Typecasting: An Enviable Goal
for Minority Performers?

By: Tim Rees

From: Currents Spring 1983 pp. 10-11
© 1983 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

An interview with Jeff Henry, who has worked with black professional theatre groups in both Toronto and Montreal over the last 15 years.

Editor: What is typecasting?

Typecasting is where a performer is repeatedly playing a part calling for the same characteristics as those possessed by the performer. For example, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and John Wayne are typecast while actors like Dustin Hoffman aren't. For black pertformers it is a non-issue.

Black performers are repeatedly cast in the same type of role - the 'black' role, the stereotypical role. The problem then is stereotyping, not typecasting. The black performer is never able to develop his own abilities and characteristics beyond the colour of his skin.

Casting minorities in inferior, subservient roles and white males in superior roles has been the general rule in movies, television and theatre. Blacks are still playing the foot shuffling Negro servant, the lovable but incompetent sidekick, the buffoon
Editor: What is the impact of this?

Not only of course does it limit both the quantity and quality of work available to black performers, but the stereotypical images are all caricatures of people who intrinsically lack something - who are only half human.

Even Indian children want to be like John Wayne instead of the bad Indians. Black kids don't want to grow up to be the Negro maid or janitor. They fantasize themselves to be the hero just as Anglo kids do. But the message to them is quite clear - to be successful you must fit the mold of the white Anglo-Saxon.

For whites, it breeds a false sense of superiority and justifies racial prejudice and discriminatory behaviour. If white people never see black people on TV, in the movies, on the stage, then they will feel they are the only ones that matter in this society. Thus, the process of programming racist attitudes is perpetuated.

The media and the theatrical entrepreneurs, who programme only that which is profitable, view their audiences as being extremely accepting of these stereotypical roles. Undoubtedly stereotypes sell. The public obviously wants to fantasize that they are the tall, handsome, fair hero, or his woman.

For non-whites it breeds a sense of inferiority, shame in one's heritage and lower expectations of achievement. And we know that persons with a poor self-image are less likely to be high achievers.

Editor: Do you think the position adopted by the media and the cultural industries is valid?

Of course they have to make money, but from my experience they are operating under a false assumption in believing that the audience wants to watch only white preformers, and will only accept non-white performers in roles that are subservient and have no authority. The audience is interested first and foremost in the quality of the production: that it is well-produced, well-rehearsed and in good taste. The colour of the performers has nothing to do with it.

Editor: How do you compare the media situation in Canada with the U.S.?

It has been interesting for me to observe the proportion of whites in the audience of black theatrical performances in the United States. It is significant. There appears to be a far greater awareness and interest by the media, and the ensuing publicity creates and fosters a bigger audience. Whereas in Canada, there appears to be a total indifference by the media to promoting black theatre. Perhaps this is because Americans accept the black population as very much an integral part of the American reality, while in Canada blacks are regarded as interlopers, as non-belongers. Black theatre is dismissed as part of the migrant culture.

I believe that white Canadians would patronize black theatre in greater numbers if the media were to give it the same exposure it gives to mainstream theatre.

I have been involved for a number of years in bringing the work of Caribbean play wrights to Toronto. These are plays that have been enthusiastically reviewed in other metropolitan centres throughout the United States and have been major hits both there and in Britain. They have done badly in Toronto. Part of the reason for this is that the media hardly recognizes our existence, so we don't get coverage. Secondly, on the few occasions that we are reviewed, the theatre critics pan it, not for the quality of the production, but through a total misrepresentation of the content. Is this a reflection of Canadian attitudes towards minority culture - a resistance to accepting different perceptions, different values, different interpretations of reality?

If Canadians can struggle successfully through the many regional dialects and accents contained in the Royal Shakespeare Company's performance of Nicholas Nickleby, black theatre should equally resist the temptation to standardize and soften its presentation and lose its essential rhythm.

Editor: What can be done to improve the situation?

The media should provide the same treatment to black theatre as it does to the other alternative theatres. That means not only reviewing the performances but also by providing other forms of publicity such as doing background articles on the theatre group itself, the playwright, the performers, etc.

Black theatre itself must become far more aggressive in its marketing techniques. It must copy and compete with the sophisticated strategies employed by the major cultural institutions in the city for funds, for subscriptions, and for recognition.

And the community itself should be far more supportive of the non-white arts in general, and can be a significant pressure upon the media and the mainstream performing arts, to abandon their traditional hang-ups.

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