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kenmorefield

Othello

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mrmando   
I was also intrigued by a review at IMDB that said the casting was not all that out of line. It claimed that due to intermarrying some Moors can look like caucasions with only slightly darker complexions. Anyone know if this is true.

Well, sure, most North Africans in general have lighter skin than sub-Saharan Africans. And they may well intermarry. (I don't think any ethnic groups still use the term "Moor," so your IMDB reviewer may well be talking through his hat. It's purely a historic term.)

But in a larger sense, that's all irrelevant.

What's more important is one's philosophy of casting. If you want to be true to the text, which refers numerous times to Othello's dark skin ... and make the play understandable to contemporary audiences ... and avoid any racial-politics problems (remember when Jonathan Pryce did Miss Saigon?), then you really ought to cast a person of color.

On the other hand, if you want Hopkins, then forget about being artistically/socially responsible, cast Hopkins, and use whatever justification you can find.

Ah, here is the one you're talking about. 1981, I see ... well, what was acceptable then may be frowned upon now.

Edited by mrmando

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Hey, Hopkins played an African American with light-enough skin to pass as a Caucasian in The Human Stain, and ... uh... nobody bought it.

A shame, too. The movie wasn't bad.

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mrmando   

Of course, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier both made film versions of Othello. Blackface in films was done up through the '60s.

My impression is that this issue is more sensitive in stage casting than in film, possibly because Actors Equity makes more bones about it than SAG does.

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Oh please. If Denzel Washington can play Keanu Reeves's brother in Much Ado about Nothing, then anybody can play anything in a Shakespeare movie. "The play's the thing," remember?

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Pfeh. If Othello is a great part, then any actor should be able to play him. Shakespeare plays and the movies based thereon are usually not noted for their emphasis on "realism". Next thing you'll be saying is that only Jews should play Shylock.

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Ken: I used to frown upon the coverage of big-name stars in local theatrical productions, but reading you're comments now, I'm wistful. Those were the days, weren't they, when local press actually seemed to care about the theater, despite their proneness to stunt casting. Now it's like pulling teeth to get broad coverage of any but the largest productions.

I remember how McGillis created a sensation in D.C. when she came to do that part. It was shortly after "Witness" had played theatrically, right? Or was it "Top Gun"?

Edited by Christian

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mrmando   
My impression was that Mando was describing the current industry standard not endorsing (or bashing) it.

Mostly correct. Any professional North American theatre or film production company that wishes to give us a Caucasian Othello in 2005 is welcome to try, but they'd better be prepared to lose big bucks and be boycotted by the unions. If you're doing educational or touring shows, there are places where you'll have a hard time getting in unless there are minority actors in your troupe. That's the way it is.

But you can put me on record as endorsing the standard if you want to. The basic idea is that theatre companies should look like the communities they serve, and I have no problem with that. Casting minorities also broadens your audience and subscriber base, so it's smart and practical as well as socially responsible.

Ron, Jason, Dan Buck ... feel free to step in, here.

Pfeh.  If Othello is a great part, then any actor should be able to play him.

I think you meant any good actor, but the question here is not one of ability but of opportunity.

I haven't noticed much of a fuss over non-Jews playing Jews ... I still see that in film and theatre quite a bit. People of European heritage seem to be pretty much interchangeable in casting. Gender doesn't seem to be a problem either. Hasn't Fiona Shaw done Hamlet and Richard II? Recently in Seattle we've had an all-female Romeo and Juliet and an all-male Midsummer Night's Dream, and there was an all-female King Lear in L.A. not long ago. The controversy seems to be confined to the question of casting Caucasians in parts written for people of color.

Edited by mrmando

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mrmando   

I think sexual orientation is the only one that might raise a few eyebrows ... but I don't think it's something the actors' unions would go to bat on.

There's a great actor in Washington, DC who uses a wheelchair. Can't remember his name, but I've seen him cast in a part that wasn't written for a handicapped person, and it worked just fine. Can think of only a handful of plays where a physical handicap is a plot point:

Little Foxes

Key Largo

Wheelchair roles in these. But weren't these parts written for specific actors who happened to need wheelchairs at the time?

A local disability-advocacy group raised a stink over The Cripple of Inishman because of its title (how's that for knee-jerk politically correct reactionism?), but not, evidently, because of who played the role.

The Elephant Man

Treasure Island

No, you needn't have neurofibromatosis to play John Merrick, or cut off your leg to play Long John Silver.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Man Who Came to Dinner

And you needn't break your leg or sprain your ankle to be cast in these. (In The Man Who Came to Dinner, the actor is supposed to be out of the chair and walking by the end of the play.)

Nor must you have a mental handicap to play in these:

Of Mice and Men

The Foreigner

The Boys Next Door

If casting directors had to worry about all this stuff, they'd go nuts. At some point you have to let actors act. But acting will never make a white person look black.

And why should it have to be a Christian who plays Jesus? Jesus was a Jew.

Edited by mrmando

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mrmando wrote:

: The basic idea is that theatre companies should look like the communities they serve,

: and I have no problem with that. Casting minorities also broadens your audience and

: subscriber base, so it's smart and practical as well as socially responsible.

So it would be bad to hire a white actor as Othello but good to cast a Japanese actor as Othello?

: And why should it have to be a Christian who plays Jesus? Jesus was a Jew.

You're confusing religion with ethnicity. Jews can be Christian, too.

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mrmando   
So it would be bad to hire a white actor as Othello but good to cast a Japanese actor as Othello?

What do you mean by "bad" and "good"? I'm only talking about what's considered acceptable and responsible. Someone else will have to make the value judgments.

What's acceptable would depend, of course, on what the rest of the cast looked like and where the play was being performed. In Japan it might well be not only necessary but culturally acceptable for a Japanese actor to play the role. Or perhaps a Korean or Okinawan could do it (racial tensions in North America and Europe certainly have their analogues in Japan). In an African country it might be appropriate and interesting for Othello to be white and everyone else in the cast to be black.

It might be interesting but also very problematic for a production of Othello in this country to explore the character's Muslim identity.

: And why should it have to be a Christian who plays Jesus? Jesus was a Jew.

You're confusing religion with ethnicity.  Jews can be Christian,  too.

Huh? The question of whether only Christians should play Jesus is a question about religion, not ethnicity, and the response "Jesus was a Jew" is a statement about his religion, not his ethnicity.

Surely you don't intend to maintain that Jesus was a Christian.

I don't particularly care about the ethnicity or religion of an actor who plays Jesus, as long as the actor portrays the character believably. Portrayals by non-Christians might be more unpredictable/interesting. A theatre with a Christian mandate might insist on having a believer in the role. But mainstream theatres do Superstar and Godspell all the time, and I'm certain they don't screen their lead actors on the basis of religion.

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mrmando wrote:

: Surely you don't intend to maintain that Jesus was a Christian.

Surely you don't intend to maintain that Jesus was a post-Jamnian rabbinic Jew.

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mrmando   
mrmando wrote:

: Surely you don't intend to maintain that Jesus was a Christian.

Surely you don't intend to maintain that Jesus was a post-Jamnian rabbinic Jew.

Well, of course not ... the school at Jamnia wasn't founded until the end of the first century, correct? So Jesus lived before the Jamnian period; hence there's no way he could be "post-Jamnian." Is "Jew" somehow not an appropriate term for an adherent of the religion practiced by Jesus?

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mrmando wrote:

: Is "Jew" somehow not an appropriate term for an adherent of the religion practiced by Jesus?

Let's just say that many scholars use the word "Judaisms", plural, rather than "Judaism", singular, to convey the abundant diversity within the Jewish faith at that time.

And among the various Jewish movement leaders of that time, I suspect Jesus held beliefs that were closer to present-day Christianity than to present-day Judaism.

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mrmando   
Which is probably why I liked Hopkins's portayal of Othello.

Well, I'd like to see it myself sometime. Out of the hundreds of roles Shakespeare wrote, I think there are only the three Moors, and declaring those roles off limits to Caucasian actors doesn't seem like a great loss to me. The only Othello film I've seen is the Fishburne one, and it would be interesting to see what Hopkins did with the role.

Everything is political, isn't it? Even casting. I don't imagine that a studio or theater would screen actors for religion, but I could see Christian audiences getting offended at a high-profile non-Christian playing Jesus or some other Biblical patriarch just as easily as Republicans complaining about Brolin playing Reagan.

Well, if the actor has been outspoken against or done something to offend a given religion, he or she probably wouldn't be a good choice. You can bet no one is going to cast Mel Gibson as a Jew anytime soon.

The ethnicity issues exist within the industry as well as without; the other issues are probably more of a case-by-case thing.

Edited by mrmando

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mrmando   
And among the various Jewish movement leaders of that time, I suspect Jesus held beliefs that were closer to present-day Christianity than to present-day Judaism.

I think we can safely agree on that! Belief in his own divinity and Christhood, for starters. We could reopen the atonement can of worms and speculate on what Jesus' own doctrine of atonement was, and whether most of today's Christians would recognize it ...

but we've strayed far enough from the topic already.

Anyhow, if "Christian" means "follower of Christ," then there's an inherent illogic to the suggestion that Jesus was his own follower. Maybe he was a "pre-Christian" or "proto-Christian."

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mrmando   

To return to something resembling the topic, I guess I'd have to ask whether anyone thinks Jungle Fever would work with an all-black cast, or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner would work with an all-white cast.

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mrmando wrote:

: To return to something resembling the topic, I guess I'd have to ask whether anyone

: thinks Jungle Fever would work with an all-black cast, or Guess Who's Coming to

: Dinner would work with an all-white cast.

I guess that COULD be an interesting experiment -- but if the films are original works of art that are intended to comment directly on contemporary political issues, that wouldn't make much sense. Shakespeare plays, OTOH, are hundreds of years old and have been performed in a multitude of settings and environments -- and since "the play's the thing" and every actor wants to take a crack at them sooner or later, I don't think we are bound to cast them in any sort of "realistic" way.

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mrmando   
I guess that COULD be an interesting experiment -- but if the films are original works of art that are intended to comment directly on contemporary political issues, that wouldn't make much sense.  Shakespeare plays, OTOH, are hundreds of years old and have been performed in a multitude of settings and environments -- and since "the play's the thing" and every actor wants to take a crack at them sooner or later, I don't think we are bound to cast them in any sort of "realistic" way.

Quite so, but of course realism or the lack thereof isn't the only thing casting directors must consider. And whereas Shakespeare's works are undeniably hundreds of years old, part of the reason they've endured is that the issues they address are either universal or cyclical

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