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.