Despite decades of protests over racially inappropriate casting and the recent complaints about the lack of diversity among award nominees, theaters continue to cast white actors as minority characters on a depressingly regular basis.
Here we go again. “SUS”, running at the Teatro Filodrammatici in Milan through November 14, is one of Barrie Keeffe’s most celebrated plays. Keeffe was a playwright and screenwriter who died in 2019, best known for the 1980 film classic “The Long Good Friday.”
Written in 1979, “SUS”, which stands for ‘suspect under suspicion’, is set on the night of Margaret Thatcher’s election, when a black man is detained on suspicion of murder by two bullying police officers. The play, still performed worldwide, contributed to the repeal of the law with the same name, which allowed policemen to stop and search people taken to be suspicious. A film version directed by Robert Heath was released in 2010.
For this production, directed by Bruno Fornasari, the Milan theatre has chosen to cast a white actor, Tommaso Amadio, who, according to the Filodrammatici’s website, is also the theatre’s artistic director, for the role of Delroy, a black man victim of the unjustified arrest.
How is it possible that a white actor is cast to play the role of a black victim? Aren’t there any black Italian actors up to this role? We doubt it.
Setting aside Mr. Amadio’s acting talents, which the writer of this article does not know because he has not seen this production, this choice certainly does not reflect the spirit of inclusivity and cultural respect that distinguishes this decade.
In addition to what appears to be unfairness, an artistic director should leave room for other actors and not cast himself as lead, the cultural insensitivity is staggering.
To confirm the deaf tone of the initiative, on Instagram the official account of the theater posted a time-lapse video of the actor’s behind-the-scenes preparation, adding in the now-deleted caption that in order to transform him into the lead role, a black man, “spray-tan is not enough” but he also needs a make-up artist to put on a wig with dreadlocks.
Italian theatre has a long way to go to guarantee the necessary representation and access to actors from ethnic minorities. For years we have seen “Othello” at La Scala performed wearing darkening make-up.
Excluding blackface, which is widely considered a racist and derogatory practice, the issue is not the easiest. For example, should a black actor be prevented from playing a role written for a white character?
It wasn’t long ago that social media went wild when Edward Albee’s estate denied a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” because the director had chosen a black man to play a character written as Caucasian. Just as when for the well-known musical “Hamilton”, by composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, auditions were reserved specifically for non-white actors.
Casting in theatre, as well as film and TV, will always meet with criticism, but in this case, the play “SUS” places the experience of a black man at the center of the work, in a racist and predominantly white-dominated context. How can a white actor fully understand and express this specific black character’s struggle?
On the official website, the pretentious description of the show states: “Keeffe’s play is, unfortunately, still relevant and necessary; an opportunity to affirm the will to look at the mistakes of the recent past and, with lucidity, to become aware audience members, so that such mistakes are not repeated.” The audience certainly needs to grasp even more the issues of systematic racism that characterizes the society we live in, but also it’s what happens backstage that we need to turn our attention to.