Who Gets to Tell Your Story?

Ever since American Players Theatre opened its production of Athol Fugard's Blood Knot last weekend, there has been a flurry of heated responses regarding casting, delivered primarily via social media. Reviewers and editors have written stories. Theatre professionals from around the country have weighed in. The play’s author, director, APT artistic staff, and an actor from the production have issued statements, and a lot of conversations about parallel issues have been sparked, regarding race, authenticity, privilege and representation.

Conversation is good. Shouting accusations at one another to further one’s own agenda is not. As one of the few people who has actually seen the production, I offer my thoughts here. 

Blood Knot is a difficult play, full of thorny issues about the construction of race and the effects of oppression. I applaud APT for taking on the project. I also applaud them for hiring Ron OJ Parson to direct the show, since he has a résumé full of directing credits in Chicago, helming shows that deal very explicitly with race relations. Based on the statement APT issued this week, it is also evident that the theatre entered into this project deliberately, thoughtfully, and with great care; they cast the play in conversation with the acting company, the board, the playwright, and other stakeholders.

The play requires one dark skinned actor and one actor who could believably pass as white. Gavin Lawrence and Jim DeVita fit those descriptions. They are also two of the most talented actors I have ever seen. Yes, the play has traditionally been cast with one black actor and one white actor, but precedence doesn't impress me at a time when so many casting “traditions” are being discarded, and rightly so.

As I watched, and subsequently thought about the show, I evaluated whether the actors onstage had effectively told the story of the play. And as my review relayed, these actors exceeded my expectations. They were extraordinary. Artistically, I believe the choice to use a white actor and a black actor was the right one — in order to serve the script, which makes the point that race is a construct. It also matches the playwright’s intent, which is worth noting. The play — more allegory than realism — simply would not have the same weight if the explosive climax did not pit the white and black men against one another, even though we have come to know them as brothers.

Regarding representation, of course it’s important that women and people of all ethnicities have the opportunity to see themselves onstage, and that actors of color are given the opportunity to perform challenging roles specific to their heritage. Actors in In the Heights should be Puerto Rican or Latinx. Actors in M. Butterfly and The King and I should be Asian. Any actor portraying Martin Luther King should be black. No white actor should be made up to look like they have a different skin color.

And American Players Theatre has an impressive record on casting women in roles that were traditionally played by men, and using people of color prominently in their productions, especially in the last few years during Brenda DeVita’s tenure. The company has also made great strides in diversifying its season, which originally was only restricted to classics, and now includes modern works as well — many of which deal with difficult contemporary issues, including race.

There are those who have posited that a white actor cannot play a light skinned black man because he cannot understand that life — he can’t portray it accurately because he hasn’t had the experience of being a person of color in an inherently racist country. But this is where I object. The job of writers, directors and actors is to imagine and empathize with many characters who do not match their own experience. That is how they are able to create kings, soldiers, murderers, lovers, and a hundred other roles onstage. To insist that artists draw only from their own experiences when creating art is ludicrous and it negates the immense power of creativity.

In all of the discussions launched over the last week, no one has attacked the play Blood Knot, which I find interesting. The two characters are black South Africans during apartheid. The play is written by a white man. That fact alone should affirm the underlying truth that we have the power to imagine and communicate amazing stories, even when the stories are not our own. Not everyone who attempts this is successful. Some lean on stereotypes. Some simply don’t do their research. Some don’t care about getting at the “truth” of the situation. But many writers do — and the payoff for readers and audiences is immense.

My sincere hope is that in spite of the controversy that has erupted about this production, audiences will insist on seeing it. It’s a completely unique piece of art that is presented with extraordinary passion, intelligence and heart.

And after viewing the show and the work of the creative team, I would welcome further discussions of the play, with anyone who wishes.