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White actress cast in black part in "Doubt"

Printed From: Community Theater Green Room
Category: Producing Theater
Forum Name: Acting
Forum Discription: Q&A about auditions, character development and other aspects of the craft
Printed Date: 5/18/24 at 9:22pm
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Topic: White actress cast in black part in "Doubt"
Posted By: Cordelia3
Subject: White actress cast in black part in "Doubt"
Date Posted: 6/17/11 at 10:12am
I am brand new to this Board, but not to theater or community theater.
I am on the board of a CT and I've been strongly suggesting we do "Doubt" for several years. So we're doing it. And I've been cast as Sister Aloysius.
BUT: The director has been unable to find a black actress to play Mrs. Muller. She has cast a white actress in this role. I am VERY uncomfortable with this choice. I have told the director I am not sure I can do this production. I think she should not do the play rather than do it with a white actress.
What do you think?
Should I do this amazing part?
Or leave a sinking ship?

Posted By: Rorgg
Date Posted: 6/17/11 at 11:32am
Funny you should bring this up.  My little production company is planning Doubt for August.  We have our venue, our rights, our director, and 3/4 of our cast.  Unsurprisingly, we don't have a Mrs. Mueller.  You'd think it'd be easy to find someone for a terrific part that only appears in 1 scene with one other actor and could name their minimal rehearsal schedule, but... our county is <1% black.  Them's the breaks.  Another one in the area had to change productions a couple years ago after looking unsuccessfully for a black woman for a part where race was integral to the role.

So, I know the issue here.  What we realized, looking closely at the text, is nothing specifically tags Mrs. Mueller herself as black.  Donald certainly is, but it could (we fanwank) be part of a mixed marriage.  As such, we're going with the plan to TRY to find a black woman to play the part, and if we cannot, we have a couple Hispanic women we know who could possibly be tapped.  That seems, if a little unusual, completely plausible for New York in the 1960s ... a couple from (or decended from) Puerto Rico or Cuba perhaps.

I think the case for a white Mrs. Mueller is FAR more problematic, and frankly... I kind of agree with you.  It loses plausibility, and the otherness of Mrs. Mueller herself is also key to her interaction with Sr. Aloysius.  As long as you're early enough to not spike the whole production by pulling out, I think it's utterly justified.  This is a pretty significant breaking of the assumptions on the table from when you took the part.

Posted By: Cordelia3
Date Posted: 6/17/11 at 3:01pm
We've got a similar race makeup in our county.
The director said, when I told her about my deep reservations with this situation, that the play's not about racism, but the Church. Which I gotta say, she did not endear herself to me with that reading of the script...
I would be just fine with a Hispanic Mrs. Muller. But the woman she's got in mind is blonde. That was illegal in most places until 1967...
Apparently local high- middle school productions of "Ragtime" and "Hairspray" have gotten by with a curtain speech and others have thought them fine. (I didn't see them.) That's what is being talked about here.
The show is five weeks away.

Posted By: DeeCeeActs
Date Posted: 6/17/11 at 4:30pm

A local CT in my community had to cancel their planned production of The Joy Luck Club this season because of a lack of Asian actresses.  They didn't even consider casting non-Asians.  I think they made the right choice.  While I applaud color blind casting, some roles need to be portrayed by an actor of a certain ethnicity and I don't think a curtain speech makes a difference.  I also think the actress cast in this role has an unfair burden placed on her.  Theatrical audiences have to suspend their disbelief when watching ANY production, but in cases like this they are being asked to take a further leap of imagination.  This isn't setting her up for success in my opinion.  I think you are right to have concerns. 

Since you are on the Board of the Theatre, I would bring it up before next season's shows are cast.  I think CT's need to consider the acting pool of their community when selecting shows. 
Good luck!

Posted By: edh915
Date Posted: 6/18/11 at 1:08pm
Two theatre groups in my area did "Doubt" a couple of years ago.  One group was able to obtain a black actress, the other was not.  There was zero reaction to the lack of a black actress.  No pre-show speeches, the audiences simply accepted what they were told.

The main point here, I think, is your reaction.  If you consider this play a "sinking ship", and if you think this show is not about the Catholic Church, and if you doubt (no pun intended) your director's ability to handle the show, then do yourself and everyone else the favor of removing yourself from this production.  If you're not on board with the way the director's handling things, then your attitude will inevitably sabotage the show.

Get out now.  Everyone will be relieved - I guarantee it.

Otherwise, leave the director to direct, and you just worry about your performance.  Let the audiences make the ultimate decision - they can either applaud at the end, or sit on their hands.

Posted By: PaulyWally
Date Posted: 6/20/11 at 11:14pm
I agree with edh915.

In your first post you said, "Should I do this amazing part? Or leave a sinking ship?"

My very first reaction was to wonder why you think there are only 2 options (extreme opposites) to this "problem".

Secondly, the director has a vision for the play.  Without the playwright present, that is the director's job... to interpret the play and create a single creative vision for the cast and production team.

Apparently, your vision is different from hers.  I'm not going to say you are right and she is wrong (or vice versa).  But I am going to say that if she is doing her job, then she probably has very good reasons for saying that the play is about the church.  And when the play comes together, that should all become apparent.  If she doesn't think that the play is about racism, and is then pressured to put an element of racism on this specific part, that would create a lack of continuity and could be damaging to the production.

You should feel comfortable approaching her about this as an actor.  Let her know that you have had trouble seeing this play from her point of view.  Ask her to share her vision and her interpretation.  Ask her to help with your analysis and character work.  Maybe then you might see what she sees.

I wouldn't suggest undermining the director.  I was in a CT production where a board member was cast as an actor.  She continuously abused her influence, overstepped boundaries, and undermined the director.  It was damaging to the cast and created a lot of fear in their minds.  Her duties as a board member belonged in the board room, not on the stage.

Respect the boundaries and remember that you are an actor in this production.

Also, there is no telling how audiences will view her production.  Audiences are very forgiving of a lot of things, and they are smarter than we sometimes give them credit for.  Just because you think this director is doing a poor job doesn't mean everyone does.

Finally, theatre cannot succeed if we only think of reasons why we should NOT do the show.  We succeed by saying, "in spite of these obstacles, let's figure out how to make this work."  Ironically, that is what most plays are about... characters trying to figure out how to achieve their objective(s) despite all their obstacles.

Posted By: falstaff29
Date Posted: 6/21/11 at 5:06pm
How many companies really are color-blind when they claim to be?  (As an example, even though I love the play and have seen it many times, I've never seen Side Man with a single black actor.  And black people gave us jazz.  The travesty!)  And then we wonder why actors of color don't come forth for ostensibly good roles written for them.  What do we do in such situations?  It's a shame that there aren't good options here.  Ignore the character's race?  Won't do.  Cast an actor of the appropriate race?  Apparently not possible.  In another era we might have used blackface.  While such a makeup tradition had many deplorable and racist iterations, I wonder if it must always be that way.  Somewhat hypothetically speaking, I'm not so sure that ethnic makeup must always be dismissed, if it's in service of creating an illusion unto a fully formed (and therefore specifically [fill-in-the-blank]) character.

As for whether you stick it out or not, go with your heart--but decide soon!  There's a point at which it becomes unfair to pull out of a show, however far it's gone off the tracks.

A bad production has a habit of souring actors on the show itself, so leaving might be the right choice.

Posted By: Rorgg
Date Posted: 6/23/11 at 12:59pm
Originally posted by edh915

if you think this show is not about the Catholic Church

Actually, I don't think this show is about the Catholic Church, at least in the sense of the message of the show.  I know I'm sidetracking the discussion here, but what's the internet for, if not heavy digression?

If Doubt were "about" the RC clergy abuse scandal, I think it would be a far less rich play, because then you just go "well, he did it.  Or, someone an awful lot like him did" and then the impact of the tension between Aloysius and Flynn is shattered and that wonderful final scene is horribly skewed from a well-meaning woman realizing that her zealous certainty had a potential negative effect to the hero of the story paying a minor price for a partial victory.

I agree with our director (though he verbalized this before I had internally) that the main conflict in the show isn't Flynn/Aloysius, it's certainty/openness.  It's not playing out between the characters, but in Aloysius' mind.  She is certain, based on no concrete evidence, that a violation has occurred, and that's what drives the action.  If it were a question of fact, it would have gone up the chain of command, but her certainty is spite of that lack led her to eschew that option.

Just my two cents.

Posted By: edh915
Date Posted: 6/24/11 at 11:31am
I think you're splitting hairs a little, Rorqq, about "The Church" or not "The Church."  It's about the institution that allowed such things to happen and yet go unpunished.  It's also about equal rights - the women's role in the church versus the men's.  It's about top-heavy, burdensome bureaucracy too far removed from reality.  It's about a lot of things - that's what makes it such an effective show.

You are absolutely right, however, that the doubt implicit in the title must exist in both the sister's and the priest's performance.  If the director cannot create, or the actor playing the priest cannot give, a performance that reeks of probable innocence - then it just turns into a cat and mouse game wherein the nun catches the pervert priest.  It's an easy trap to fall into and needs to be assiduously avoided.

I read a New York Times review of the play after it had run a while, and after the original actors had moved on.  The reviewer complained that the show had  turned into just that sort of cat and mouse game with Sister Aloysius nothing more than Miss Marple in a penguin suit.  While it was still an enjoyable performance (the audience laughed and had a great time), it had lost it's depth and it's emotional impact.  It made everything all too easy.  The doubt had been removed from "Doubt".

Posted By: Rorgg
Date Posted: 6/24/11 at 12:28pm
I don't think so -- because, again, I don't think the institution is really important in this case, any more than a setting that makes the real crux of the show relevant and relatable.

When we decided to do this show (with the part of Flynn falling on me), my girlfriend/co-producer asked me if I thought that Flynn was guilty.  My response was that to play Flynn, I think you HAVE to think that he isn't, otherwise how are you going to credibly erode the rock-solid faith that Aloysius has in the mind of the audience.

My take on it -- not saying this is true, but this is my approach to it -- is that Flynn is innocent of these charges, but that he is gay, and that explains both his special attention to Donald (not as a perversion, just that he's mentoring a probably gay child) and that perhaps that had "come out" in some way or other, or was perhaps just a common rumor at a previous position, and that that is what Flynn is afraid that Aloyisius will spread from her imaginary contact at his prior parish.

Posted By: edh915
Date Posted: 6/24/11 at 3:51pm
Rorgg - you say "I don't think so" and proceed to sound like you're agreeing with me about the need to play Flynn as innocent.  The church is on trial here - as with society in  general - because it engendered and fostered a secretive atmosphere that allowed mistrust, distrust, and hypocrisy to flourish.

BTW - My own take on Flynn's role when I researched the role was that at the previous school he heard the confession of one of the other priests who was molesting students.  (Priests often hear each others' confessions.)  That way when he says to Sr. Aloysius that he can't tell her things she's demanding, it's because of a confessional confidence.  And that any extra effort he made with Donald was simply recognizing the feelings of an "outsider" and wanting to help.  That way he wouldn't even have anything of a personal nature to hide, other than knowledge obtained in sacrosanct circumstances.

I think you and I both agree that Flynn has to be played as 100% innocent - that is, the actor has to believe that he is - otherwise you're playing against the author's intent.

Posted By: Rorgg
Date Posted: 6/27/11 at 3:56pm
We agree on the approach to Flynn, but what I took from your comments is that the play is a commentary on the Catholic Church, and I really don't think that's anything more than a conveniently relevant setting.  So there's a point of disagreement.

That said, I think it's completely possible to approach it from your perspective -- just harder, and (to me) muddies the central point.

Posted By: Pquince
Date Posted: 10/10/11 at 5:27pm
I just finished directing "Doubt" and was worried about finding a black actress for the part. I asked everyone I knew for recommendations and I started recruiting long before I had auditions, and was blessed enough to get an amazing Mrs. Muller (she got applause every night after her scene). Had I not had Raquel to play Mrs. Muller, I had considered making her Hispanic. If not, then Donald would have been born of a mixed marriage and I would have added a line to the play referencing that fact. Hang in there!

And, I hope, here is a play fitted.

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