Promo image from All My Sons

CASTING - COLOUR-BLIND?

By Martha Henry

For me, casting has always been at least 90% of the process of putting on a play. If the cast isn’t right, there is no way the show will ever be quite right, either. I started as an actor, of course, so my focus is always on the acting, on the ability of these miraculous artists to tell the stories of the play and to illuminate their individual characters, with all their beliefs and quirks and idiosyncrasies, to the audience.

We began casting with the Kellers; immediately we knew who could best bring us Joe and “Mother” (as Miller always refers to Kate Keller) and auditions quickly brought us the ideal Chris, their remaining son. The next essential piece of the casting puzzle centred on Ann Deever, the sweetheart of both Keller sons – the girl upon whom the plot’s motor depends. I was delighted when Antoni Cimolino suggested Sarah Afful, and with Sarah as our Ann, the rest of the casting fell immediately into place.

Sarah Afful is an actress of astonishing gifts and an even more astonishing heart – the perfect Ann Deever. Sarah is also black. There is nothing in Miller’s text – or even in the stage directions – that mentions the colour of the Kellers’, or their neighbours’, skin. In 1947, when All My Sons was first produced, the assumption would have been that all its characters were white. It seems to me that theatre practitioners, as well as audiences, have come a long way in their thinking since the ’40s and that Arthur Miller would have applauded.

The phrase that evolved in the theatre in the late ’80s was “colour-blind casting” (although there are now more inclusive phrases used). Its intent was positive: it referred to the principle of casting people for their ability to play a part rather than for the colour of their skin. But in practice, its meaning has always been inconsistent. (I would never even be considered to play the mother in Raisin in the Sun.) And the phrase itself has always bothered me. I don’t know any actor who wants to be viewed with eyes that refuse to see them. Ms Afful’s heritage, it seems to me, brings a prominent and vital force to this tale of a 1940s Midwestern American town. I didn’t want us to be blind to the colour of her skin – I wanted us to see it as part of Ann’s beauty.

I grew up in the Midwest. I knew that an interracial marriage would not go unnoticed – or uncommented upon – in the world of the play. Ann grew up next to the Kellers; she was engaged first to their younger son. Any conversation about the difficulties of such a marriage would have been discussed five years ago, when Ann and Larry first approached their parents. I didn’t feel the family had to rehash that topic. I did feel it would be mentioned by one of the parents, if only as a warning – and also to convey to the audience that we were aware we were intensifying the situation Miller had given us by our casting – that we weren’t indulging in “colour-blind scripting.”

Therefore I sought to insert one brief cautionary line from Joe to his son and a response back from Chris that made it clear Chris wasn’t about to hear any warnings about racial disparity from his father. The Miller estate considered my request – and although they graciously agreed to all of the other changes I requested, they turned this one down. I have long been immersed in Arthur Miller – and in fact met him once in New York in 1972 when I was in a production of The Crucible. He was very keen that his work be mined and explored well into the future and that his plays remained relevant in whatever era they were produced. I like to think he would have agreed to – and blessed – the adjustment.

He certainly would have been a fan of Sarah Afful.

The rest of the casting evolved naturally: I wanted a number of actors out of the Festival’s Conservatory – and they have created a mixed-race neighbourhood in Ohio in 1946. (There was a prominent and successful one in Lincoln Heights.) Finally, Ann’s brother George, who comes in Act II to interrupt the marriage, formed the lynchpin.

All My Sons is not, of course, “about” race relations. But it is about so many things that are attached to that subject: should we ask permission to go out into the world and live our lives in the manner we see fit? Do we conform to our society’s view of what we “should” be? Do we speak our truths when they might hurt or discomfit those we love? Can we ever completely understand another human being? Do we “hear” each other? Do we even wish to?

Do we ever completely tell the truth?

All My Sons is a great play – a much greater play (although I’m almost ashamed to say this) than I thought it was when we started working on it. We have consistently run into scenes where each person on stage is actually talking about something just under the surface of the situation, connected only to his or her character. This is playwriting of the like that one usually only sees in Chekhov. Or Shakespeare. All My Sons isn’t even considered Arthur Miller’s best play. However, it contains multiple intellectual and emotional themes that spark lively and immediate responses – and which require a cast such as this one to navigate the intricacy of these responses for you, our audience.