September 23, 2002

Actors Respond To Charges of Bias

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In a memo dated last Wednesday to the Reading and Advisory Committee for Season Planning for the Center for Theater Arts, Artistic Director David Feldshuh wrote that one of the objectives of the CTA is to “enlarge the vocabulary of our presentations by supporting music in the theatre and theatre promoting multi-ethnic involvement.”

He went on to say that the CTA has “a clearly stated open casting policy and encourages non-traditional casting throughout our season.”

Recently, however, the CTA has been under attack because some say they do not follow their own policy.

In a Sept. 13 column in The Sun, Kelly Cook reported that members of Black Theatre Productions (BTP) went to the recent auditions for the fall season. She said that as African American actors, the students were discriminated against at callbacks because they were all put in the same callback group, which effectively eliminated them from competing for roles. She went on to say that the CTA, in general, makes racist casting choices.

Keelah Rose Calloway ’04, a theater, film and dance major took particular offense from the column because it attacked her department.

“I don’t think you could pull 30 black people from any major. I took a history class and was one of two black people in the class. Why not call the history department racist? Or the psych[ology] department? How many black psych majors are there,” she said.

She was also angry because the column highlighted a conversation with CTA artistic director David Feldshuh.

“David Feldshuh is not racist. To single him out pisses me off,” she said. She pointed out that Feldshuh is the Tony Award winning writer of “Miss Evers’ Boys,” a play about the army’s syphilis experimentation on unsuspecting black men that was made into an HBO movie.

Hans Vermy ’03, also a theater, film and dance major, who has been in multiple CTA productions felt that racism was a problem.

“I think there is a problem. In theater in general, you have a lot of old men who will not cast African-Americans in certain roles, unless that’s where they want the show to go,” Vermy said.

“In a university system, we cast the best person, but we can’t ignore the effect that will have on the show politically,” he said.

An official at the CTA also explained that putting the African-American students in the same callback group was probably by no means racially motivated. Many of the members of BTP had never auditioned for the CTA before. The part they were called back for was to have the most intensive callbacks, which would allow the director to see what these actresses could do. He also pointed out that the show in question, “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” originally only had three female roles.

The director was, in fact, so pleased with the work he saw, that he created more female roles in the show. Seven of the eight women cast were African-American. One African-American woman was granted the largest female role in the show.

In another show, “The Miser,” which debuted this weekend, the female lead is played by an African-American woman.

According to a CTA staff member, two African-American men auditioned for the fall season. One failed to come to callbacks, and the other one was cast as an important role in “Betty’s Summer Vacation.”

“My major impression is that they tend to cast the same people because the same people audition. If people would just show up to the CTA, things would change,” Calloway said.

Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development pointed out that the problem that minority actors face may be ubiquitous in Ithaca.

“One of the problems that we face is that there are a large number of students of color who don’t have as many outlets for talent on campus and in the local community. In turn, a lot of focus is placed on the CTA,” Harris said.

He too was surprised by the allegations made in the column.

“My understanding is that there have been actors of color cast in non-traditional roles in the past,” Harris said.

One CTA director pointed out that in a past production of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the role of Roxanne was played by a woman from India. He explained that one of the reasons the CTA has not done very many shows that highlight African-American actors is that so few come to auditions. The director added that he was excited by this fall’s auditions because so many African-American students came to them. He reflected on shows in the past where he said he had to literally pull in African-American students off the streets to fill race-specific roles.

True to Calloway’s prediction that things would change if more minority students showed up for auditions, one staff member said that now that they know the talent pool is there, the committee would think about more shows with more minority roles.

Archived article by Freda Ready