Casting a Movement: The Welcome Table Initiative

Casting A Movement: The Welcome Table Initiative. Claire Syler and Daniel Banks, eds. New York: Routledge, 2019; Pp. 266.

Casting A Movement: The Welcome Table Initiative, edited by Claire Syler and Daniel Banks, presents a powerful, multifaceted record of historical and contemporary casting practices from leading American artists and scholars. The book casts an intentionally wide net, reflecting on how various communities, including Middle Eastern, Native American, African American, Latinx, as well as multilingual and disabled communities, have been impacted by the politics of casting. The book is relevant for theater artists, critics, administrators and educators of institutions that fund and produce theater. In Casting a Movement, the writers offer incisive analysis of the ways race and representation define meaning in the theatre, aiming to understand how race and racism have been reinforced and institutionalized through casting practices.

Casting a Movement intentionally includes both theatre practitioners and scholars and opens with three introductory essays by Liesl Tommy, Syler, and Banks, respectively, which offer a framework and language for the subsequent 21 contributions. Reflecting on an award-filled career of directing on and off Broadway and television, Tommy underscores the importance of language in articulating social and political nuances that inform questions of casting. Syler emphasizes that “casting is inherently a political act” that is never neutral because the decision about which bodies to include already communicates information that “evokes cultural assumptions associated with skin color, gender, sexuality, and ability” (4). Banks revisits the metaphor of “the welcome table,” present in both a Spiritual and James Baldwin’s unfinished final play, as an aspiration for an inclusive space (both physical and ideational) in which artists of various backgrounds are invited to engage in each other’s art-making. In this essay originally written in 2012, Banks interrogates such terms as “nontraditional” or “color-blind casting” that anticipate the powerful expressions of “We See You, White American Theater” ( published in 2020.

Following these introductory essays, the book’s first part traces a trajectory from the language of “colorblind casting” to “color conscious casting.” Appropriately, this first part begins with Ayanna Thompson, whose writing about Shakespeare and classical productions has exposed the persistent falsity of “colorblindness” in theatre pedagogy (34). Next, Justin Emeka traces his own journey as a director: “[b]y reimagining the presence of Black and Brown life within the context of Eurocentric plays, I use theater as a tool to teach people to look for Black and Brown life where they have been trained by omission to ignore it” (47). In the third essay Brian Eugenio Herrera discusses the persistence of “whitewashing,” or the use of white actors in casting when the roles were originally written for non-white characters as a pernicious mechanism of erasure (51).

In the volume’s second part, Arab-American playwright Yussef El Guindi, artistic Director Torange Yeghiazarian (Golden Thread Productions), and scholar Michael Malek Najjar consider challenges for Middle Eastern American/North African American actors in the academy, in training programs, and in the professional setting (72). As Najjar puts it in reference to August Wilson’s touchstone essay “The Ground on Which I Stand:” “Wilson’s view on African American theatre [about the pernicious effect of colorblind casting] is a helpful guide for other minoritarian theater communities” (76).

Aptly, since actor Christine Bruno points out, “[d]isabled people are America’s largest minority, representing twenty-five percent of the population,” the book’s third part focuses on issues of casting and disability. Bruno, Carrie Sandahl, and Victoria Lewis consider efforts by advocacy groups on behalf of actors of color and those with disabilities (85). Sandahl makes a clarion call for those in the academic and professional theatres to take shared “responsibility for improving opportunities for theater artists along the whole pipeline”—from educational programs to the theatre, film and television industries (94).

The book’s fourth part widens its perspective even further to address casting and multilingual performance, an often-neglected topic. This part, opens with a poetic rumination on storytelling and cultural ownership by playwright Caridad Svich. Next Eunice S. Ferreira and Ann Elizabeth Armstrong argue the benefits of multilingual theater for developing an audience attuned to and welcoming of difference.

Reflecting the growing role of Native American theatre in the last decade, the fifth part highlights the pluralism of Native American theater voices. Ojibwe and Oneida performance artist Ty Defore (Gilzhig), echoes the previous section and offers a poem, “Journey,” that suggests paths for greater connection across diverse communities. This is an especially important chapter symbolically and ideationally for a book that calls for the imperative of intersectionality in addressing world challenges. Jean Bruce Scott and Randy Reinholz (Choctaw) discuss the evolution of the Native Voices at the Autry as a theatre that places Native narratives centrally to create “a more inclusive dialogue about what it means to be ‘American’” (147). Courtney Elkin Mohler articulates decolonial practices in contemporary Native theater.

In the sixth part, the book turns to questions of stereotype in casting processes. Mei Ann Teo, for instance, acknowledges in our historic moment “a sea change” when “Asian American and Asian heritage stories are finally being told in the mainstream” (173). In powerful affirmation of intersectionality, Dorinne Kondo analyzes what she calls the “reparative creativity” of artists of color who use “multiracial collaboration and cross-racial casting” as strategies of resistance to exclusion in the theater industry and society (177). “Refusing a neat ending,” in her words, Donatella Galella sees an ongoing process of fighting for improved conditions of people of color and “cross-racial casting as a struggle over power—representation and the redistribution of roles” (191).

The book’s final part reverberates with many of the themes across essays, asserting a politics of inclusion and visibility evoked by Canadian/American playwright Elaine Ávila’s title “Reaparecer” (reappear). The section ends with Priscilla Page’s essay on Collidescope: Adventures in pre- and Post-Racial America and Brandi Wilkins Catanese’s further analysis of the ongoing performance project— juxtaposing it with Daniel Banks’s working through of the welcome table.

Casting A Movement: The Welcome Table Initiative is a timely work whose significance goes beyond the discipline of theater to add to the national conversation on institutionalized racism. Read alongside recent political, social and artistic developments, including the Black Lives Matter movement, theatre closures precipitated by COVID-19 and the political upheavals of the Trump presidency, it remaps the field. How we want to return to theatre-making, how we will address questions of equity, diversity and inclusion in the face of persistent racism and institutionalized white supremacy are driving issues for the artist-writers in this important anthology.

Erith Jaffe-Berg
University of California, Riverside

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 33, Number 2 (Spring 2021)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2021 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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