American Players Theatre
5950 Golf Course Road
P.O. Box 819
Spring Green, WI 53588
Box Office: 608-588-2361
The question of why have I not spoken about the issues that have arisen around our production of Blood Knot has come up from a number of people I trust. I chose not to respond to the initial remarks criticizing our production because it was obvious that there were mainly two white male voices championing the social media campaign against this show and our theater. I felt, as yet another white man, that it was completely inappropriate for me to comment on these men’s opinions or defend the artistic choices made concerning our play. My stand at the time was to leave the platform open for my colleagues of color to speak. I would let the play speak for itself. My quoted comment to this effect was given to members of the press, but it never made it into print. It has been brought to my attention, however, that my silence – intended as a sign of respect and an acknowledgement of the inequity of the remarks taking place – could be perceived by some as being a symptom of the very privilege which the play seeks to highlight and condemn.
Here, then, is what I have to say.
A year before accepting the role, I began questioning whether or not it was still acceptable in 2018 for a white man to play the role of Morrie, which is how the role was conceived and how it has been cast for over fifty years – not as an attempt to take a job away from an actor of color, but to fulfill the metaphor which Morrie represents in the play. I first spoke to my colleagues of color to hear their thoughts. They were divided. Some felt that a white man should no longer play the role, others felt that the play only works if a white man plays the role, that that is the point of the play. I then reached out to consider the thoughts of the theaters which presented the last two major productions in the United States (NYC. 2012. Washington D.C. 2017), both of which cast the play with a white actor playing Morrie. I then wrote personally to Athol Fugard who was in South Africa at the time. He was gracious enough to send me a very thoughtful reply, which you can read on APT’s blog. With these conversations in mind, as well as discussions with the artistic team putting the show together, my partner Gavin Lawrence, and my director, Ron OJ Parson, I decided to accept the role. I felt, and still feel, strongly about my decision. It is an important play to be doing today, as cast, and I am extremely proud to be a part of it. One may disagree with this decision, but to suggest that the casting of this play was ever taken lightly, or that is was simply done to give a ‘company member’ a job, or that the casting was in any way forced on anyone, is simply not true. Remarks such as these lead people on social media to begin sharing simplistic sound bites back and forth until a deeply considered artistic choice has been relegated to a single clickbait headline: White Actor Cast in Black Man’s Role. Who would not react in outrage to such a statement? I would, were it true. It is, however, not true, and I believe such misrepresentations do nothing to further informed conversations about race in our country, which are the conversations that this play should be provoking. I will add further that informed discussions are happening with the audiences who see the play. It is a beautiful, yet cruel play – a scorching and brutal indictment against white privilege and unchecked racism. These difficult and uncomfortable discussions are happening between those who experience the play and the artists who have produced it and continue to present it. That is the work. We are in the room together.
It has also been remarked to me by some of my colleagues that only people of color should be telling the stories of people of color. I absolutely agree. I also believe, however, that that is not the case with this play. The play is much larger than the story of the two brothers one sees on stage – it is the story of a nation. A nation’s racism. Zach and Morrie represent that nation. Zach is a black body. Morrie is a white body. The shanty they live in is their country. How can they live together in peace? Is this not the question of our own country today? Of our own lifetime? Of our world? Is not this a story we want to tell?
Of course, there are valid criticisms to be considered. Should we be doing this play at all given today’s world? Some say no, we should not. I respect that opinion. And I disagree with it. I say, absolutely we should be performing this play. As cast. Today. Were Morrie to be played by a person of color, a white audience could distance themselves, and, perhaps at best, feel pity for these two brothers. With Morrie cast as the role was conceived, the play does not evoke pity, but rather, it becomes a blistering indictment against racism and white privilege everywhere. And a predominately white audience, like ours at APT, cannot help but feel a part of themselves indicted as well. The play is not merely a historical recounting of South Africa’s years under apartheid – it is a mirror held up before us all where we see, and grapple with, our own prejudices, our own actions or inactions, our own culpability. These are the issues the play was designed to provoke, and I am immeasurably honored and humbled to be a part of it.