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A Color-Blind Callas

Leslie Uggams as Maria Callas in Master Class pushes the envelope.

By New York City
Leslie Uggams as Maria Callasin Terrence McNally's Master Class
Leslie Uggams as Maria Callas
in Terrence McNally's Master Class
Interested in gauging the progress made to date in non-traditional casting? You might want to note who's playing Maria Callas in Terrence McNally's Master Class at Upper Montclair's TheatreFest (opening June 15). It's Leslie Uggams.

That's right: An African-American actress has been tapped to play the late, great Greek-American opera legend, and so far nobody is batting an eyelash--least of all playwright McNally, who told TheaterMania through a spokesperson, "I'm delighted she's doing it. I wish I could see her."

Not that McNally would have had much ground to stand on had he objected to the offbeat, maybe even groundbreaking, assignment. According to Robert Vaughan--director of professional rights at Dramatists Play Service, which licenses subsidiary rights--the contract that producing theaters sign with his company stipulates only that "The play shall be presented as published in the Dramatists Play Service acting edition without changes, additions or alterations in the title or text, including gender of character, time, and setting."

Vaughan also mentions that the playwrights with whom he deals usually confine their casting concerns to especially prominent productions. "In Los Angeles or New York, they might want to know who's cast," Vaughan says. But in reference to the issue of black actors playing white characters, he says, "It's never come up."

"I made the decision [to cast Leslie Uggams]," Geoffrey Newman states. As executive producer of TheatreFest and dean of the School of the Arts at Montclair State University, Newman is responsible for mounting the play, set to run June 15-25. "Leslie and I had been talking about doing a project, and we got on the subject of non-traditional casting or color-blind casting. We sort of came to an agreement that we really should use color-blind casting as more of a standard in the business, and that there were many roles offering great opportunities that producers wouldn't necessarily cast non-traditionally.

"Still looking for vehicles to do for the season, I suggested to the staff we propose Master Class," Newman continues. "I had just come from seeing [Uggams] do something, and I was very impressed with the fact that she was such a strong dramatic actress." He says he sent Uggams the script and that she was initially surprised to receive it. But then, according to Newman, she said: "The more I read it, the more I understood why you sent it to me. I relate to it. I went to Juilliard and participated in those master classes."

Once he had his star on board, Newman turned to director John Gully, who loved the idea of Uggams as Callas. "His first response," Newman said, "was he thought it was brilliant. Because of [Uggams'] age and background, she brought diva experience to the table. He agreed with us that this particular casting was not only absolutely right, but could create a different piece than had been done before." Newman reports that, keeping McNally's aims in mind as they weighed their decision, Gully and he concluded that "adding the dimension of a woman of color would not deter, but would help to enhance the material. Yes, what the playwright was intending was uppermost in our minds."


Newman also says that "most people who hear about the project are very supportive," although he allows, "I have had my share of nay-sayers." As he puts it, those who have questioned Uggams casting stress the importance of "traditional thinking--that no one could do this but a Callas look-alike. They wouldn't dare say 'a white woman' to me, because I'm a black male." But Newman is adamant about his action, commenting: "I think the whole idea of theater is promoting risk and a different point of view. One of our mottos here is, 'We dare to be different.' Not just in terms of casting but in terms of overall approach. I can assure you that everyone who will come to see the production will leave it discussing the material."

More color-blind casting:
Brian Stokes Mitchell (with Marin Mazzie)in Broadway's Kiss Me, Kate
More color-blind casting:
Brian Stokes Mitchell (with Marin Mazzie)
in Broadway's Kiss Me, Kate
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?!' "


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