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Oh, the point’s obvious enough. You’re a director and you want to use this terrific black actor, and you don’t want to do Othello. Presto! He’s Richard III. Color-blind casting.
But what about the term itself. Isn’t there a bit of wishful thinking there? Could we watch a black Richard III, for instance, without hearing new depths in his hatred, without recalling painful precedent for the smiling face he puts on it? If A Christmas Carol were to be cast (as it was in Chicago several years ago) with a white Scrooge and a black Tiny Tim, would we or should we be “blind” to the implications? Someday, perhaps — that’s the hope behind the whole process. But now?
Well, right now — through May 29 — there’s a fascinating case in point, Robert Falls’s production of The Tempest at the Goodman Theatre. The show includes four black actors in a variety of roles. But one set of casting decisions is especially exciting — and has already aroused controversy. Falls has cast Prospero, Shakespeare’s sorcerer and exiled Duke of Milan, with a white actor (Denis Arndt — best known to Chicago audiences as the ebullient lead in last year’s Remains production of Puntila and His Hired Man); the two creatures he controls with his magic, the brutal half-monster Caliban and the invisible sprite Ariel, are black, played by Bruce Young and Don Franklin respectively.
“It’s just nontraditional casting,” says Franklin, at 26 one of the city’s fastest rising singer-dancers. “You don’t see many black Calibans, and you sure don’t see many black Ariels.” Still, he acknowledges, “You can’t ignore the fact that in this production the two characters who are ‘slaves’ are black. I overheard one black guy in the audience after the show (during previews) saying he felt uncomfortable about that.”
“It wasn’t something that was laid out beforehand,” Falls says. “So often actors show up and are shown their part and are told that this means this. I didn’t want to do that with The Tempest. We just went into rehearsal and went into the text and the characters started to develop. I did know that I didn’t want to make Ariel and Caliban what they appear to be — some sort of light fairy and some sort of monster. We began with the fact that they were both men and both black men, and went from there.”
It’s surprising how many commonplaces this drained away from the interpretations of Caliban and Ariel — starting with the most basic, that Caliban is only half human. There’s no doubt how the usual interpretation arose: Prospero and others in the play repeatedly refer to Caliban as a monster, a fool, “got by the devil himself.” But Young, who since his arrival here in 1978 has become one of Chicago’s best-known and busiest actors, sees it more as a matter of imperialism.
“Caliban is king of the island,” he says. “Caliban is king and has been supplanted by Prospero. It is his island. His whole thing is, ‘I was doing fine until you got here, and then all of a sudden I got into trouble for doing stuff that was natural to me. What happened?’ He’s not a monster in this at all. The monstrosity is in the Europe outlook — anybody different from them was a monster, to be used for whatever they wanted.”
“It’s the easy way out, to play Caliban as a monster,” adds Franklin. “And it’s the obvious thing to play Ariel as a ‘sprite'” — he strikes a prissy, children’s-story fairy pose. “Ariel is a spirit, an essence — to me, he is a conscious conscience, the higher self of Prospero. Ariel is referred to in the text as ‘delicate,’ and one of the definitions of delicate is ‘specific, detailed.’ That’s Ariel. He’s extremely articulate and detailed. Many times Ariel functions as a reporter: he gives information to the audience, he furthers the plot. To give information from a definite point of view in an interesting way while maintaining some semblance of (being) ‘not human’ — that’s the thing I’m trying to come to grips with. It’s really hard, I think, to keep an audience interested in all those nitpicky little details.”
And if audiences are distracted by the idea of black actors in both slave roles? (They certainly were by Falls’s decision to cast the grave diggers in his 1985 Hamlet as black blues singers.) Well, there’s ample precedent at least. In 1945, director Margaret Webster brought out a much discussed Tempest that featured a black Caliban (played by former boxer Canada Lee, who achieved fame onstage in Native Son) and a white Ariel (dancer Vera Zorina). The Now York Times’s Lewis Nichols described Lee as “a Caliban built to invite shudders,” then went on to describe the difficulty of directing Shakespeare. “Ariel and Caliban have always faced charges,” he wrote, arguing that whatever appeared onstage couldn’t possibly live up to expectation, to imagination, to memory. Webster, he concluded, simply “brought the bickering up to date.”
Do you hear that, Bob Falls?
For a detailed performance schedule, see the Reader’s Guide to Theater in section two. The Goodman is at 200 S. Columbus Drive. Tickets run $15-$25; the box office can be reached at 443-3800.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.