May 12, 2019: As theater attempts to become more and more inclusive, audiences have become used to seeing women in traditionally male roles, African-Americans in traditionally white roles and people with various disabilities in roles that give no indication the character has any such condition.
Sometimes this enriches the plays. Often it can result in head scratching or confusion. We are told we should not notice when a white couple in 19th century Norway manages to have a daughter who is clearly of African descent. We are asked to assign meaning to a British noble in the Middle Ages bursting into Spanish. And we are supposed to ignore bosoms straining under the confines of male clothing.
At other times we dare not ask the obvious. Should the audience be distracted by characters signing to each other because one of the actors happens to be deaf? Should actors in dancing roles be physically incapable of dancing?
It’s hard to tell whether directors make their decisions from personal conviction or political savvy. No one can deny that certain groups are underrepresented onstage. But it does not necessarily follow that plays have to be reinterpreted to accommodate those actors.
A far better approach to inclusivity would be to encourage playwrights and producers to consider creating and staging works that more fully reflect human diversity. The drawback is that this takes time. But better a lasting solution than a quick fix.