Adeye Sahran fell in love with Nicky Silver's dark farce, The Maiden's Prayer, when
she was a student in the theatre department at USC. The role of Libby--the
volatile, caustic, hard drinking romantic who accidentally becomes a prostitute
while suffering from unrequited love--seemed perfect for her. Except for the
fact that Silver is known for satirizing the world of gay, Jewish and WASP
characters in New York City and its suburbs. Libby, like all of the play's
characters, is written (or presumed) to be white. Sahran isn't.
It's not as though she doesn't get work. There was the all-black production of Medea; performing in the Scottish play for kids on Skid Row. More Shakespeare (Othello, Coriolanus, A Midsummer Night's Dream). More Greeks: Lysistrata. (Why is it that casting without regard to race is less controversial when the play is centuries old? Is Shakespeare as imaginary to us as sci-fi?) Native American and African American playwrights keep her onstage. Last year, playing the lead role in Fabulation or the
Re-Education of Undine (by Pulitzer-Prize-winning black playwright, Lynn
Nottage), the LA Times raved about the "winning, full-throttle performance by
Sahran, who nails the play’s extremes of satire and heartbreak." Sounds like she'd make an excellent Libby.
Sahran couldn't get the role out of her mind. And why should she? Is
it really necessary for Nicky Silver's plays to be cast with actors reflecting
his own ethnic background? Or for most so-called "diversity initiatives" to
concentrate actors of color in race-specific projects?
Just for fun, Sahran and Stephan Wolfert, the actor/director who'd performed with her
in Macbeth, arranged a staged reading of The Maiden's Prayer. Sahran invited her
real-life sister, actor Annie Lynne Melchor, to read the role of Cynthia,
Libby's sister and antagonist who marries the love of Libby's life. They
rehearsed. They read. That was supposed to be the end of it, but "This is your
dream," Melchor said. "Let's make it happen."
Karen Harris signed on as co-producer and people pledged support. Sahran founded
Phoenix Rising and the group got nonprofit 501(c)(3) status in what must have
been record time. The mission? Not just to bring The Maiden's Prayer to the
Atwater Village Theater (in a production that swings from riotous and frenetic
to sobering under Wolfert's direction) but to be an ongoing presence in the Los
Angeles theater scene, dedicated to casting without regard to ethnicity, race,
age, or type.
If you're not in the business yourself, you might assume that directors just want
the best actors they can get. Here's a reality check: when Sahran
sent her needs to a widely used breakdown service through which producers let actors know about auditions, she was told, "We can't post this." She had listed the characters
without specifying age, race, or physical description. "But that's the whole
point," she said.
According to Melchor, many casting directors don't know what to do with actors who don't fit neatly into a racial category. She trained in classical theatre, loves the
stage, and makes a living in television, but says it's hard to even get an
audition "when they look at you and don't know what to think." (This, in spite
of the fact that America's mixed-race population is one of our fastest growing
Ray Paolantonio loves everything Nicky Silver ever wrote. He's a white guy from New
York--"I relate to his work"--but after a recent audition for a Silver play, he
didn't get the role because, he was told, "they wanted someone blond." Phoenix
Rising cast him as Paul, the gay man who, like Libby, is helplessly in love with
Taylor, and who becomes Libby's best friend.
John Ruby actually does match the tall blond type the script had in mind for the role
of Taylor, but he turned in a great audition and got the part. No reverse
Eric Davenport (Andrew in The Maiden's Prayer) doesn't hesitate before naming his dream role. The African American actor has been on the Broadway stage in Ragtime as well as performing regionally and in national touring companies. He's got the chops for musical theatre but unless attitudes change, will he ever get his wish: to audition for Tony in West Side Story?
And so, as soon as the company website went up, Phoenix Rising put out the word,
inviting local actors to suggest plays that would give them the chance to take
on roles for which they've found themselves automatically out of consideration.
Sahran believes audiences relate to the humanity of the characters and to the talent of
the actors, not to their race.
That doesn't mean race disappears. The audience may find meaning in the actor's race
even when it's not in the script.
In 2007, S. Epatha Merkerson received raves as Lola, the Midwestern housewife
(previously assumed to be white) in Willliam Inge's 1950 play, Come Back, Little
Sheba, a production that moved from the Kirk Douglas Theatre here in Los Angeles
to Broadway. One critic thought that an interracial couple in the smalltown
1950's environment would suffer such isolation, their plight would help account
for the intensity of the characters' frustration. Merkerson herself noted in an
interview that in the script Lola has been disowned by her father. Could her
marriage to a white man be imagined as the cause?
In The Maiden's Prayer, when a white actor plays Andrew and describes his latest
lover as the most beautiful man he's ever seen because he looks like a Nordic
god, few white audience members are likely to question society's standards of
beauty. But when Davenport, a black actor, speaks the same lines, the audience
may feel uncomfortable enough to hold those standards up to scrutiny.
The challenge addressed by Phoenix Rising is not exclusive to LA. In New York which
is, like LA, one of the most diverse cities in the world, during the last five
years, 82% of the roles on Broadway were filled by white actors. As a further
example, while Asians Americans are the fastest growing minority group in New
York, 12.6% of the city's population, they were cast in only 2.3% of all roles
on all New York City stages, not just Broadway.
Melchor points out that typecasting is not only about race. She would love to play
Sylvia, the canine character in A.R. Gurney's play of the same name. "I'm a dog
person," she says. She loves dogs and she wants the chance to embody one onstage
though people tell her she has a feline presence and doesn't look the part. But
transformation: Isn't that what acting is about?
"We cast without boundaries; all ethnicities and ages encouraged to audition."
Saturday night, when the lights came up on Phoenix Rising's inaugural
production, Los Angeles theater took a welcome step in the right direction.
You have to wonder. Audiences had no problem accepting Merkerson, nominated for a
Tony in what had always been perceived as a white role. Why didn't her success
start a trend and open doors? More to the point: When will contemporary theatre
catch up with the actual composition of the contemporary American family? When
are we going to stop referring to color-blind casting as "nontraditional"? Given
today's society, a multiracial, multiethnic cast doesn't look experimental, but
The Maiden's Prayer
October 8th through November 13th, 2011, Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm
Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA
Tickets: $18 on BrownPaperTickets.com; $20 at the door.