excluded from consideration there were few ethnic minority actors in the casts of the network’s high-profile offerings. The four plays in The Hollow Crown were, in fact, performed by mostly white, established Shakespearean actors: Jeremy Irons, Simon Russell Beale, Rory Kinnear, Niamh Cusack and Patrick Stewart to name but a few. Only a handful of the cast(s) were black, Asian or mixed race andimportantlynone of the major roles were cast using those performers.

Although Julius Caesar was nominally part of the BBC’s Cultural Olympiad Shakespeare season, its profile was significantly lower than that of The Hollow Crown. Unlike its history counterparts, Caesar was not broadcast on the prestigious BBC Two, but on its arts and culture digital channel, BBC Four, which attracts a fraction of the audience of the Corporation’s two primary terrestrial channels.[i] For example, BBC Two’s weekly reach of individual viewers 4+ for the quarters in which both Caesar and Richard II were broadcast was 58.6% of households, while BBC Four’s was significantly lower at 19.2% (Broadcast Audience Research Board).[ii] While not discounting the fact that the broadcast of Caesar on BBC Four could have been part of the Corporation’s overall strategy to increase viewership on the digital channel, it smacks of burying a non-traditional (e.g., ethnic minority) production on a niche channel.[iii] Given that Caesar was ostensibly part of the BBC’s Cultural Olympiad programming, coupled with the play’s status as one of Shakespeare’s best-known titles and perpetually on school syllabi, it is fair to note that the all-black production did not receive equal treatment to its predominantly white Hollow Crown counterparts in either promotion or broadcast platform. Lawson in his assertion was also correct—albeit in an unintended way—in stating that the BBC Shakespeares would follow theatre’s “standard” use of colorblind casting. That pattern, as we will see, is one of relatively few black, Asian or mixed-race actors in total and with even fewer attaining leading role status. In other words (to appropriate a term associated with feminism): a glass ceiling.

In examining the Shakespearean glass ceiling, this article seeks to view colorblind casting from multiple angles in order to highlight aspects of its manifestation in contemporary British theatre. It begins with a selective survey of early examples of the practice in order to establish patterns in casting that have continued to occur in the intervening decades. It then attempts to quantify facets of casting practice including the ratios of white to ethnic minority actors in productions, the types of roles and the casting of understudy parts within contemporary Shakespearean theatre. Although this article cannot reflect all the data available, the aim is to build a picture of how these casting practices work in generalized terms and to provoke questions that challenge the assumption made by press accounts such as Lawson’s.

The terminology of the practice under investigation here is notoriously difficult and has become more so as the choice of language used to describe it has grown. The late twentieth century version of colorblind casting—as a practice and reflected in its terminology—can best be traced to the American director Joe Papp. Writing in the L. A. Daily News in 1948, Papp’s belief that “In the best tradition of theater and democracy, there was no discrimination against fellow human beings” was forcefully articulated (qtd. in Epstein: 69). With his emphasis on racial equality, Papp’s approach to casting was, therefore, colorblind in the purest sense with, as Ellen Holly notes, a performer’s talent as “the sole casting criterion” with “skin color…a completely irrelevant issue” (qtd. in Epstein: 169). The use of the term “colorblind” throughout this essay is done so in the spirit of equality fostered by Joseph Papp. If it has in the intervening years become debased in practice and through debates questioning its value, this essay’s use of the term taps into Papp’s pioneering advocacy of talent that pre-dated the Civil Rights movement.

The fact that “colorblind”—in quotation marks—has become problematic is worth addressing as it potentially has bearing on its use in contemporary theatre. The African-American playwright August Wilson was a vocal critic of the practice of colorblind casting and, although his point was largely about the need to nurture new writing rather than cast black actors in plays he referred to as “conceived for white actors,” his comments provide one negative viewpoint of the practice. Lisa M. Anderson implies that the terminology is flawed because of the impossibility of being blind to race, stating that “We are not blind to race (color); it is one of the ways in which we categorize our lives” (91). Anderson goes on to argue that theatre semiotics consistently use race to read “the cultural and social codes of the society in which the production is created” (92). Despite its origin as a positive practice the interrogation of the term has resulted in unease with its usage, which may arguably be a result of the ways in which the practice has been undertaken in recent decades.

Making stable terminology impossible, what arguably began with Papp casting the best actor for the role—the purest, meritocratic version of casting known as “colorblind”—has evolved into multiple practices even as “colorblind” continues to be used as the dominant phrase describing the various non-traditional casting practices in the media and elsewhere. Ayanna Thompson recently delineated these colorblind variants under the heading of “nontraditional casting(s)” and placed them into four categories: colorblind (based on the Joe Papp model); “societal” which casts “actors of color” in “roles originally conceived as being white if people of color perform these roles in society as a whole;” “conceptual” which casts roles in ways meant to “enhance the play’s social resonance;” and “cross-cultural casting” which uses a specific setting to transport the play “to a different culture and location” (76). This article of necessity discusses approaches to casting that involve multiple uses of non-traditional casting, although the dominant terminology remains “colorblind” in accordance with the reason stated above. The evolution of the terminology sits uncomfortably with the reality of contemporary practice and even adopting Thompson’s “nontraditional” as the dominant phrase would be problematic, as a negative could also obliquely be inferred in its appropriation.

This article also does not claim to be a comprehensive study of every Shakespearean production, but it provides a data set that includes major companies and regional theatres, examining 225 productions over a time span of 30 years. The methodology used—as well as the perspective from which this article is written—is potentially as contentious as the terminology. As a comprehensive study of casting policies in contemporary British theatre has yet to be attempted, the collection of the data concentrated on gathering a data set that essentially polarizes the racial make-ups of casts into white and varieties of “other.” The major source of information has been actor headshots in theatre programmes (which have been a staple of these printed records since the 1980s) and production photos. These have been supplemented with other records of the RSC and the knowledge of practitioners such as Roger Howells, who identified actors in The Romans that had initially been missed using programs and photographs. Also useful has been the UK’s premiere professional casting service, Spotlight, with its online CVs that list racial characteristics under the category “appearance” as well as IMDB’s (Internet Movie Database) resumés that contain a place where actors can list their “ethnicity.” Features and comment in the press have also been useful in collecting data, as with identifying the RADA-trained, Nigerian born actor Olu Jacobs for inclusion in these statistics. As much information as possible garnered through multiple sources was collected in the undertaking of what is basically a value judgment about the racial make-up of the casts of the 225 productions studied. 

What this article is not able to do is to present a nuanced picture of contemporary race in Britain as presented in the theatre. This is partly because it is written from the viewpoint that is attuned to the racism perpetrated by whites on blacks, Asians and those of mixed race. This includes a cultural vision that primarily views people of mixed race as wholly black or Asian, rather than white. The current President of the United States, Barack Obama, is most frequently referred to as black although he was brought up in a white household and is, in fact, mixed race. In fiction, the novelist Paul Scott created the character of Hari Kumar in The Raj Quartet, an Indian who was educated in an English public school and spoke better (as defined by the precepts of the class system) English than the novels’ protagonist, the grammar school boy Ronald Merrick. The fact that Kumar thought of himself as English until he was forced to return to India on the cusp of adulthood also brings with it questions of self-identification where race in contemporary society is concerned. Including actors of mixed race in these statistics—as is done here—may not accurately reflect their own view of themselves nor does it take into account related factors such as education, class, upbringing and experience. Largely as a result of its solidly white viewpoint this article also excludes consideration of inter-racial racism, which has been vividly illustrated on stage by playwrights Roy Williams (Joe Guy) and Kwame Kwei-Armah (Statement of Regret) among others. With primarily white, male artistic directors running the majority of the dominant theatre companies that regularly stage Shakespeare’s plays, these other manifestations of racism—Asians against blacks, black against black and the various multiple permutations—are unlikely to affect Shakespearean theatre, but it is worth acknowledging the existence of other forms of racial prejudice. Although there is undoubtedly much more data to be collected as well as ways that the statistics below could be refined, this article enables the reader to discern patterns in colorblind casting that are taking place in contemporary theatre practice.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Shakespearean production is not an isolated section of the entertainment industry and that issues of equality are not limited to classical theatre. There are related concerns that cannot be addressed here, but they are nevertheless ones that silently underpin those discussed here: in one edition of the BBC’s current affairs program Newsnight broadcast on BBC Two on 12 August 1996, it was noted that ethnic minorities were underrepresented in drama schools;[iv] the actor Cyril Nri (at the time playing Cassius in Doran’s Caesar) highlighted another issue in a platform at the National Theatre, noting that “Up until Death and the King’s Horseman [in 2009], there had not been a black-written play on the main stage of the National Theatre. And not a black, British-written play” (“The Black Audience”); in January 2013, the Independent reported that David Oyelowo and Arsher Ali had opined that “cultural stereo-typing and racism are still widespread in the entertainment industry” (Sherwin); and Nathaniel Martello-White recently wrote that the stereotyping was such that “with depressing frequency” the parts he and his friends (all black actors) would audition for “would be the drug dealer or the guy-done-good from a broken home” as well as what was termed the “blackta part….the friend to the protagonist, the sidekick” (Independent 24 Oct. 2012). What these examples signify are the more endemic problems confronting theatre including actor training, a lack of main stage opportunities for black, Asian and mixed-race actors, potentially institutional racism and a casting process that is stuck in first gear and clearly lacking in imagination in casting black and Asian actors. In Shakespearean production, integrated casting functions within these and other parameters and, therefore, assimilates the practices of the wider industry.

Beginnings of Colorblind Casting

Contemporary colorblind casting in British Shakespearean theatre arguably began in 1958 when Edric Connor appeared as Gower in Pericles at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (Chambers, Black and Asian Theatre in Britain 126). In what was perhaps an early manifestation of some of the practices now undertaken in colorblind casting, the role had originally been offered to Paul Robeson by director Tony Richardson who had “reconceived” the role “as a tale of endurance sung by Robeson” (Howard 103). The casting of Connor allowed Richardson to fulfill his original concept of the part without Robeson. Notably, Edric Connor and his wife Pearl were also early advocates of equal opportunities for black actors in Britain. According to Colin Chambers, the “debate [for inclusion] frequently revolved around playing and speaking Shakespeare, as global icon and barometer of British theatre” (Black and Asian Theatre in Britain 155). The Connors’ campaigning eventually led to a commitment in 1968 by Equity, the entertainment industry union, to promote integrated casting within the theatrical profession, which also included Shakespearean production(Chambers, Black and Asian Theatre in Britain 128).

There have been obvious strides toward equality in the theatre in the second half of he twentieth century, but arguably the immediate response of Shakespearean theatre to Equity’s (then admittedly lukewarm) commitment to equal opportunities in the 1970s has had long-term consequences for the ways in which the casting of black and Asian actors has been implemented since 1968. In exploring its early manifestations it will be useful to begin with a snapshot of how the two national theatre companies—arguably the contemporary pinnacles of policing Shakespeare as global icon—utilized integrated casting in the 1970s.

The National Theatre under Peter Hall maintained what could arguably be said to be an ostrich-like attitude toward colorblind casting. In examining cast lists and photos of the company’s Shakespearean productions, there is little evidence of a noticeably black or Asian presence in its casts in the 1970s. Between 1970 and 1979, there were 13 Shakespearean productions staged at the National, including productions by Hall, Jonathan Miller, Michael Blakemore and Christopher Morahan. The one discernibly ethnic minority face in the National’s Shakespeares before 1979 was that of RADA-trained, Nigerian actor Olu Jacobs playing the Soothsayer in a 1977 Julius Caesar, directed by John Schlesinger.[v] In numeric terms, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s record was slightly better at non-traditional casting during the same time period. Calvin Lockhart, Joseph Marcell and Oscar James were among the handful of black actors to appear at the RSC in the 1970s. However, research in the RSC archive suggests that the number of black, Asian or mixed race actors cast in Shakespeare during the decade was potentially as low as a total of fifteen during that first decade after Equity’s 1968 undertaking.

Out of the black and Asian actors I have been able to identify as having worked at the RSC in the 1970s, the majority had been hired for The Romans season. In what was likely one of the earliest articles to focus on the experiences of black actors in the UK, Plays and Players mentions the casting policy of The Romans, stating that “The Royal Shakespeare Company boasts an integrated cast this year” (Trotter 25). It was certainly a noteworthy year for ethnic minority casting at the RSC as a total of seven black actors were hired to appear in the 1972 Stratford season: Darien Angadi, Loftus Burton, Joseph Charles, Calvin Lockhart, Joseph Marcell, Tony Osoba and Jason Rose. (This was to be the largest intake of ethnic minority actors in a single season at the RSC for thirty years, until 2002 when Adrian Noble directed a Pericles that used the racial mix to set the production in foreign climes.) Six of them appear to have been play-as-cast, perhaps because the bulk of them were new drama graduates. Certainly Joseph Marcell would have been at the beginning of his career and this may have been a factor in the overall casting process. The six actors played such elevated roles as Slave, Ensemble, Citizen with the largest parts given to this group of actors being in Antony and Cleopatra: Eros (Marcell), Diomedes (Burton) and Alexas (Angadi). Only Calvin Lockhart was given a substantial role—Aaron in Titus Andronicus—but that can arguably be described as traditional casting, given the role is regarded as black.

While Nunn’s Romans season boasted a total of seven black actors in 1972, the available evidence suggests that in the rest of the decade the RSC’s record was far from exemplary. I have identified a total of seven black and Asian actors for seasons from 1971-1979 (excluding the seven in The Romans): Oscar James (1973, London only), Kwesi Kay (1972, London only), Jeffery Kissoon (1974; 1978), Alton Kumalo (1971), John Matshikiza (1979), Dev Sagoo (1976) and Roshan Seth (1972, London only). Noticeable in this list is that there is almost no overlap in the years in which they appeared, which indicates that only one black or Asian actor was employed during any given season. It is worth noting that there were also actors hired by the RSC for non-Shakespearean roles, but these were often to fill race-specific roles in contemporary plays that examined the legacy of the British Empire, including Charles Wood’s Jingo and Peter Nichols’s Privates on Parade. These aspects of the RSC’s casting history further highlight the fact that Trevor Nunn’s integrated casting in The Romans was an isolated occurrence and should not be seen as part of an overall policy.

The 1970s also yielded very few leading parts given to black or Asian actors at the RSC, which serves to highlight that the comment made in Plays and Players about The Romans held veracity throughout the decade: “All the verse speaking is done by white actors” (Trotter 25). Most of the roles given to black or Asian actors—including those in The Romans—in the 1970s were small: Sagoo played Curan in Lear; Matshikiza was Lucius in Caesar, Curio in Twelfth Night, Servant/Boult/Lord in Pericles and a Musician in Othello; and Roshan Seth was a Fairy in Dream. There were exceptions, but when examined within a larger casting context the lack of integration can be more fully observed. For example, Dev Sagoo may have been hired to perform in David Edgar’s play Destiny, a play that has several prominent, specifically Asian roles. His presence in King Lear as Curan may have simply been an economic decision bound up in the RSC making the most of its repertory system with cross-casting among multiple directors and productions. An indication that there was, perhaps, no overarching integrated casting policy can be seen in Jeffery Kissoon’s RSC experience in the 1970s. In 1974 Kissoon played Caliban (in what was no doubt a manifestation of the post-colonial Tempests that were gaining relevance at the time) and the Provost in Measure for Measure. His next RSC engagement effectively demoted him from (albeit highly-charged racial casting) Caliban to Charles the Wrestler in the 1978 As You Like It.

Kissoon’s regression down the character ladder in the 1970s speaks to an apparent overall lack of opportunity for growth within the RSC for the few ethnic minority actors lucky enough to be hired for Shakespeare, which is in stark contrast to their white counterparts (although, as noted above, the RSC’s record was significantly better than the National’s). While performers such as Mike Gwilym, David Suchet, Roger Rees, Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Helen Mirren were nurtured within the system, continuing to gain larger roles, the company’s black and Asian actors were rarely provided the same chances. For example, although Nunn had hired a total of seven black actors for The Romans season, Lockhart, Angadi, Burton, Osoba and Rose never returned to the company. Joseph Charles came back to play minor roles in two non-Shakespearean productions in 1974 at the RSC’s London base at the Aldwych, Sherlock Holmes and Section Nine. Out of The Romans cohort, Joseph Marcell is the only actor to have returned to the RSC to play major roles, but this did not begin until 1981. The vagaries of the profession can account for some of this lack of re-employment; after all, few actors have historically appeared in back-to-back seasons at the RSC although there was a tradition of both promoting from within and attracting new actors into the company (Chambers, Inside the Royal Shakespeare Company 63). What is noticeable is that this process seems to have been overlooked by the RSC in the 1970s for the members of its acting company of black or Asian descent.

In its use of non-traditional casting, the RSC’s early manifestations of the practice provided two blueprints that, as we will see, remain models for contemporary theatre’s overall approach to race in contemporary Shakespearean theatre. The first of these stems from Trevor Nunn’s The Romans season, which as noted employed the majority of black and Asian actors in the 1970s. The reason for this approach was almost certainly linked to the overarching theme of the cycle which, as Sally Beauman notes, “emphasi[zed]…the upheavals of a tribal society” (317). Nunn’s concept used race to differentiate between warring factions, which in Coriolanus clearly delineated Romans and Volscians as the English ruling class and subjugated colonials. This was achieved by portraying the patrician Romans as English colonists (albeit in togas) against the “native” (to adopt the phrase then current) Volscians.

Most noticeable in Nunn’s use of race in the 1972 productions was the choice to give all six play-as-cast black actors supernumerary roles as what was termed by the programme, “Volsci Soldier[s].” That Nunn hired them in order to fulfill a conceptual vision of the play can be seen not only in the portrayal of the Volsicans as a “barbarian” race but also in the fact that the remaining—white—actors playing Volsci soldiers used body make-up to darken their skin, which was intended to accentuate the appearance of racial difference between the Romans and Volscians in the production (Howells). In a society that was still licking its wounds over the loss of its imperial status, these racial distinctions within Nunn’s productions reflected concerns that had been epitomized in Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech four years previously. Reviewers viewed the racial makeup of Coriolanus in terms that reflected this imperialist view of the world with the Roman patricians described as “a public school lot” (Wardle, Times 12 Apr. 1972), signifying the elite ruling class that once occupied large swathes of the global map. Wardle’s description of the Volscians reflects a legacy of imperial rule in the assumption of the cultural superiority of the white British Empire, describing them as a “greasy black-haired race favouring mandarin moustaches…they surge on hissing and yelping to the accompaniment of gongs” (Times 12 Apr. 1972). Although a concept that treated the “other” of the colonials in this way would be unacceptable today—especially one that sanctioned white actors “blacking up”—The Romans had provided an unprecedented opportunity for a small company of black actors to appear in Shakespeare at the RSC. This production model was also to provide a blueprint for productions that began to use racial differences embedded in a production concept as a way to cast a large number of black and Asian actors in Shakespearean roles, as with Noble’s 2002 Pericles, Doran’s 2012 Julius Caesar and Dominic Cooke’s 2011 Comedy of Errors at the National. (It is beyond the scope of this article due to space, but it is worth noting that this model has had unfortunate consequences, as with Cooke’s, which seemed to reinforce racial stereotypes for some audience members as Libby Purves remarked in The Times: “Indeed for the first hour, you get an unfortunate sense that all the black characters in an otherwise white city are both dim and violent”.

The second casting template was pioneered in the earliest recorded instance of a black actor taking on a Shakespearean role. As we have seen, Edric Connor replaced Paul Robeson in Tony Richardson’s production of Pericles thus maintaining the racial balance of the director’s concept. This practice of replacing one black or Asian actor with another re-emerged at the RSC in the 1970s. The cast lists for the 1972 RSC production of The Merchant of Venice, for example, show a similar re-casting although it occurred with a much smaller part. In the Stratford run, Alton Kumalo played Solanio but for the London transfer to the Aldwych the part was taken over by Kwesi Kay. Whether the replacement of one black actor by another was deliberately done along racial lines is debatable, but it is noteworthy as the practice has effectively continued into the late twentieth century.

As we will see, what the 1970s established in terms of integrated casting were aspects that continue to this day: the casting of one or two black or Asian actors per season (perhaps with an eye to paying lip service to the 1968 Equity directive) which arguably forms the basis of an informal quota system; casting as a means of using race to signify alien cultures; and in the maintaining of the racial balance by replacing one actor of color with another. In later decades, these facets would solidify into what could perhaps best be described as prescriptive treatments of race. These approaches have allowed the practices of non-traditional casting to stagnate even as it provided high-profile examples of well-received colorblind castings, which seem to have garnered the bulk of the press attention on the subject. As we will see, the reception of a selective few examples of black and Asian actors in starring roles is a skewed version of the reality.

Evidence of a Glass Ceiling

As the changes in casting practices this article chronicles have occurred over a significant period of time, it is worth briefly highlighting some socio-political events that have undoubtedly influenced a marked increase in the casting of black and Asian actors in the twenty-first century. As noted above, Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech was influential in the debate about immigration—if ultimately decried as racist. As Diana Spearman noted, at the time the majority of letters received by Powell in the immediate aftermath of the speech were positive, many of which expressed the fear “that continued immigration was a threat to British culture and traditions” (qtd. in Wilson: 168). While Spearman’s analysis attempts to put Powell’s remarks into a more positive context, what was meant by “British culture and traditions” are the culture and traditions of white Britain.

In the 1980s and 1990s significant acts of violence occurred, which can be traced back to the divisive attitudes fostered by the fear that (white) British culture was under threat by (black and Asian) immigrants and their descendants. Thirteen black teenagers died in an arson attack in New Cross after, as Stephen Small notes, “a white man was seen making a throwing motion in front of a house” (81). This event—and others like it—went unpunished, the catalyst for inner city riots across Britain in the summer of 1981. The unrest was the result of a complex mix of factors including, according to the Scarman report, “relations between young blacks and the police” (Benyon and Solomos 28). Institutionalized racism in the police force was to reappear in the headlines in the 1990s with the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence by a gang of white youths, which was—as A. N. Wilson eloquently observes—”an event which revealed the fissures in British society” (341). As Wilson also notes, “What made the Lawrence case special was that no one was prosecuted for the crime in spite of the fact that no one appeared in much doubt about the identity of the killers” (342).[vi]

It was probably the Lawrence murder more than any other event that created a national conversation about race in Britain; what the Lawrence family attorney referred to as the nation’s “Rosa Parks moment” (The World). As Hugh Muir points out, it was the Lawrence case that—like the catalyst of Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama—made many in Britain “look at race relations and want to reassess race relations” (The World). This reconsideration included both the 1999 Macpherson Report—which leveled the charge of “institutional racism” at the London Metropolitan Police for its incompetent investigation into Lawrence’s murder—and the Runnymede Trust’s 1997 Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, which was instrumental in shaping New Labour’s policies on multiculturalism. As we will see, the sharp rise in black and Asian actors employed in the twenty-first century coincides with the aftermath of the Lawrence case, perhaps—as Muir asserts—a result of the moment when Britain began to debate what were arguably the consequences of deep-seated racial antagonism. Possibly as a result of a greater awareness of the multi-ethnic society and the need to reflect that fact in the arts, theatre has attempted to become more inclusive. As a result of the greater awareness—e.g., the need to reflect the whole of society in the racial make-up of performance—what seems to have occurred is that the mechanism(s) of the various non-traditional casting practices have become stuck in particular patters, as we will see. It is within this context of the “new” multicultural Britain that the data laid out below should be read.

Two significant theatrical events provide important markers in tracing the progress of non-traditional casting in Shakespearean theatre: the re-casting of a major role in 1982 and—two decades later—the casting of black actors to play English kings in the history plays. These episodes will help to provide the perspective from which to examine the state of colorblind casting in UK professional theatre in the twenty-first century. The first took place in the wake of the arrival of Hugh Quarshie at the Royal Shakespeare Company, who was arguably the first black performer to be nurtured within the RSC system. Quarshie had been hired in 1981 to play—unsurprisingly—Aaron the Moor in Titus as well as Cleomenes in The Winter’s Tale and one of the Outlaws in Two Gentlemen of Verona. In 1982, Quarshie was asked to replace Timothy Dalton as Hotspur in Trevor Nunn’s production of Henry IV, which had opened the RSC’s new London home at the Barbican Centre. Although Oscar James had performed a similar groundbreaking function when he took over from Patrick Stewart as Tullus Aufidius in Coriolanus for the London run of The Romans in 1973, Quarshie’s casting was to herald lasting improvement in the casting of black, Asian and mixed race performers in British Shakespearean theatre.

Nearly two decades later, in September 2000, the color barrier seemed to have been truly abolished by the Royal Shakespeare Company with the casting of Nigerian-born actor David Oyelowo as Henry VI in the millennial This Histories cycle. Three years later, Adrian Lester became the first black actor to play a Shakespearean king at the National Theatre as he took on the title role in Henry V. These examples obviously provide evidence of positive steps on the part of leading national companies towards full inclusivity on the Shakespearean stage. Despite these high-profile castings, however, there is also evidence that the glass ceiling in colorblind casting remains in twenty-first century theatre.

In order to examine the extent of this glass ceiling, it is worth first considering how the media reacted to Oyelowo’s casting. For example, responding to the news that Oyelowo would play Henry VI in 2000, Jeremy Kingston in The Times observed that “All the major companies have been casting black actors for donkeys’ years, not just in the peripheral roles of servants and apothecaries but in many of Shakespeare’s leading roles” (Times 19 Sept. 2000: 5). Having played leading roles himself, Hugh Quarshie held a similar viewpoint stating, “The RSC has been here before and it really is no big deal” (Guardian 20 Sept. 2000). At the beginning of the current decade this opinion lingers, as the epigraph to this article by Mark Lawson attests in his assertion that inclusive casting has become “standard in the theatre.” In the print media—arguably the repository of much theatre history through reviews and features—there is thus a clear perception that equality in casting has been achieved. However, a closer look reveals that colorblind casting has only inched forward since the 1970s. As we will see, the glass ceiling remains in evidence through myriad practices of non-traditional casting, which collectively indicate little progress has been made since David Oyelowo’s Henry VI at the RSC.

Rather than begin, however, with a catalogue of imperfections, it should be noted that the picture is not completely bleak. There are positives as well as negatives and it is worth first showing where there has been clear improvement before dealing with the more problematic aspects of the practices of non-traditional casting. Hugh Quarshie’s rise to leading roles was followed by other examples of actors being nurtured up the RSC Shakespearean casting ladder to achieve leading roles including Josette Simon, Peter de Jersey, Joseph Mydell, Noma Dumezweni and David Oyelowo, who graduated from Decretas in the 1999 RSC Antony and Cleopatra to the title role in Henry VI the following year with meteoric speed.

It is not just the fact that the RSC has provided opportunities for black and Asian actors to hone their Shakespearean craft, but the numbers of them in prominent (although not leading) roles has unequivocally increased over the past three decades, most noticeably in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence murder. In the 1980s five black actors (no Asians) played a total of six prominent roles including the RSC’s first black Othello, Willard White, in 1989. (Only one other role was a lead—Josette Simon’s Isabella in 1987—while the rest were supporting parts: Puck [Joseph Marcell, 1981], Tybalt and Banquo [Hugh Quarshie, 1986], and Gower in Pericles [Rudolph Walker, 1989]). The 1990s were static with a further six prominent roles played by black or Asian actors. However, in contrast with the previous decade, the majority of those actors were playing leads including Paterson Joseph (replacing Ralph Fiennes as Troilus in 1991), Peter de Jersey (Orlando, 1992), Zubin Varla (Romeo, 1995) and Josette Simon doubling Titania and Hippolyta in 1999. The remaining two actors played the supporting roles of Mark Antony (Ray Fearon, 1995) and Claudio in Much Ado (Rhashan Stone, 1996).

In the twenty-first century the number of black and Asian actors employed to play prominent Shakespearean roles at the RSC has increased exponentially, perhaps partially as a result of increasingly greater numbers of ethnic minority actors training at the top drama schools. Parts cast since 2000 have included Edgar and Edmund (in two separate productions), Oberon, Pericles, Autolycus, Horatio, Paulina and Titania with many smaller roles also being played by black or Asian performers. A total of 29 major roles have been cast using black or Asian actors, which shows that since Oyelowo’s Henry VI non-traditional casting has been much more prevalent on the RSC stage than at any other time in the history of the company. While the obvious presence of a greater number of black and Asian actors in RSC productions is a positive in twenty-first century Britain, this is not the only story. A closer look at casting practices shows that greater presence onstage does not equate with the opinions espoused in the press that parity with white actors has been achieved.

The first point in the counter-argument against a colorblind casting nirvana in theatre—as implied by Quarshie, Lawson and Kingston—comes through a detailed look at statistics. As previously established, the RSC had few black actors in its early years with the largest number in a season to be found during the year of The Romans (seven). As far as it is possible to detail, in the 1980s and 1990s the RSC had casts of between 21 and 26 actors with only one or two roles played by performers of black or Asian descent. For example, the 1981 Titus Andronicus had 22 actors with Hugh Quarshie as (the already black) Aaron and (in the production’s only example of colorblind casting) Joseph Marcell as a Messenger. In other words, these two actors—Quarshie and Marcell—made up 9% of the total cast. Similar figures can be found in the 1980s productions with the highest number of ethnically diverse actors appearing in Barry Kyle’s 1984 Love’s Labour’s Lost, Adrian Noble’s 1986 Macbeth and Nicholas Hytner’s Measure for Measure the following year. Each of these had a total of 3 black or Asian actors in casts of 26, 27 and 21 respectively, giving the first two an 11% proportion of ethnic minority actors. Measure for Measure (incidentally the only production of the three to cast a black actor, Josette Simon, in a leading role) attained the giddy heights of 14% of its population being of black or Asian descent (in part because the total number of actors had dropped to 21). The decline in the total number of actors in Hytner’s Measure for Measure was a sign of increased budgetary pressures as the RSC reduced its overhead with a long-term decrease in cast sizes. However, regardless of cast size the ratio of white to actors of other races continued to hover around 90% white throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.

The twenty-first century has seen the ratio of black/Asian/mixed race to white actors at the RSC tick upwards as cast sizes have continued to shrink, with the total number of actors in productions in the vicinity of 20 performers per play between 2000-2012. The percentage of white to black/Asian/mixed race actors has shifted very little, however, which is an indication of the presence of a glass ceiling when it comes to employing black and Asian actors. As the total number of actors in each production has shrunk, the proportion has hovered around one in four actors hired being of either black or Asian descent, which is admittedly still an improvement over previous decades. Yet even productions that have been accompanied by intense media scrutiny and heralded as major breakthroughs in colorblind casting—as was the RSC’s Henry VI in 2000 with David Oyelowo in the title role—retain this basic template. In fact, Michael Boyd’s two history cycles of 2000 and 2006-2008 were actually underachievers, even though the breakthrough of Oyelowo’s casting was heralded in the press. There were 29 actors in total cast in Boyd’s 2000 Henry VI trilogy, yet—including Oyelowo—only three of those were from ethnic minorities. This made the ratio of black and Asian actors nearer to the 10% range within the total of actors cast.[vii] Despite anomalies such as Boyd’s trilogy, on the whole the ratio now hovers around 20% ethnic minority actors in any given production. This is roughly equivalent to the percentage of the minority population in Britain, according to the most recent census data. As of the 2011 census, approximately 80% of the population of England and Wales identifies themselves as “White British” with 86% of those surveyed classifying themselves as “White”, which means that roughly 15% of the population think of themselves as belonging to other races (Office for National Statistics 1). Whether this mirroring of the minority population in Shakespearean theatre is deliberately linked to census statistics is debatable, although it is worth noting that the increase in hiring that occurred in the 1990s began after the 1991 census, which was the first time Britons were asked their ethnicity “to enable private and public organisations to monitor equal opportunities/anti-discrimination policies and to plan for the future through resource allocation and provision of services” (Office for National Statistics 2). Regardless of any link between casting policies and census data, that still means that there are only four black or Asian actors per production, a figure that has not significantly increased in numerical terms since the 1980s. If anything, with its smaller casts since the beginning of non-traditional casting, the RSC is hiring fewer white actors to perform in its Shakespeare productions while not increasing by much the number of ethnic minority actors it casts.

The ratio of white to ethnic minority casting outside the RSC is, however, even more problematic when examining the state of integrated casting in Britain in the twenty-first century. In the 1980s, regional theatres were clearly places where actors could hone their craft. For example, the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester regularly produced Shakespeare’s plays, sometimes two in a season. In the 1980s, actors such as Hugh Quarshie and Art Malik were able to play leading roles in Shakespearean productions (Posthumus and Iachimo respectively in the Exchange’s 1984 Cymbeline). Regional theatres continued to provide opportunities for actors to hone their Shakespearean craft in the 1990s as with Nicholas Bailey (Laertes, Library Theatre, Manchester, 1996), Ray Emmet Brown (Tybalt, Contact Theatre, Manchester, 1995) and Tanya Moodie (Rosalind, Bristol Old Vic, 1997). Out of the non-RSC productions studied, most of the plays performed in the 1980s and 1990s by regional companies had casts of 20 or less with 1 or 2 of those actors being black or Asian. This reflects the policies at the RSC in that time period with the ratio a steady 11%-14% of the cast of black or Asian descent. While the RSC has increased this ratio to nearer 20% for most productions, the lower figure has remained common in regional theatres into the twenty-first century.

Unlike the RSC, however, regional productions now also seem frequently devoid of a single black or Asian face within their casts. Out of the 74 productions included in the survey of Shakespeares performed in the 2000s outside the confines of the RSC, 17 of them made no concession to the practice of colorblind casting. These 17 productions had all-white casts including at the acclaimed Tobacco Factory, Bristol and Royal Exchange, Manchester as well as almost all of Edward Hall’s productions under the Propeller umbrella. Some high-profile London productions have also failed to hire a single ethnic minority actor, even in minor roles, including Rupert Goold’s Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart (Chichester, later transferring to the Gielgud), Josie Rourke’s West End Much Ado starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate, and—most recently—Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth with James McAvoy. That the Goold and Rourke productions were recorded—Macbeth for the BBC and Much Ado for download by Digital Theatre—also means that media representation of the plays remains largely the domain of white actors, perpetuating the dominant cultural stereotype of Shakespeare largely an elitist, white beacon of Englishness.

In the midst of the productions that seemed to adhere to an unwritten casting ratio (linked consciously or not to census figures), there were productions—such as Gregory Doran’s 2008 company for Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Dream at the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre—that appeared to apply the precepts of colorblind casting practiced by Joe Papp and defined by Ayanna Thompson, casting in ways that foreground “the best actor for the best role” regardless of race (76). Doran’s productions had a higher-than-average proportion of ethnic minority actors with five or six out of a total cast of 21 to 23, some of whom were playing leading roles. However, most exceptions to the standard of 10%-20% ethnic actors in Shakespearean productions arguably have their precursor in Trevor Nunn’s ethnic breakdown in his 1973 Coriolanus. These productions—in employing a higher percentage of ethnic minority actors—have directorial concepts that either segregate their casts along racial lines to delineate warring factions (as in The Romans) or place the play in an “exotic” location, i.e., non-western. This latter is a development in theatre practice that goes beyond the original Nunn template for hiring black, Asian and mixed race actors and has gained in frequency since Michael Rudman’s Caribbean Measure for Measure at the National in 1979 with Adrian Noble’s 2002 Pericles, Dominic Cooke’s 2006 RSC productions of Winter’s Tale and Pericles and the 2012 all-black Julius Caesar and all-Indian Much Ado at the RSC as part of the Cultural Olympiad among the examples. It is important to note that these productions—unlike Doran’s 2008 company—are not assimilating their respective communities into white Shakespearean performance. Instead, while they employ more actors from ethnic minorities, the productions also place them in locales that emphasize black and Asian actors’ non-Englishness, including the use of Indian dialects by the entire cast of Much Ado. This development is potentially troubling in that even as it employs a greater proportion of black and Asian actors, it steers them away from a world of natural English accents (either Received Pronunciation or regional dialects), reinforces the cast’s “otherness” and keeps them from assimilating as British men and women (as, indeed, many of them are native born and not immigrants).

One further (and potentially troubling) example is Trevor Nunn’s 1999 National Theatre production of Troilus and Cressida, in which black actors played the Trojan characters while the Greeks were portrayed by white performers. Given that the Greeks are often isolated as “other” in performance—disheveled and dirty (as in Sam Mendes’ production) or as Ruritanians (Tyrone Guthrie’s)—in contrast to the well-tailored, clean and kempt, noble-born Englishmen whose attire often evokes that of the “Lost Generation” of the First World War (and by extension the upper class’s noble chivalric code), this arguably contains negative connotations. By making the play so racially separated and having black actors play what has been traditionally seen as the “noble” race, there is the merest hint of what was known as the “noble savage.” Virginia Mason Vaughan argues that in the Restoration, the image of Othello—and potentially other black characters in drama—was sympathetic with actors stressing “Othello’s basic nobility” (97). However, more recent readings have found the “noble savage” stereotype to a sentimentalized image of African people with derogatory overtones. As Colin Chambers notes, “The fact that the English could accept such people (albeit at arm’s length, safely on stage) allowed them to justify the feelings of superiority that shaped colonialism in the first place” (Black and Asian Theatre 25). That—in Nunn’s production—the black Trojans are eventually conquered by the white Greeks (albeit not strictly speaking in the play) sits uneasily (and perhaps subconsciously) in the DNA of the production. This was perhaps made more troubling with its undertones of colonialism because it was essentially the same racial dynamic the director had used for The Romans in the early 1970s, which pitted the patrician Romans against the savage Volscians.

Another indication that Shakespearean colorblind casting in British theatre has not made the strides claimed in some press accounts can also be found in the roots of RSC practice in the 1970s: the replacement of a black actor with another actor with a similar skin color. The statistics of Michael Boyd’s much-heralded history cycle(s) provides one intriguing example of this practice, albeit after a six-year hiatus in production. When the productions were re-played in 2006 in ways that significantly re-created the 2000 prototype production, the racial mix of the cast—and to a noticeable extent the casting of roles along more inclusive lines—was also repeated from the earlier incarnation.[viii] The roles of Henry VI and Warwick were again cast using two black actors with Chuk Iwuji taking over from David Oyelowo as the eponymous character and Patrice Naiambana replacing Geff Francis as Warwick. What seems most significant is that the ratio of white to ethnic minority actors remained stable in the 2006 re-make of Henry VI. Although the tally went from three to four black or Asian actors with a cast of only 21 actors in total, the number of ethnic minority actors did not shift the ratio outside the 10% – 20% that has become the norm at the RSC. The number of men remained the same, with three black actors replacing the three black and Asian male actors in both the 2000 and 2006 productions of Henry VI with the “extra” body making up the four in the 2006 version created by the addition of a black woman, Ann Ogbomo, to the cast to play multiple roles. At best, what this suggests is that the RSC was deploying a deliberate casting policy that was attempting to preserve the racial balance in a production that had been lauded for its mold-breaking colorblind casting. What this also indicates is that the policy has stagnated as this ratio has become a blueprint from which the company rarely steps away (again the ratio that resembles the racial make-up of the UK population), which has the arguable effect of limiting the opportunities for black and Asian actors.

Historical perspective shows that this practice of replacing one actor of a particular race with another has had more positive outcomes, as with Sam Mendes’ 1990 production of Troilus and Cressida (arguably because it did not adhere to a formula that seems to have since then been established). In August 1991, Ralph Fiennes left the RSC and was replaced as Troilus for the remaining five months of the season by his understudy, Paterson Joseph, who was originally cast as Patroclus. In a move that seems to have been intended to fill an unspoken quota, Peter de Jersey stepped into Joseph’s shoes as Patroclus. De Jersey had been brought into the RSC for the London run of the same season to replace another black actor (Clarence Smith) who had left after the company’s Newcastle residency in early 1991, taking over for Smith as Duke Octavio in Danny Boyle’s production of The Last Days of Don Juan. By the end of this two-year season cycle, de Jersey had arguably taken over what could be considered—given the racial nature of the re-casting—several of the “black” roles of the season, including Patroclus.

The promotion of Paterson Joseph may have served as a model for the takeover of a role by an understudy in the following season and may have presented the RSC with a way to negotiate a particular casting issue. In David Thacker’s 1991 production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, Saskia Reeves was cast as Silvia with Josette Bushell-Mingo as Lucetta, who was playing, as she described it, “another black maid” and redolent with the subservient stereotype (qtd. in Yin: 134). When Reeves left the production (but not the season) after its Newcastle residency her understudy, Josette Bushell-Mingo, was given the chance to play Silvia when the show transferred to the RSC’s London home at the Barbican Centre in October 1992.

It is clear that Bushell-Mingo and Paterson Joseph were beneficiaries of their understudy work, with both performers promoted through the company’s increased nurturing of black and Asian talent that had occurred since Hugh Quarshie’s promotion to Hotspur in 1982. However, what the frequent replacing of black actors with other black actors also provides is an impression that racial patterning in RSC productions has occurred over the past twenty years. In that time, while some black and Asian actors—like Peter de Jersey—have been able to play leading Shakespearean roles, certain specific roles have also tended to solidify to the point where these are in danger of becoming the black parts of the Shakespearean canon.

Paterson Joseph had been the first black actor to play Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida at the RSC. That the subsequent three productions produced by the company cast two white men and one white woman (the latter arguably as “other”) would seem to indicate that Patroclus was still firmly a “white” role for the next decade. There have been five major productions of Troilus and Cressida since 2003: Tobacco Factory (2003), Clywd Theatr Cymru (2005), Cheek by Jowl (2008), Shakespeare’s Globe (2009) and an RSC/Wooster Group collaboration (2012). The first two productions—both at regional theatres—were played by all-white casts. Notably, the remaining three (perhaps not insignificantly the three most recent productions) have cast black actors as Patroclus: David Ononokpono, Beru Tessema, and Clifford Samuel, respectively. What this recent history suggests is that Patroclus may arguably be entering into a category that can be referred to as the “black canon” of Shakespearean roles.

While it is perhaps a touch flippant to discuss casting in terms of the creation of a black canon of roles, there is evidence to suggest that this could potentially occur. This is worth noting because the roles are not—save Othello—leading roles of the Shakespearean canon but the small- to medium-sized parts that are nevertheless enough for an actor to sink his or her teeth into, like Patroclus. Josette Bushell-Mingo made an impact as Lucetta in Two Gentlemen of Verona, proving that the role could also be one that a talented actor could capitalize on. Like Troilus, Two Gentlemen of Verona is rarely seen on the professional stage but in two out of three subsequent productions (at Shakespeare’s Globe in 1997 and the RSC in 1998 and 2004), black women have been cast as Lucetta (1997, 2004). In at least one—Fiona Buffini’s 2004 version—the design mixed with the casting provided an explosive visual cocktail. While Bushell-Mingo had lamented playing “another black maid,, Buffini’s Lucetta, Brigid Zengemi, was actually dressed in a maid’s uniform; all the imagery of white supremacy and black subjugation was problematically on view in the costume choice.[ix] Other roles also recur to make a casting template in what may problematically be viewed as potentially the beginning of a black canonsuch as Mark Antony and Banquo (which were first notably played by Hugh Quarshie)–with little indication that the actors who tackle these medium-sized parts will graduate to the leading roles in those plays. For female characters, it is noticeable that the two most recent productions of Othello at the National Theatre have cast Bianca as black or Asian (Sam Mendes, 1997; Nicholas Hytner, 2003), which raises questions about whether she is another role that could slip into the category of roles that make up a black canon.

That what is seemingly a “quota” system is in operation in theatre casting policies—either acknowledged or surreptitiously—can also be observed in the way that understudy casting is approached when the actor being covered is black or Asian. If—as has been established above—the average ratio is 10%-20% ethnic minority actors to 80%-90% white performers in Shakespearean roles, that ratio is frequently adhered to in the casting of understudy roles within individual productions. One of the most blatant examples of the practice was in the casting of Simone Saunders in the RSC’s so-called “Long Ensemble” of 2009-2011. Saunders was repeatedly given the task of understudying one of the black performers who had been nurtured by the RSC, Noma Dumezweni who was playing Calphurnia in Julius Caesar, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet in 2009-2010. If Dumezweni was off, the audience would still see a cast in which a black actor in a prominent role in Shakespeare on the main Stratford stage. Likewise, Andrea Harris understudied two black actresses in the RSC’s 2008 Love’s Labour’s Lost, Nina Sosanya (Rosaline) and Riann Steele (Jaquenetta).

While there are fewer actresses proportionally to men onstage in general (which may explain the understudy duties of the above examples), men also seem to be cast in understudy roles with an eye to keeping the racial proportions of a production intact. To name but two examples, Lanre Malaolu understudied Arsher Ali (Puck) in the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2011 and Ali was understudied by Adrian Decosta as the Prince of Morocco in the RSC’s 2008 Merchant. At the National Theatre, there are further examples in both the 2003 Henry V and the 1999 Troilus and Cressida. Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed Henry V starred Adrian Lester and the understudy plot for that show included Rohan Siva as Lester’s understudy and Mark Springer covering Jude Akuwudike’s Pistol. Most recently, the RSC’s 2013 production of Titus Andronicus has two black actors, Kevin Harvey playing Aaron and his understudy, Dwane Walcott, who also appears in the illustrious role of the Clown. The racial segregation of the Trojans and Greeks in Trevor Nunn’s Troilus and Cressida was also likely the prime consideration when it came to divvying out understudy duties. Each black actor in the production had another black performer covering them, which allowed the visual picture of a racial conflict to continue even if an actor was indisposed. These examples are not, of course, the entire story, as there are other examples in which black actors cover white and vice versa, but there is enough regularity in this practice to warrant asking questions about the internal policies of theatre companies.

The Glass Ceiling: Conclusion

This article began with two epigraphs: one from Red Velvet, Lolita Chakrabarti’s play about Ira Aldridge, and one from The Guardian, implying colorblind casting dominates theatrical production of Shakespeare. That the latter is a common perception was also seen above in comments by Hugh Quarshie and Irving Wardle reacting to the casting of the first black actor to play an English king, David Oyelowo. This received opinion about colorblind casting—which is clearly contrary to the facets of the practice detailed above—may best be thought of in terms of unverified information that has become fact through recurrence in the press. The reiteration of statements or assumptions in the media have, as National Public Radio’s Media Correspondent, David Folkenflik, notes, the ability to “shape public opinions” as “constant repetition leads to widespread acceptance (personal correspondence). As long as the print media—so important to the creation of the coherent narrative of theatrical history—continues to state that colorblind casting is now standard in the theatre, repeating information without looking at the ways in which the policy itself is manifested, the glass ceiling will remain because the larger perception fostered in print is one of equality.

In examining the total number of black and Asian actors cast, the number of leading roles performed by ethnic minorities, the roles that appear to be starting to be put into a category that can be termed a “black canon” of roles, and understudy practices, what has been built up is the picture of a flawed system in which ethnic minority actors are rarely able to achieve the pinnacle of the acting profession: a leading Shakespearean role. Adrian Lester is arguably one of the few black actors to have broken the color barrier in Shakespearean leads, but the image left by his portrayal of Ira Aldridge in Chakrabarti’s play resonates with the consequences of the glass ceiling. While “whiting up” is no more a viable option for black actors playing Shakespeare than “blacking up” to play Othello is for white performers, it was the only option left to Aldridge. While Red Velvet ostensibly records the past, theatre is an immediate art and it taps into contemporary preoccupations. The visceral reality is that Chakrabarti’s play is one manifestation of contemporary casting practices that still provides few opportunities for black and Asian actors in Britain to play the great Shakespearean roles. In exploring events of the nineteenth century, Chakrabarti shows through the prism of history that there is still a very real glass ceiling in Shakespearean production, which the multiple and flawed practices of non-traditional or colorblind casting reinforces, perhaps unwittingly. Until the conversation about why these practices have solidified occur, the glass ceiling in Shakespearean casting is likely to remain.


 [i] While the UK is now completely digital in television broadcast, the legacy terrestrial channels still command the highest audiences. BBC Four and its sister station BBC Three have always been digital channels but as they were set up in the era of the terrestrial broadcast I have retained the original descriptive language in order to highlight the distinction.

[ii] It should be noted that these are weekly reach figures for the network, not ratings for the individual programs. They serve as an indication of the ratings the channels can achieve, not actual ratings for the Shakespeares. It should also be pointed out that the US and UK methods of measuring audience are markedly different with US television ratings reflecting number of households viewing a single program while the UK uses individual statistics most often. The figures here are sourced from the UK equivalent to Nielsen Media Research.

[iii] The ratings for Julius Caesar undoubtedly also suffered due to its broadcast date coinciding with the European Championship Quarterfinal match between England and Italy, which aired live on BBC One on 24 June 2012.

[iv] At the time of writing, the American equivalent of Newsnight would likely be ABC’s Nightline.

[v] Without photographs and biographies of the actors standard in programmes in the 1970s and 1980s as they are today, it is impossible to ascertain for certain every single actor’s race for the era. Most of the actors who appeared at the NT are traceable either through their careers in film and television or with research. Naturally given the difficulty of tracing some actors who may have left the profession, it is impossible for a completely accurate account.

[vi] Gary Dobson and David Norris were convicted of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in January 2012 – 18 years later – after a protracted campaign by Lawrence’s parents, Doreen and Neville. The judge who sentenced the men stated that their accomplices were still at large. See the Guardian‘s website for full coverage of the case. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/lawrence&gt;

[vii] The other two played the Earl of Warwick (Geff Francis) and a treble of George, Duke of Clarence, Reignier and a Weaver (Rhashan Stone).

[viii] For an account of some of the ways in which Boyd reconstructed his earlier production, see Jami Rogers (esp. 57-58).

[ix] Bushell-Mingo had been dressed as Silvia’s equal in couture terms, wearing an evening gown in her first scene and a pair of fashionable trousers in her second appearance. The clothing in Thacker’s production reflected both the 1930s setting and an equality in the relationship that played down the master-servant relationship specified in the text.

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