BEYOND THE CANON: COLOUR BLIND CASTING TURNED ON ITS HEAD
Warning! Stop reading this if you’re precious about the classical and contemporary play canon. I’m referring to the canon that mainly features the works of dead white men with hardly any reference to the plays written by or for people from a culturally diverse background. For those that have ever studied Drama & Theatre Studies or Acting or fortunate enough to work in the arts industry, these are the plays that are constantly pushed down our throats at every given opportunity, with a big invisible sign that reads:
‘This is high-quality art. Respect, value and digest the work as it is written – and do not (by any means) contest it’.
In addition to numerous revivals, these works are usually backed by the limited number of ‘respected’ critics for that added certification.
Well I, like many others, questioned the whereabouts of the plays that existed beyond the canon. The plays that were written by men and women from around the world who wanted to extend the conversation, challenge stereotypes and make a commentary of history, to present life and the future through a culturally diverse lens.
But it’s more than breaking open the canon to include the vast number of neglected and forgotten writers. The accessibility to ground-breaking plays that exist beyond the canon means that no longer will students from different cultural backgrounds feel they have to write their own monologues for showcases or find imaginative ways to fit into the overly exhausted roles from the bog-standard writers featured in the canon. Instead they will be able to understand that they are a part of a rich artistic legacy and thus be able to fully immerse themselves in an ocean of plays which speak both directly and indirectly to their cultural experience, perspective of the world and the many colourful characters that are familiar to them.
And guess what? These plays will be available for everyone! Let me confess: I usually hate the term ‘colour-blind casting’, because it tends to imply that non-white actors should always be prepared to play roles intended for white actors. However, given the context of this blog, I will adopt the same expression to suggest that all plays should be granted the same value, interest and interpretation.
Let me be extremely clear, I am by no means insinuating that there’s no place for the plays that feature in the existing play canon or that a black actor should only play a part written by a black playwright. I am merely strongly encouraging students, artists, teachers, and practitioners to broaden their knowledge of plays that exist beyond the canon.
Now, how does one access this material? It’s a lot easier than you think. I will start by unashamedly plugging my own collections of monologue anthologies: ‘Audition Speeches for Black, South Asian and Middle Eastern Actors. Monologues for men and women’ & ‘The Oberon Book of monologues for black actors: classical and contemporary speeches from black British plays’. These books offer a wide range of exciting monologues to provide readers with a quick and easy insight into the plays that exist ‘beyond the canon’. In addition, I am an avid lover of play anthologies, which I believe are a window to a number of some of the world’s greatest contemporary voices in one book. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama has published a large number of wonderful anthologies such as: New American Plays, Black Plays 1-3, to name but a few. The final way to source material is the most fun: ask professionals or book shop assistants to write you a list of ‘beyond the canon’ plays/playwrights that excite them. This is exactly how I gathered the material for my monologue anthologies and like it did for me, this approach will open your mind to a hidden world of masterpieces and unforgettable gems.
Be bold. Be inquisitive and delve beyond.