Volume VIII, Number 1, Spring 2012

"Reshaping Unsafe Spaces: A Review of Angela C. Pao's No Safe Spaces: Re-casting Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in American Theater" by Márta Ótott

Márta Ótott is a PhD student in the English and American Literature and Culture PhD program at the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Szeged. She specializes in American drama and theater, devoting special attention to experimental theaters, Off- and Off-Off Broadway theaters and the plays they present. E-mail:

No Safe Spaces: Re-casting Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in American Theater
Pao, Angela C.
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
305 pages
(Theater and Performance)

Angela C. Pao’s No Safe Spaces talks about the different casting processes and their relations in American theater: on Broadway as well as in regional, non-commercial theaters and in theater festivals across the United States. Pao is interested in nontraditional casting processes and productions with a nontraditional cast from the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, and focuses on how critics and audiences perceive the effects of nontraditional casting policies. Pao illustrates her discussion with diverse examples of performances, and relies on many sources. These sources include theater reviews, the objectives of the Non-Traditional Casting Project (recently renamed as Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts) and actors’ organizations, comments made by directors, choreographers and authors. She also alludes to the impressions of anonymous spectators and the experience of actors.

Nontraditional casting is a cultural, social and artistic practice, as Pao points out. This notion entails various casting methods. As she explains, there are four subcategories of this basic term; that is, color-blind casting, societal casting, conceptual casting and cross-cultural casting. The first overlooks the race, ethnicity, gender, disability of an actor, the second matches these traits with roles on the basis of how they are present in society, the third is designed to treat them in the staging of the play to give it “greater resonance,” while the fourth is used in the re-contextualization of a play in another culture (4). Since these different casting practices are sometimes unmanageable for the audience, their practitioners try to convince the public of their importance by referring to them as ways to promote multiculturalism. By this, American theater culture can contribute to the pluralism of America, as well as represent it. While nontraditional casting is devoted to vanishing racial, ethnic, social and cultural discrimination by advancing integration, its primary goal is to pay attention to the actors’ opportunities on an individual scale – a highly complex task, as Pao tells her readers. Different attitudes towards the legitimacy of nontraditional casting exist, and their contrasting interpretations might be brought to light by questions such as: Is the play still meaningful? Is the dramatic text too specific?

The author emphasizes that nontraditional casting was institutionalized in the eighties, but also describes how the need was already voiced in the sixties, when the American theater began to have new ambitions and aspirations. It should be noted that the sixties was also the time when Off-, and especially, Off-Off Broadway plays were booming, and experimental theater was gaining prominence. The author taps into the discrepancies of casting/production principles stating that what is allowed on Off- and Off-Off scenes is not allowed on Broadway especially if nontraditional casting is concerned. Although Pao does not see it as a major objective on which to elaborate, she points out the existence of this asymmetry. The author finds further opportunities for comparing and contrasting Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway’s ‘wider freedom’ and minimalism in casting principles to Broadway’s careful, profit-oriented casting methods, which can nonetheless turn out to be adventurous on occasions, as the reader learns in the last chapter.

In the first chapter, “Bearing the Weight of Reality” (23-42), the actor’s body is observed as the performing body and the embodiment of a character. The performing body is a crucial component of a performance’s semiotic system. Given the casting methods described above, it is difficult to decide whether to overlook the race or ethnicity of the performing body or recognize it as a hallmark that helps the spectator to construct meaning. Pao provokes questions like: Should casting be based on resemblance? Or, does acting know no limits? Pao logically distinguishes between presentational and representational acting in diverse types of theater, and chooses this distinction as her strategy of analysis for the abundance of case studies. It is an especially delicate topic in a country where white playwrights and actors, and very importantly, roles are dominant, as Pao indicates.

The second chapter, entitled “Re-casting Race” (42-64), considers racial formation and nontraditional casting in American theater. The 1996 debate between Robert Brustein and August Wilson about the legitimacy of color-blind casting epitomizes the heated debate surrounding nontraditional casting. Wilson was against color-blind casting because it impeded African American culture and reiterated white dominance but Brustein insisted that color-blind casting would create a unifying theater and that its rejection could induce separatism. Pao also refers to the 1990 Miss Saigon controversy which pinpointed the double standard by which nontraditional casting is generally measured. The choice for Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce to play a Eurasian, biracial character on Broadway was highly controversial, even though he had been very successful in the role of the Engineer in the West End production of Miss Saigon. David Henry Hwang among many others wanted the producers to abort the whole idea on the grounds that it would be a yellowface performance. After a long debate, the show was not cancelled exactly because of the actor’s previous success. Through this example, the author describes the peculiar discursive position of nontraditional casting, although she also explains how positively this controversy affected the casting of Asian Americans in later productions.

The third chapter, “Bodies Like Gardens” (64-116), is concerned with actors’ fascination of playing the roles of William Shakespeare’s characters, and the burden of the performing body as opposed to the character’s body. The casting of nonwhite and white actors in performances of Othello is the focus. Pao’s analysis centers on the ways directors want to build up different varieties of racial interpretation from the basic message of the drama. A racially diverse casting that does not necessarily take the textual description of the characters literally might focus on the exclusion of Othello the Moor, the tragedy of jealousy and the issue of treachery. One of the most remarkable case studies of the chapter is the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 1990 Othello (dir. Harold Scott) that cast a black Iago and Emilia beside Othello. The staging of this production implied a shared background of the trio and emphasized the issue of betrayal. Another example is Patrick Stewart in the main role of a “photo-negative Othello” (104) in 1997 (dir. Jude Kelly). Many producers throughout the US rejected the plan in fear of failure, but in Washington, D.C. the drama was mounted to spur a conversation about race in the city. The production sought to show predominantly white audiences what it feels like to be outcast because of one’s complexion. Nonetheless, the production was labeled as “preposterous” (109), as the auditory features of the performance did not match the visual in terms of race.

The fourth chapter, “Beyond Type” (116-141), studies the relations and contradictions of American domestic drama, American national identity and nontraditional casting. Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an all-black cast in 2008 on Broadway (dir. Debbie Allen; with James Earl Jones playing Big Daddy) went under several visual and minor textual modifications, including the setting, which was changed to a few decades later to make the production historically believable. Noteworthy is the fact that it took a decade to decide whether to put it on stage or not. Pao’s presentation of a genuinely American play staged in China is particularly engaging. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was produced in Beijing with an all-Asian cast (1983, Beijing People’s Theatre) and was successfully transferred to the Chinese context. The audience was extremely fond of it and the production received positive criticism, thus confirming the quintessence of the drama back in the United States. But when the WASP families of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and Ah! Wilderness were portrayed by the National Asian American Theatre Company with all Asian American casts in 1997 in the United States, the performances did not receive the same press coverage as the Beijing production, in spite of an otherwise successful run. The production was modestly mounted in an Off-Off Broadway theater – it counted as a deviant anomaly within the American theatrical scene.

The fifth chapter, “The Theater, Not the City” (141-175), investigates the layers of (re)presentation in anti-realistic drama. Pao claims that generally, in anti-realistic dramas, the sign refers to itself in the first place, and only after that to an external reality. Hence, the racial body should not signify race but the body alone – at least in theory. One of the many illustrations Pao gives to refute this idea is an instance in which a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (dir. JoAnne Akalaitis, 1984, for the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts) featuring a mixed-race cast (implying an interracial marriage) was dismissed by the dramatist’s representative. It is patently absurd when actors are not cast for certain roles of Beckettian drama (in which the universal condition of mankind is supposedly expressed) for any other reason than a lack of talent. Successful attempts are presented to the reader as well: Bertolt Brecht’s dramas proved to be flexible sources for nontraditional casting in the U.S. as Brechtian theatre is intended to alienate the spectator in order to incite social change. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town would have been an exceptional site for a multicultural and multiracial casting. Although the playwright’s description of the play paves the way for an ‘artificial reality’ on stage, some theater critics voiced objection to the 2001 South Coast Repertory production (on the basis of the 1998 production dir. Mark Rucker) on the grounds that it was not socio-historically correct. This chapter clarifies that there might be sizable differences between the authorial conceptions of their works and the way in which the audience, directors, producers and critics choose to interpret them. For scholars of absurdist or epic theatre, this might provide rich fodder for performance studies.

In the last chapter, “Chasing Rainbows” (175-222), Pao provides an insight into the casting practices of the Broadway musical theater, in which bodies sing and dance in imaginary worlds. Yet there is something more to these bodies, and several productions are presented by Pao to point out three tendencies. The most fascinating examples are Guys and Dolls (1976 revival, all-black cast, dir. Billy Wilson), Falsettoland (2007 NAATCO revival, dir. Alan Muraoka) and Fiddler on the Roof of 2004 (dir. David Leveaux). Pao concentrates on the representation of ethnicity, specifically Jewishness both in general and in America. In these productions of Guys and Dolls and Falsettoland, race and ethnicity intersected. The former received positive feedback in spite of detectable traces of Jewish American New Yorker slang. The audience did not consider the actresses and actors to be ‘out of tune’ (pun intended) with the imaginary world of the musical. The second and third musicals mentioned above are described as “distinctly ethnic” (208); even so, Falsetto 2007’s reception was very positive while Fiddler 2004 was not particularly successful. Falsetto 2007 was a ‘niche’ show (a Jewish American themed musical performed with Asian American actors) intentionally designed for those who were open to innovative aspects of performance. On the other hand, Fiddler, a very popular (originally Eastern European) Jewish saga could not live up to the expectation of giving the audience the Jewish experience in 2004. It seems that reinterpreting a play might be tantamount to a defolklorization, in which the audience might well be left dissatisfied. The problem with the production went beyond the genetic background of the actors and actresses; it was not the ‘multiethnic family’ (the actors’ ancestry) that bothered the spectators (but allow me to get back to this later).

Throughout the text, Pao focuses primarily on African American actors and actresses in all-black, mixed-race and multicultural casts. To a lesser extent, she describes Asian American performers in different roles. Ethnicity is primarily observed in the last chapter giving a twist to the analysis since racial and ethnic features intersect in most of the productions described there. A full discussion of actors of all ethnicities would have been a large enterprise to fit within the framework of the book, although the author repeatedly states that ethnicity is an elusive category which can be easily transgressed as opposed to race. Yet Pao incorporates an overview in her study that successfully reveals the obstacles that an actress or an actor has to face as the consequence of looking/sounding ‘too ethnic’ or ‘not ethnic enough’ or ‘not that ethnic’ for a given role. A future study that elaborates more on other minority ethnic groups such as Native Americans, for example, would be very welcome. In addition, the argumentation of the book problematizes the limits of cross-gender casting and acting. Although it is not a major issue discussed in the book (but inevitably comes up because of the foundational thoughts of nontraditional casting), Pao’s thought-provoking instances might raise the interest of scholars who do research on the relations of gender and performance. David Mamet, who – let me add – used to be a very active Off-Broadway playwright, disagreed with an all-female cast of an Off-Broadway production of plays from Goldberg Street in 1999, as Pao reports. Ironically, Off- and Off-Off Broadway do not appear to afford a ‘wider freedom.’ Pao reminds the reader that up to the seventeenth century, cross-gendered acting had been the norm in the Western theatrical tradition.

Throughout the book, Pao illustrates how the audience and reviewers have different expectations for representation and presentation on stage. Geographical, cultural, social and historical details should match what the audiences know and perceive if these details are germane to the plot. Even if they are not, nontraditional casting might not be welcomed as it was in the case of Endgame. The genetic possibilities of a mixed-race family may be the cause of some puzzlement for spectators. In one particular staging of Hamlet in 2000, a black Ophelia appeared alongside a white Polonius. The actor who played Laertes is not mentioned in the book, but it seems that this one relation was too much for the audience and critics: evidence of the still-abiding essentialist, racial thinking that the author suggests. Furthermore, as in the case of Fiddler 2004, the language use and the accent of the performer can also count as distracting and inauthentic elements of a production. In spite of the fact that Alfred Molina’s appearance has always been appropriate for ethnic roles, dissatisfaction with a show might go deeper than the ‘looks,’ as Pao argues. Not behaving like a member of a religious community is presented by Pao as a factor of concern for productions.

Pao quotes white and nonwhite authors, directors and theater critics and thereby makes diverse voices heard. However, one would find it necessary to scrutinize how nonwhite playwrights think about nontraditional casting in a higher number of specific cases on the basis of how they position and define themselves and construct their identities. Therefore, the reader of this stimulating volume can gain a deeper understanding of the racial and ethnic dynamics of the American theater from both white-nonwhite and nonwhite-white directions (in the book, the first is slightly more dominant).

The general success of a play and a realistic mode of depiction are, in the majority of the cases, interrelated as the writer of the book asserts. An exception to this rule occurs when the plot does not demand realistic or naturalistic representation –¬ a well-known conundrum for staging. Nontraditional casting might create a brand new show and endow it with current sociocultural layers (e.g. the photo-negative Othello). As Pao unquestionably demonstrates in all of the chapters, intelligibility is the key to the reception of nontraditionally cast performances. At this stage of acceptance, there should be predefined objectives within the realm of the theatrical venue, so that the viewer can more easily identify with it. It seems that unsafe spaces should be approached with caution.