The Racial Spectrum

Metachroma Seeks Colour Balance Onstage

Tamara Brown appearing in Richard III Sept. 19-30 Photo courtesy Metachroma Theatre

Theatre has an interesting idea of what’s normal. For centuries, women’s roles were played by men, and for the past few decades having one actor of colour in a cast was considered progressive.

Metachroma Theatre, a new company that tackles the issue of under-represented visible minority actors in Canadian theatre, is one company addressing the situation.

“In the past seven or eight years, you’ll see at auditions, on the bottom of the audition notice, ‘We encourage diversity in casting and everyone is welcome to audition regardless of ethnic background,’” said Jamie Robinson, a member of Metachroma who stars in their upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

“Now, are theatre companies actually implementing that? It varies from company to company, and I think our company, Metachroma Theatre, takes that seriously. Everybody’s welcome.”

Because of its plot, Richard III was the perfect point of departure for the new company. As a sequel to the Henry VI plays, issues of succession are prominent—and heightened by the diversity onstage.

“All these battles have been happening for years and years,” Robinson said. “And by the time you get to Richard III—who’s the legitimate child? So in our company, you’ll see a palate of all different colours, and everybody’s accusing everybody of being a bastard in the monarchy and claiming the crown.”

Of course, change rarely appeals to all members of the status quo, and Metachroma’s mandate is no exception. There have been rumblings that Richard III shouldn’t be approached the way this new independent theatre company is presenting it.

“I’ve heard about it,” Richard III director and Concordia theatre professor Joel Miller said of the controversy. “But I think it’s a small minority. [The] whole point is people forget about that. These are actors, in roles, playing situations.”

Robinson added that since such a large portion of Canada is mixed race, diversity onstage makes a lot more sense than hegemony.

Although there do exist in Montreal—and elsewhere in Canada—theatre companies mandated to cast along culturally-specific lines, Metachroma’s approach towards casting in a non-culturally-specific way stands out.

Even in the past 10 years, casting based on talent rather than along the lines of race has caused controversy in North America.

In 2005, a high school production of Big River, the musical based on Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn, was set to star actors who were not the same race as their characters, and the company that held the rights to the musical banned the school from performing it.

Bert Fink, a spokesman for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which had decided to withhold licensing rights, told Ylan Q. Mui of the Washington Post that casting that way “[is] taking a liberty that one could argue is not appropriate to what the authors of that musical are trying to convey about the novel.

“To ignore the racial component of Huck Finn does a disservice to the story.”

When it comes to how a story’s narrative might change depending the race of the actors, Robinson said that although certain plays are culturally specific, if they were cast with actors from different backgrounds they would make just as much sense, just in a different way.

It would allow the audience to take away something different than what the original casting directions would have conveyed.

Although Robinson wouldn’t comment on what shows Metachroma was thinking of presenting after Richard III, he said that they already had a few ideas.

“A lot of people are backing us,” he added. “The future’s ours.”

Richard III by Metachroma Theatre at The Segal Centre for the Performing Arts / Sept. 19 to Sept. 30 / (5170 Côte Ste. Catherine Rd.) / $18.00 student, $28.75 regular (Pay-what-you-can Sept. 19 and 2-for-1 Sept. 24).