The script itself remained unchanged. But even though the characters did not mention the new theme, it was blatant.
“It hurt so much to be in a world where something so elemental to your being was ignored,” Heyward says, explaining her sudden eruption. “I had to acknowledge that for Sabrina.”
There may be power yet, then, in an idea that last seemed vanguard a couple of decades ago: nontraditional casting. Latinos, blacks and whites in Arena Stage’s “Oklahoma!” last fall, and now an African American version of Horton Foote’s 1953 “The Trip to Bountiful” at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. The concepts don’t necessarily seem fresher than Arena’s “Pygmalion” with an African American Eliza Doolittle 20 years ago or an all-black “Waiting for Godot” on Broadway in 1957.
But Timothy Douglas, director of “The Trip to Bountiful” (best known as the 1985 film that won Geraldine Page the Academy Award for Best Actress), suggests that nontraditional casting is enjoying a renaissance. The flurry on Broadway in recent seasons has included Morgan Freeman in Clifford Odets’s “The Country Girl,” S. Epatha Merkerson in “Come Back, Little Sheba” and an all-black “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — all 1950s plays, curiously, like “Bountiful.”
“I don’t think we’re beyond it,” says Douglas, adding that the notion of the Obama era as post-racial is fantasy. “There is this other huge section, and I belong to it, that says no, the conversation just begins. So, on that level, nontraditional casting has a potential for even greater impact now.”
The gambit is never wholly free from controversy, though. “Sometimes,” suggests actor Howard Overshown, who plays the son of the aging woman who longs to return home in “Bountiful,” “I feel nontraditional casting is in lieu of doing black plays.”
Indeed, the theater world still has to contend with the long shadow of August Wilson’s 1996 speech railing against colorblind casting as a form of “assimilation” (his word) to be resisted. When Arena convened a national panel of black playwrights last winter, Wilson’s speech was handed out as the starting point for the conversation.
“It is an assault on our presence,” Wilson thundered, complaining of a theoretical all-black “Death of a Salesman,” “an insult to our intelligence” and “our playwrights. . . . We do not need colorblind casting; we need some theaters to develop our playwrights.”
Edward Albee, who has long been outspoken about sticking to the playwright’s intentions, issued a general caution on nontraditional casting as the current festival of his works was being put together at Arena. When Ford’s director, Paul Tetrault, told the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” author about his concept for “Sabrina Fair,” Albee replied, “Do you think that black people and white people are completely interchangeable?’”