Oct

24

Theatre Dept’s Top Girls Director Responds to Actresses Playing Against Race

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The show was enjoyable otherwise!
The show was enjoyable otherwise!

The show was enjoyable otherwise!

Audiences at the theatre department’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls last weekend were surprised and a little appalled to see the character of Lady Nijo, a Japanese courtesan, played by a white actress wearing a black wig and orientalist eye makeup. The decision to cast a white actress in the role of a woman of color seemed particularly jarring given the recent efforts of Barnard/Columbia V-Day to create more space for the voices of women of color in theatre on campus.

Bwog reached out to Top Girls director Mikhael Tara Garver for comment on the casting process for Lady Nijo, and her thoughts on colorblind casting. Her response:

Caryl Churchill encourages exploration of race and gender in casting. It’s never blind on my part. In fact, it is intentional to have people playing against race and type. Churchill’s work encourages this kind of exploration and theatrical dialogue so that instead of talking about the perception of race and gender, it just is a part of the theatricality. In Cloud 9, for example, it is required. In Top Girls it is suggested that Lady Nijo is not played by an Japanese woman, but it is also suggested that casting is up to the production.

Fundamentally I don’t believe there is color blind casting. We all carry preconceived notions about race and gender. It is always an artistic choice. And an important one. Because of that I am most often interested in diverse races on stage. Theater must honor the background of where an actor comes from, but also that their race cannot and should not be ignored. It’s just not the only thing about them. Race is what we see. Race impacts your background. But the casting for Top Girls took these pieces as pieces of who these young women are. Not the entire picture. The same actress who plays Lady Nijo plays a 45 year old woman. This is far from the truth. It is interesting that you would ask about the casting of Lady Nijo, but not of Patient Griselda or Nell (not played to the race they historically would have had). Fiona (the actress playing Nijo) wore the costume of a courtesan.

All this is to say, I don’t believe there is color blind casting. I DO believe that Churchill encourages exploration of race and gender alternatives in casting. I encourage this in all of my casting and I think it’s why I like working with Churchill so much.

Bolding is Bwog’s own. Ms. Garver’s response has been lightly editted for typos.

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12 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    On the subject of anti-Asian racism, Chad Washington featured heavily in the Atlantic in "Football Must Get Safer." Blame the concussions, I suppose.

  2. Anonymous  

    wait, by so claiming that the playwright said it was okay to do this legitimizes this production's orientalist bullshit? churchill is a white woman. why should she have a say in how to portray women of color?

  3. Anonymous  

    Too right Anonymous! And Shakespeare was a white male. How dare he write a play with a black male lead? Not to mention all the women in his plays... why should he have a say in how women are portrayed? From now on all plays should have characters of the same gender and ethnicity as their authors. Anything else is orientalist bullshit.

  4. Anonymous  

    Too right Anonymous! And Shakespeare was a white male... how dare he write a play with a black male lead? Not to mention all the women in his plays... why should he have a say in how women are portrayed? From now on every character in every play should have the same gender and ethnicity as its author. Anything else is orientalist bullshit.

  5. Anon  

    How many times have we seen directors put people of color in traditionally white roles to make the theater world more diverse and open to people of all races? Nobody complains about a casting of Shakespeare with characters of all races, when that would not ever have been the way it was had the events in question actually occurred. Why should a white woman not have the opportunity to portray this character?

  6. ???  

    Wait why was this a controversial decision?

  7. millie the dancing bear

    the fact that the barnard theatre dept allowed an actress to perform in yellowface in one of their productions is totally unacceptable and a slap in the face to everyone who cares about WoC in theatre.

  8. congrats

    you have to admit it was one of the best shows the theatre dept has done in a while despite the controversy!

  9. anon  

    this is one of the most bullshit "thoughtful" responses I've ever read

  10. wOW  

    hard to believe that this was purposefully against type when to my recollection no explicitly white characters were played by women of color! huh! imagine that!

    • aaaaaaactually  

      A Latina student played Isabella Bird, a white Englishwoman who lived during the 19th century. Patient Griselda, who is a character in Italian and English stories dating back to the 16th century (these particular stories were written by white men about white people), was played by a mixed girl. A Korean student was cast as another main character, whose race is never explicitly mentioned.

      You can have whatever feelings and opinions you want based on accurate information, but your recollection is inaccurate and makes me wonder if you even saw the show.

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