Colorblind casting doesn't always work. Last month, a production at Ohio's Kent State University earned worldwide press coverage after casting a white actor as Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop. The reaction was almost entirely negative — even the playwright was appalled.
But director Michael Oatman, who is black, defended the decision. He'd actually cast two different actors as Dr. King, he explained — one white, one black. "I didn't want this to be a stunt," he said. "I wanted to see how the words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors with two different racial backgrounds."
There will be no outrage over St. Louis Actors' Studio production of Gin Game, which premiered last weekend at the Gaslight Theatre and provides a great example of colorblind casting done right. In its 1977 Broadway debut, the play about two residents of an old folks' home playing increasingly fraught rounds of gin was a smash hit, thanks in part to the performances of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. She won a Tony and the play won the Pulitzer. After that, the two, a married couple in real life, took their show on the road, playing to packed houses across the country.
In the Actors' Studio version, Tandy's role is played by the acclaimed St. Louis actress Linda Kennedy, who is black. But instead of serving as a distraction, here the casting choice adds a layer of intrigue to a play where so much is left unspoken. Is her opponent in these gin games, Weller Martin, more wounded by his losses because he's losing to a black woman? Is he unwilling to act on his attraction to her not just because of his age, but because she's a different race? Is her horror at the idea of being on welfare in part because she knows one thing driving the assumption?
In the hands of two supremely talented actors, both capable of hinting at wells of conflicting emotion with a single line or glance of the head, we find ourselves wondering about hidden meanings that even the playwright himself would surely be surprised by. Kennedy's Fonsia Dorsey is surely a much different creation than the one portrayed by the English-born Tandy. But if anything, I'd argue that Kennedy's version makes for better theater.
Indeed, the two performances are the reason to see this show — and a good one. Kennedy and Peter Mayer, who plays Weller Martin, are both superb. She's a tiny bit prissy; he's more than a bit profane. But they both have a thing or two to hide — and the actors are utterly believable as their acquaintance becomes a friendly rivalry and then a real friendship, exposing vulnerabilities they'd rather keep hidden. Thanks to these extraordinary actors, you ache for both, even as you fear it's too late for either of these leopards in winter to change their spots.
Cristie Johnson's set ably evokes the courtyard of a rundown nursing home, while director John Contini does a masterful job of keeping the play moving swiftly. As Kennedy and Mayer circle each other in their final argument, you'll find yourself wondering where the evening went. Not much happened on stage, not really. Some conversation, some hands of gin. Until you see these two actors at work, you'd never imagine something so simple could be so compelling.