Sept. 08--Growing up in a black neighborhood in St. Louis about 100 years ago, Charlie felt restless. Heading for New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, he gravitated to the hot nightclub scene, where his quick tongue and nimble footwork soon paid off. Top showmen Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle hired him for their jazz revue, "The Chocolate Dandies," an extravaganza that, according to its ads, involved a full symphony orchestra and "the world's greatest dancing chorus." When the Dandies toured Europe, Charlie was in his element -- and when they headed back to the States, he didn't want to leave.
So he didn't. By 1929, Charlie had settled in Berlin, a metropolis with lots of lively nightspots. He became the emcee at one of them -- the Kit Kat Club. Willkommen.
Just one thing: Charlie isn't real.
Actor Nathan Lee Graham made up that whole bio --even the name -- to create a "back story" for the character he'll portray when the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis opens its 2013-14 season this week. Graham plays the Emcee in the landmark Kander & Ebb musical "Cabaret."
Set in a Berlin nightclub as the Nazis are coming to power, the show weaves together the stories of a singer, a writer, their landlady and others -- while the Emcee delivers sly commentary on the whole scene. Graham and director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge say that he's the first black actor to take the role at any major American theater. It is always hard to be certain about theatrical firsts, said Steven Woolf, the Rep's artistic director, "but we haven't found any others."
"I cast the best performer who auditioned," Dodge says. But at the same time, she wasn't unmindful of what Graham would bring to the role: his appearance, his race. "Are we pushing boundaries? Possibly."
It's an approach that some theater artists are taking to address questions of race on stage: with color-conscious, rather than color-blind, casting.
Two Shakespeare productions that opened in New York this summer encapsulate the alternatives. At the New York Shakespeare Festival (long a champion of diverse casting, a place where leading actors of color have included Raul Julia, Anna Deavere Smith and Jesse L. Martin), a new musical version of Shakespeare's "Love's Labour's Lost" starred Patti Murin, a white actor who played Roxy Hart in "Chicago" at the Muny last year, and Daniel Breaker, who is black. In the adaptation, they play modern twentysomethings who fall in love at a college reunion.
On the other hand, the new Broadway production of "Romeo and Juliet" stars Condola Rashad and Orlando Bloom as doomed young lovers whose families, the black Capulets and the white Montagues, don't want them to be together.
In one production, no one gives race a thought; in the other, it's the root of dramatic tension. It gives the audience something new to think about, a fresh way to consider things. Race does matter, if not for the reasons you expect.
Color-conscious casting is what Dodge has in mind for "Cabaret." Including a black major character in a musical set at a time and place in which racism of all sorts is on a virulent rise may add an extra immediacy to the threat that's just offstage.
But it would make no sense to add that element unless it works historically, too. Dodge, who researched the period in detail, is certain that it does. In Europe between the World Wars, black American performers were all the rage.
With her long limbs and sinuous dance style, St. Louisan Josephine Baker still remains the most famous of those artists. Graham gave Charlie a St. Louis hometown partly in homage to her (and partly because he's from St. Louis also, an alumnus of Hazelwood Central High School and Webster University).
But Baker was far from alone. The Chocolate Dandies -- a troupe that really was organized by Blake and Sissle -- triumphed on the continent; so did singer Arabella Smith, bandleader Sidney Bechet and dancer Louis Douglas, a longtime expatriate who made newcomer Baker his partner. To Europeans, they must have seemed like jazz personified, and all the more intriguing because of that. They were so popular that some black entertainers who came from Africa or the Caribbean claimed to be from the United States to boost their appeal.
"Oh, there's no question that there were black Americans in Germany at that time," said Ron Himes, founder of the Black Rep here. "Musicians, military men who stayed after World War I -- it's what (Muny star) Ken Page dealt with in his show last season at Upstream Theatre, 'Cafe Chanson.'
"That was set in Paris, not Berlin, but black artists were more appreciated as artists there than in America. So (a black Emcee) is more than plausible. And I think it definitely adds something."
Dodge thinks so, too. She and Graham expect the effect to be especially dramatic when the Emcee performs "If You Could See Her," an old-fashioned ballad with a viciously anti-Semitic kicker. He performs it with a dancer in a gorilla costume.
"If 'Cabaret' was a four-layer cake, it's a seven-layer cake now," Dodge said, noting that the musical debuted at the height of the civil rights movement, in 1966. "Nathan will make people lean forward."
No doubt there have been community or college productions in which a black actor has played the Emcee -- a role strongly associated with Joel Grey, who starred both on Broadway and in the movie (winning both Tony and Academy Awards for his work). Later, in the acclaimed Donmar Warehouse revival, Scottish actor Alan Cumming gave the role his own twist -- less vaudeville, more sexualized. Grey and Cumming are white.
But Billy Porter, the black actor who won a 2013 Tony for his portrayal of a drag queen in the hit musical "Kinky Boots," told the New York Times that when he wanted to audition for the Emcee in that New York revival, he was told not to bother.
"Billy's situation got a lot of attention," Dodge said. "He's very happy for Nathan -- and maybe just a little jealous." Graham said that at one point he was asked to audition for that show to replace Cumming, but ultimately "they weren't ready to go that way."
It's a situation that, Graham said, is known as "Black in/Black out." In other words, is a black performer auditioning with a real chance of getting a role, or are the producers just going through the motions?
Even in the first case, auditions never come with guarantees. Graham says in a way, it's easier if he loses a role because of something he can't change -- the color of his skin -- than because of his singing or dancing. At the same time, he wants to be able to audition for roles that are race-specific and those that are not, and in each case to be evaluated on the basis of his performance, not solely his appearance.
Asian-American actor Francis Jue understands perfectly. "To my mind, color-blind casting is a myth, because we aren't blind," said Jue, whose many Muny performances have included both racially specific roles (such as the king in "The King and I" and the Engineer in "Miss Saigon") and roles that are not ordinarily associated with actors of his race or even gender (such as the title character in "Peter Pan"). Elsewhere, he's even played the Emcee a few times. But, he notes, "actors of color are not always invited to portray the full range of human experience."
"I am a small Asian man, for instance, so people (at auditions) make assumptions about the kind of person I can play. The same holds true for a large black actor. So to me, nontraditional casting means evaluating our auditions the same way that you would if we were white."
Sometimes, that leads to color-conscious casting, such as dividing the Capulets and Montagues along racial lines. At the extreme, color-conscious casting can lead to castwide changes, such as the reconfiguration of a white family into a black family for last year's production of "The Trip To Bountiful" starring Cicely Tyson. (She won the Tony for her performance.) Similarly, the National Asian American Theatre Company is currently presenting "Awake and Sing!," a drama about a Jewish family in the Bronx. Jue, who saw it and loved it, said that staging the 78-year-old drama with such an unconventional cast "really makes it fresh."
Himes thinks that there's plenty to be gained from continuing color-blind casting on a wide scale because the more that audiences see it, the less attention it draws. "Opera led the way," he pointed out. "Now, it's just a matter of what you're used to."
And sometimes, Dodge notes, conventional notions of race have to prevail. "If you're staging 'Ragtime,'" a musical that explores the New York melting-pot in the early 20th century, "you cannot cast a white actor as Coalhouse Walker," she said. "That show is all about ethnicity. But most shows are not, and I like to seek diversity."
For many decades, that wasn't a position directors took or even an idea. The vast majority of actors were white, and so were most characters. Although most roles still go to white actors -- something that black, Asian and Latino actors know very well -- there are more possibilities, expressed in both color-blind and color-conscious productions.
Dodge thinks that the role of the Emcee is a perfect choice for color-conscious casting because he is "the voice of satire and commentary in the show," an outsider by definition.
The choice does put the Emcee in a dangerous place, but Graham isn't worried. "Charlie's a trickster. He gets out," he said with a smile. "He has to get out to tell this story."
When --Previews at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; opening 8 p.m. Friday and running through Oct. 6
Where --Browning Mainstage Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
How much --$20-$76
More info --314-968-4925; repstl.org
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