Playwright, director and actor Omari Newton is seen in an undated handout image. Newton says ‘colour-blind’ casting can be racist because it erases histories of colonialism and oppression. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

Playwright, director and actor Omari Newton is seen in an undated handout image. Newton says ‘colour-blind’ casting can be racist because it erases histories of colonialism and oppression. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

‘Actors can play any roles’: Debate over ‘colour-blind’ casting after Victoria lawsuit

Tenyjah Indra McKenna filed a complaint over racially-motivated casting

When Ravi Jain heard about the experience of an actor in Victoria who alleges she was denied an opportunity to audition for a role in “Les Belles-soeurs” (The Sisters-in-Law) because she is black, it was a familiar story.

Jain, who is the founding artistic director of Why Not Theatre in Toronto, says some Canadian directors have long argued that actors of colour aren’t appropriate for particular roles because they are set in a particular time and place that would exclude them.

“It’s just not true. It’s a limited perspective of what that time was and what the power structures were,” he said.

His comments come after a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruling this month that allows a complaint by Tenyjah Indra McKenna to proceed against the Victoria Theatre Guild and Dramatic School and its volunteer director.

The tribunal documents say McKenna contacted director Judy Treloar in August 2017 about auditioning for a role in the theatre’s production of the story by Michel Tremblay about four sisters and their neighbours.

Treloar initially invited McKenna to pick up a script, but when McKenna told her she is a black woman, Treloar responded that a black woman would not be a sister or neighbour in the play, the documents say.

“As much as I do not like saying this, the fifteen women in this play are Quebecois women and the play is set in Montreal in 1965. A black woman would not be a neighbour or a sister in this play, however I would love to meet you and hear you read,” says an email from Treloar to McKenna that was released within the tribual’s interim decision about the complain.

The documents say Treloar stated her comment did not come from racial bias or stereotyping, but from months of studying and preparing for the play’s production. She describes the play’s subject as ‘the white, xenophobic, working-class Quebecoise women of Montreal’s Plateau-Mount Royal neighbourhood, the documents say.

McKenna questioned Treloar’s sources in an emailed response, adding that she grew up in Montreal.

“Interestingly enough, throughout the 1960s my family lived and worked in the same Montreal borough in which ‘Les Belles Soeurs’ takes place,” McKenna says.

“I also wonder — if you are hesitant to cast a black actor to ensure historical accuracy, how many Quebecois or French-speaking actors will you be casting?”

Since then, the theatre offered McKenna $1,500, introduced diversity training for board members, production personnel and staff, and appointed two ombudspersons to deal with complaints of harassment or discrimination.

The tribunal ruled that was not enough to have the complaint dismissed.

Treloar and the theatre declined to comment for this story and McKenna could not be reached.

But the case is reinvigorating debate in the Canadian theatre world about how best to promote inclusivity.

Jain sees some parallels with Salt-Water Moon, a play set in Newfoundland commonly cast with white actors, even though people of colour certainly existed in Newfoundland at the time. His company’s production of the play had a diverse cast, which liberated the play from the “handcuffs” of realism, he said.

“We freed it to an imaginative space in which it didn’t matter who the people telling the story are. They’re just people, and we’re looking deeper into the humanity of those characters and the depths of their relationships. That actually transcends race and culture.”

Why Not Theatre is among several venues in Canada receiving acclaim for challenging the way stories are told. Jain said that trend has only accelerated since the Canada Council for the Arts began a five-year strategic plan in 2016 rooted in inclusion.

But progress doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring race in casting decisions, some say. Vancouver-based actor and creator Omari Newton said completely ignoring race can have the effect of erasing histories of colonialism and oppression.

READ MORE: Racial discrimination complaint against Victoria theatre to proceed

“I think colour-blind casting is a ridiculous form of racism,” he said. “In my opinion, you should be casting colour-consciously, which is: cast depending on the play and role, feel free to cast whoever you want. Just acknowledge the implications that casting people of different colour will have on the story you’re going to tell.”

Newton said it was jarring to watch a Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” with a mixed-race cast. The play was set at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in the United States, yet the casting presented an interracial marriage, mixed-race child and a family with a white brother and a black sister, without any explanation.

“It just seemed like this alternate universe where colonialism didn’t happen and the civil war didn’t happen and the civil rights movement didn’t happen, so it took me out of the play,” he said.

Newton, who is black, encourages people of colour to consider telling their own stories by writing, directing and producing them.

“I figured out a decade ago that if I wanted to be in or see the types of stories that interested me on stage, I would have to produce, write or direct them,” he said.

His first play, “The Lamentable Tragedy of Sal Capone,” follows a young hip hop group caught in the aftermath of a violent police shooting. It premiered in 2013 and was staged last year at the National Arts Centre.

Diane Brown, who staged “Les Belles-soeurs” in Vancouver last year with a diverse cast, said there’s no good excuse for exclusion.

“Actors can play any roles, women can play in what used to be traditionally male roles; this is happening even on Canada’s large mainstream stages,” she said.

Boomer Stacey, executive director of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, said it’s important for theatres to consider why they choose certain stories to tell and how they speak to audiences today.

The organization, which has both a cultural diversity committee and an equity and diversity committee, creates a space for member theatres to discuss inclusivity and ways to better reflect diversity in subject matter, on boards and in other leadership positions.

He noted that community theatres, like Langham Court where the Victoria production was staged, may not have the same supports available to them.

While the Canadian theatre world still has some room for improvement when it comes to diversity, Stacey said it’s already come a long way. In his association alone, he noted that he is a person of colour, as is the president, vice president, and several members of the board.

“We’re trying to not just preach to people that they have to be diverse, we try to live that as well.”

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A rainbow shining on Kelowna General Hospital on May 12, 2020 International Nurses Day. (Steve Wensley - Prime Light Media)
New COVID cases trending down in Interior Health

24 new cases reported Thursday, Feb. 25, death at Kelowna General Hospital

Sylvain Fabi, Canada’s chief negotiator for the Columbia River Treaty, joined a number of government and Indigenous government stakeholders for a virtual town hall on Feb. 24, 2021, to update the state of the Columbia River Treaty negotiations. Trevor Crawley photo/Zoom screenshot
Indigenous input key to Columbia River Treaty negotiations

Ecosystem function included in negotiations along with flood management and power generation priorities

The area of the East Kootenay under a special avalanche warning. Submitted
Avalanche Canada issues special warning for southern Rockies

Northern Rockies also under special avalanche warning

Pictured is a Young Agrarians farm tour at Wloka Farmstand in Creston. Note: this photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted File)
Land in short supply for new farmers in southeast B.C.

Young Agrarians hopes to match new farmers with land owners in the area

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
MY COVID STORY: From doctor to patient

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

The missing camper heard a GSAR helicopter, and ran from his tree well waving his arms. File photo
Man trapped on Manning mountain did nearly everything right to survive: SAR

The winter experienced camper was overwhelmed by snow conditions

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen, all 20, drown in the Sooke River in February 2020. (Contributed photos)
Coroner confirms ‘puddle jumping’ in 2020 drowning deaths of 3 B.C. men

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen pulled into raging river driving through nearby flooding

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Vancouver International Women in Film Festival kicks off March 5.
Women in Film Festival features two B.C. filmmakers

The 16th annual festival kicks off March 5, 2021

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Most Read