Referring to playwright August Wilson, who has made a point of questioning non-traditional casting, Newman says: "I don't agree with [him], because I think the material should be bigger than the people doing the material."
Uggams admits that, when she received the script, "I said, 'Ha ha, but I'm black.' " Then she adds, "But I loved the play. I just thought, 'Sure, why not?' I look like [Callas]--but with a suntan. We have the same bone structure and almond-shaped eyes." Once she agreed to go ahead with the project, she says, "I just plunged into the work, tried to make it the best that I can possibly do, and I fully expect people to accept it. In my work, I have had a lot of acceptance in any project I've done."
Viewing the Uggams casting in Master Class from a wider perspective, Sharon Jensen, executive director of the Non-Traditional Casting Project, starts off by mentioning that, "as Jules Feiffer once said, 'It's a play, not a documentary.' " Jensen usually refrains from discussing particular casting choices because "it seems to be a matter between the actor and the director." But she will say, "It sounds like [Uggams] was the most qualified to meet the vision the director had.
"Master Class does not seem to turn on the issue of race," Jensen continues. "It seems to be about the issue of a singing teacher and a student, and that dynamic. What's the primary consideration here? Do we insist that the actor we cast be Greek? Greek-American? No, theater is about the suspension of disbelief--the actor's ability to transform, the actor's ability to be persuasive, our ability to respond. I think we've come a ways; there's been measurable progress in the last 15 years. Most playwrights I've talked to, when they write a piece, have a very specific idea about the first production. After that, they are more open in terms of diversity. They look forward to other versions of the work."
Another theater professional able to assess the situation is Rosemarie Tichler, artistic director of the Joseph Papp Public Theater, where the advancement of non-traditional casting has been a longtime policy. "Obviously," she says, "it started out with Joe Papp, who had a theater person's commitment to talent and to a social point of view." According to Tichler, who headed the Public's casting office for many years, "Non-traditional casting has moved and will continue to move into the mainstream of the acceptable. Some people are going to think you have an agenda, some people aren't. It's all about giving people challenges. If black people can't get the challenges, we're marginalizing them. And it's not only the actor's loss, it's the theater's loss." Adds Tichler: "The gender issues are the next battlefield."
So, how far has non-traditional casting come? Asked about reaction to her casting as Maria Callas, Leslie Uggams reports: "Nobody has said to me, 'Oh, really?!' "