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The Word of the Day is: Postracialism

I’d like to give big props to the Philadelphia Inquirer and my editor, Becky Klock, for including two full-length theater features (one of them mine) and a theater review in today’s Magazine section of the paper. It’s not often we get so much space, but when it happens, it’s a glorious thing.

That said, I’d also like to take up a discussion of Howard Shapiro’s article on “color-blind casting,” since this is the third time this season the Arden Theatre’s production of Sleeping Beauty and its casting of Nako Adodoadji–an African American actress–in the title role, has been a matter of editorial observation (and apologies to Ms. Adodoadji in advance for using her as an unwitting example throughout this post). Also, please don’t take this as a knock on Mr. Shapiro’s article either, as I obviously found it compelling enough to devote a whole morning to its analysis.

A little history: I was sent to review the show and loved everything about the production… Everything, that is, except the level of Ms. Adodoadji’s performance, charming though she was.

[Costume designer] St. Clair’s sole miscalculation is Briar Rose’s (Nako Adodoadji) act one outfit, which is too bright and too modern–particularly unfortunate, as it directs attention to the fact that Adodoadji is the weakest of the actors. Luckily, the others are strong enough that her inexperience scarcely matters, and the Arden can deliver all the magic promised in this classic fairy tale. 

Arden\'s Sleeping Beauty

Anyway, that’s all I said about her. Nothing about her race, or the Arden’s choice to cast her with white parents in a traditionally white role (though why that’s so, I can’t say, it’s not like it’s Snow White or something–stay with me here, I’ve got a point). 

The following week, Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall, herself an African American woman, took up Adodoadji’s cause in a column devoted to the joy children of color feel when they see this particular Sleeping Beauty onstage. (Hey, she’s a columnist, not a critic, it’s her prerogative.) She also mentioned that she saw the actress’ picture in the paper, which meant she’d read the review, which led me to believe that she just might have been annoyed by it. At the time, I remember thinking, “Did I miss the boat here? Should I have at least called attention to this aspect of the production in my review?”

But I didn’t, and here’s why: I took both of my kids to see the show and neither of them seemed to notice. This was children’s theater, and “non-traditional casting” sure didn’t seem to be an issue for its direct audience–just for its parents. I even remember tentatively asking my kids if they liked the actress playing Sleeping Beauty, because, as their mom, I dread writing reviews of shows they attend with me and hope maybe they’ll say something critical, though they never do and always love everything they see (I’ve been told my job is “kind of mean”). They liked her, thought she was pretty, an important quality for a princess, but never mentioned how unusual or notable it was that the princess in question was African American. Maybe it’s because they’re so used to having friends of other races, or having friends with interracial parentage, or adopted friends who are different races from their moms and dads, or integrated Barbie collections, for goodness sakes. For whatever reason, it hadn’t even occurred to them that something momentous was occurring in their midst. However, John-Hall notes the difference for the children of color in the audience,

When teacher Ana Ozuna Donofrio asked her fifth graders from Independence Charter if they were surprised that Sleeping Beauty was black, everyone raised a hand.

“Because Sleeping Beauty is white in the storybook,” said a 10-year-old with the fairy-tale name Ariel.

Sure, they were surprised. As little Ariel pointed out, it was because they’d seen her image before in a book. Perhaps they’d be just as surprised to see a blonde Dorothy in place of Judy Garland. It’s not that I’m diminishing the importance of seeing oneself reflected regally onstage. (Though I have yet to hear of Jewish princesses showing up anywhere besides the punchlines of sex jokes, and I managed to get past it. Sort of.) Just that maybe constantly reminding kids that something like casting a black princess is unusual does more harm than good. I’m too young to have watched anyone perform in blackface, but do I know all about it? Sure. Do I find it repulsive? Of course. Do I need to be reminded about it every time I see Othello? Hell no.

Jolson in blackface

I find myself returning to this issue during the run-up to the presidential race as well. I remind my kids that they are experiencing a historical moment in American history: a white man, white woman and biracial man all running for president, all at the same time, all with equal chances of being elected. But really, if I didn’t mention it, I don’t think they’d have noticed anything unusual, and I often wonder whether calling attention to the historic nature of this election doesn’t just create the problem all over again. Sure, this all sounds very Stephen Colbert (“I don’t see race”) but honestly, things just might be changing enough that, I don’t know, maybe kids–or at least kids living in integrated neighborhoods and schools–see race, but don’t care. Maybe the ideal of postracialism is actually not just an ideal anymore.

I find it kind of depressing that “nontraditional casting” merits an entire feature in 2008. Of course, something like Broadway’s all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a different story. Its casting choice is a statement in itself and merits attention on that fact alone. But just calling out race mixing because it happens onstage? Aren’t we past that yet? Aren’t we?