Something in Mike Frank's rather interesting letter has made me smell the
extremely vague perfumes I've been suspecting lie *inside* this
discussion of the race of performers playing "racial" characters.
It was his off-the-cuff mention of a dog playing a cat, I think, that
clearly brought to me a fact we often neglect: in performance, the
"being" being played isn't a being at all, but a character. Thus, the
idea of worrying about having a metaphorical "dog" *speaking for* a
metaphorical "cat" is itself odd, I think; since the metaphorical "cat"
isn't a cat in fact, but only a signal for something we all variously
interpret as "catness." Othello *is* a Moor; but he isn't an
Afro-European, or an African, or an Afro-American, or anything else that
any of us on this list might encounter socially in some actual locale.
He's a fictive construction, meant to suggest to us these social beings
we know or can know.
As a student and critic of film and performance who has himself been
involved in both directing and performing, I have to say it doesn't
really trouble me at all to have a dog playing a cat; or Bert Lahr
playing a lion; or, in a "nature" set-up, a trout playing a bass; or a
woman playing a man; or a vegetarian playing a cannibal; or a homosexual
playing a heterosexual; or a Democrat playing a Republican. I think
there is a process called acting, and it specifically involves the overt
and intentional production of pretense.
Given that we're going to have pretense, why get huffy about particular
Now, I know some actors are low on work. Indeed, in this relatively
racist society of ours, some people of colo(u)r are low on work in
general, not just in theatrical areas. Women's work is worse paid than
men's generally, still; and this is also the case in Hollywood. Say,
now, we offer Sigourney Weaver (just to come up with a name out of a hat)
a chance to play Billie Holliday . . . should this be sanctioned because
the actress isn't black?
Ultimately we're talking about producers' tastes--not the approbation of
constituent groups in an audience.
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