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."