I was asked recently to share my views on Colour Blind Casting - the concept where an actor of any ethnicity can play any role. It's a sensitive subject and no matter how careful one is not to offend, someone gets annoyed. So, let me preface these thoughts by saying that nothing I have to offer here is meant to offend; it merely represents my understanding, however limited, of the casting process on this issue.
It seems to me that there are several key factors which contribute to how an actor is cast in relation to ethnicity; the historical period and location of the piece, the director's artistic vision, the writing and the audience perception.
In no particular order, the director may choose to cast by adhering to historical correctness, accurately casting from within the culture where the story takes place and the period in which it is set. Alternatively the director may choose to ignore such historical accuracy and cast from any ethnicity. Neither choice, I believe, is wrong; it is merely an artistic decision.
The writer's wishes are also a determining factor, where it may be that a particular character must be of a certain ethnicity in order to tell the story. Again, the director may decide to go against the writer's wish, either to highlight a plot element or to purposely appose it.
The audience perception too, I believe, must play its part. When directors and actors go to great lengths to suspend the audience's disbelief, experience tells me that audiences still find it difficult to accept a family where the father is black, the mother is white, the daughter is Asian and the son is Indian, yet we are told in the text that the parents have conceived these children. Does it ruin the evening for the audience? Or is it just a minor hindrance? I'm not sure, but those I ask do find it an obstacle in greater or lessor degrees and as a result, the experience doesn't hit home; audiences find this casting hard to reconcile, however well intentioned. Thankfully, modern writing combats this, where multi-ethnic families are truthfully represented in television, stage and film.
Here comes the real conflict for me. I honestly don't have any issues whether the casting is historically correct or adopts a colourblind casting policy so long as the best actors get the job. I was mesmerised watching Chuk Iwuji play Henry VI at the RSC, as I was seeing Clive Rowe as Mr Snow in the National's Carousel. But I often find that colour blind casting can become 'token'; shoehorning an actor into a production simply because of their ethnicity regardless of their ability. With one play I was casting, I was given a 'casting quota'; I was required to cast x number of white actors, x number of black actors and so on. I explained that I couldn’t work to that remit; if we were to be truly blind to colour (or more accurately, ethnicity) then the best actors should get the roles and if that meant the entire company was made up of one particularly ethnicity, if they were the best, then so be it. I was proud of my stance, and we put together a wonderful multi-ethnic company of great actors. But not to the quota, for everyone deserved their place because they were good.
Another conflict for me is where the boundaries of sensitivity lay; if Chuk can play a white King (brilliantly) then are we content with a white actor playing Othello? Yes, I know that the plot demands Othello to be the ethnic outsider, but if we are truly to abandon any prejudice then why not? Or a white Porgy? Or a black Aladdin? Or an Asian Peter Pan and so on? What is the criteria which makes one acceptable and the other not. Where, I ask, is the point at which the good intentions of colour blind casting become hindered?