Let me begin with a huge caveat: I am all for imaginative, subversive, radical casting choices when the production takes into account that these are casting choices that necessarily challenge the text. Please understand my upcoming denunciation of color/gender-blind casting is only limited to productions that are attempting to fit into the genre of psychological realism, which necessarily must take into consideration all social circumstances of the play's time period. If a production is going for something absurdist, satirical or surrealistic, casting does not have to follow the same constraints as with psychological realism. Having said that, let's get to the point of this post. (Pictured is the diverse cast of Cinderella, a fantasy.)
In psychological realism (which takes up between 70% and 90% of all theatre productions and movies that I've seen over the last 37 years) it is of the utmost priority that the behavior and actions portrayed are believable, given the character's circumstances. These given circumstances are usually personal, for example in Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman plans his suicide because he can not provide for his family. But they are not only personal. The given circumstances are also very often political, racial, and gendered; moreover, a character's circumstance is often influenced by class, socio-economic status, and privilege.
The argument that I've heard most often in favor of color/gender-blind casting is this: "Well, it's not like a black man (or a woman or a trans POC) couldn't relate to the circumstance of not being able to provide for their family." And if that were all Arthur Miller wrote about in his script for the play, I would say "Sure, cast whomever you like in the role." But Arthur Miller wrote much, much more (as do almost all playwrights).
He wrote a story about a white, straight, cis, male character born sometime around 1886. To ignore that Willy Loman is white is to completely dismantle the play. His whiteness is precisely one of the key ingredients to his demise. He bought into the American dream specifically because he is white. His disappointment in Biff is white- and class-influenced. His treatment of his wife is white and totally informed by being born male, cis, straight in the late 1890s. Think of it, this character was 35 years old when women got the right to vote.
To cast this character as black, with a black actor, undoes the play and completely insults the black actor playing the role. Again, reminder: we are talking about psychological realism here. A white Willy Loman has the right to vote. He believes he gets a say in how things are run. A black Willy Loman? That's a different story - and not one that Arthur Miller did or even could write. If I were to venture a guess...let's say if Beah Richards (b. 1920, writer on The Bill Cosby Show, Sanford and Son) decided to write a story about an aging, ineffective, angry black salesman in New York City, 1949, I would venture to guess that there is no way it would be about suicide. Going further, even if it were about suicide, there is no way that he and his sons or he and his wife wouldn't talk about white people.
Before you go off half cocked thinking that I'm saying white people are central to the black experience: that's not what I'm saying. But what I am saying is that there were (in 1949) extremely few black people - especially those working in sales offices - who didn't have to deal with and negotiate around white people.
Oh, but wait. This is an ALL-BLACK cast of Death of a Salesman (Yale Rep cast with Charles Dutton to the left). Where the President of the sales company is black. And the next door neighbor is black. And the next door neighbor's son, who argues a case before the US Supreme Court is black - in 1949. Hm. So, now we've left psychological realism and delved deep into the fantastical. But, no, we haven't. The production is still claiming we're in psychological realism.
Well then, what can be learned from an all-black production of Death of a Salesman or, even worse, The Glass Menagerie (which is rife with racist sentiments)? What do audiences "get" from these productions? That black actors can play roles written for white people? Sure they can, if they suspend their disbelief and treat the whole thing like a big game of pretend. But that's not what psychological realism is supposed to show us. It is meant to reveal to us the CAPITAL "T" TRUTH about the human condition. And how is it possible to do that if it is based in an ignorant, vicious and offensive untruth - that there could be an all-black world where white people don't exist and YET black people still act like white people...? And the same goes for all-female versions and all-queer versions of shows. I repeat a third time: if you're attempting to do something that has verisimilitude for the actors and the audience, you can't color-blind or gender-blind cast. To do so is to completely ignore the political contexts of these characters. Besides, no one ever suggests an all white Raisin in the Sun or The Piano Lesson. Why is that? Maybe because no white actor would dare to try to relate to what a black character is going through with illuminating, inspiring insight? Funny thing is, most black actors I know feel the same way about white characters. (Black actors playing Jim and Laura in The Glass Menagerie, to the left)
I've asked many professional black actors about playing white roles in white plays. The least of the complaints is that it's uncomfortable - in rehearsal and on stage. The biggest complaints that I've heard repeatedly is how insane it is to think that they would ever be in this situation responding the way their character responds. But, as I've heard so often, 'It's February. And it's a pay check."
If you're thinking about doing a psychologically realistic all-not-the-cast-intended-for-this-play version of a play, I urge you to find a text that is written for those actors you want to feature and do that. Or write your own. I love Tennessee Williams. But I would no more cast a black man as Tom, than I would call a black person the "n" word. And, yes, I think the two actions are equal in offense.
As a final note, I Googled "Black Salesman 1940" and there were a whole bunch of pictures of white men and these two images below. On the top, an ad for Pepsi using the image of black photographer Gordon Parks. On the bottom, a nameless 'clothing salesman' from Harlem circa 1940. Otherwise, all the photos of "Black Salesman 1940" were of white men. An all-black sales force and company? A black attorney arguing before the US Supreme Court in 1949 at the tender age of 30? I just don't think I buy it. And neither should you.