An Identity Politics dilemma

Newspaper advice columns used to be entertaining, but easier to sort out. For instance, I just went hunting for some of Dear Abby’s zingers, and here’s a good one that showed up in a couple of places:

Dear Abby: Are birth control pills deductible?
Dear Bertie: Only if they don’t work.

Ah, for those simpler times! Check out this one from “The Ethicist” in The New York Times, which cropped up this week:

I am involved with a well-regarded community theater that has made significant efforts to diversify its membership, casts and audience. A conflict has arisen over a proposed production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Yes, we know, “Fiddler” has been done to death in community theaters. A different issue.) The director proposing the production has committed himself to colorblind casting. Others involved say that, in view of the Jewish community the play is about, they would consider this to be a cultural appropriation. How should we approach this conflict in values?

Set aside the fact that someone thought this was an “ethical” question, rather than a conflict between — I don’t know what to call it — two currently fashionable cultural phenomena. But this person so troubled as to feel the need to apologize for putting on a play from benighted times of long ago.

The Ethicist made quick work of the cultural appropriation issue: “Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the Jewish American duo behind ‘Fiddler,’ certainly weren’t hung up on anything like cultural appropriation; early on, they were in touch with Frank Sinatra for the part of Tevye…”

Alfred Molina as Tevye.

Yeah. I like the idea of having an all-Jewish cast (and I’m glad Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t get the part), but it’s certainly not necessary. I saw it on Broadway in 2005 with Alfred Molina as Tevye. It was awesome. It was the best show I’ve ever seen on Broadway. Of course, it was the only show I’ve ever seen on Broadway, so…

It wasn’t a stretch to believe in Molina as Jewish. He’s Spanish-Italian. But did being Mediterranean make him look more the part? I dunno. Wasn’t Tevye Ashkenazi? Maybe not. It doesn’t matter.

It’s certainly not an ethical issue. It’s an esthetic one. Did Molina work in the role? Did Topol? Yes to both.

Ditto with the recent fashion of casting black actors in “white” roles — does it work? Are they compelling as the characters they portray, or do you perceive a distinct lack of, I don’t know, verisimilitude?

For instance, here’s an example that I think worked. (And of course, all I can tell you is what “I think,” since whether a particular bit of casting in a film or a brushstroke on a canvas “worked” is a complex subjective impression.) In 2016, Sophie Okenedo played the part of Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, in the second season of The Hollow Crown, an excellent presentation of Shakespeare’s plays covering the Wars of the Roses, all strung together chronologically.

Sophie Okonedo as Margaret of Anjou

Did she “look like” Margaret, to use that fave phrase of Identity Politics? Or like we would expect Margaret to look? Well, no. She’s the child of a Nigerian father and a Jewish mother. And I suppose my eyebrow rose, as it might if a tall, healthy Richard III appeared (speaking of which, Benedict Cumberbatch was an interesting choice in that role, in the same series).

But then I watched, and she brought the character to life vividly. Which is what matters, you see. She was great.

Creators of art might also be trying to say something larger through casting. My initial reaction to the multiracial cast of “Hamilton” went beyond eyebrow-raising. I was like, Are they messing recklessly with one of my favorite periods in history? (You understand, I’m also suspicious when, say, “Hamlet” is staged in modern clothing. And I really hated the Leonardo DiCaprio version of “Romeo and Juliet.”)

But it didn’t take me long to realize that I loved the idea. It was, in fact, a rebuttal to some of the sillier aspects of Identity Politics. Who could now dismiss the achievements of the Founders as the irrelevant doings of a bunch of “dead white men?” This magnificent musical told even the most skin-conscious observer that these were people who did something pretty wonderful for all of us, and the amount of melanin they exhibited didn’t matter.

At the moment, there’s a lot of hullabaloo over Cleopatra being portrayed by a black actress in a show on Netflix. The Egyptians are calling it “a falsification of Egyptian history,” and I suppose they’re right, on the melanin front. She was of Macedonian heritage, being of the Ptolemaic dynasty. In her case, she might have also had some Persian DNA, but that seems neither here nor there to the controversy.

Of course, rather than the case being considered on its own merits, it’s become another obsession in the never-ending shouting match between the ones and zeroes people. To give you an idea, Vogue has proclaimed, “Let’s Just Call the Outrage Around Queen Cleopatra What It Is: Racism.”

And, you know, here we go again, with both sides of the IP obsession going at each other hammer and tongs.

As for “its own merits,” such as they are, I see a couple of things going on. One, you have someone thinking it would be cool to dramatize the widely held, but rather dubious, notion that Cleo was a sub-Saharan. Personally, I’d rather see some random historical queen played by a black actress (say, Margaret of Anjou) than reinforce erroneous notions about history, but that’s me. The difference is, my way says race doesn’t matter; the other way seems to argue that it matters quite a bit. And misleads people doing it.

The second thing is that someone is trying to ride the cultural wave that has given us “Sanditon,” “Bridgerton,” and “Queen Charlotte.” That seems popular at the moment, so why not? Next year it will be something else. I once wore wide, white belts on houndstooth pants with loud-colored shirts. Briefly. Then, the Carnaby Street thing passed.

The thing is, there is no great overriding moral issue here. Slavery is a moral issue, one of great consequence. So were Jim Crow laws. The complexion of Cleopatra, not so much.

But some people are terribly worried, and fortunately we have The Ethicist to sort it out.

At this point I would go into the strange contradiction of the same group of folks both a) worried about having a “diverse” cast and b) afraid of committing the sin of “appropriation.” And someone sitting between them feeling conflicted. But so go our modern modes of “thinking.”

I’ll just stop there. If I ever watch the new “Cleopatra,” I’ll report back on whether it worked. But I warn you, I don’t think I ever got all the way through the Elizabeth Taylor version…

What? Are you saying Cleopatra had purple eyes?!?!

14 thoughts on “An Identity Politics dilemma

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, yes, but these Identity Politics folk mean well — or, at least, many of them do (others go marching in Charlottesville). We may mock the silly worries of the people in the theater group, but I think they mostly mean well…

      1. Bill

        There’s no ‘silly worry’..;you wouldn’t Be worried…Worry is real and gets bad even for theatre group people..

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Hey, I’m been involved in theater groups. I did several plays decades ago, and then did a thing with the Shakespeare group more recently.

          But the main thing I worried about was remembering my lines. That’s hard enough. And I find it gets harder as you get older. I found learning my three or four lines in “Pride and Prejudice” as hard as doing leading roles 30 years earlier.

          If I’d had to worry about politics, too, that would have been too much…

          1. Doug Ross

            And yet Joe Biden, who is 15 years older than you, has no cognitive issues that could possibly affect his abilities in the next 5 years.

            I guess we can say he’s in better shape mentally than Dianne Feinstein or John Fetterman so that’s apparently the low hurdle he has to get over.

            I would bet a small fortune that Joe couldn’t name the members of his cabinet.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Uh-oh! Maybe we’ll be in trouble if it becomes essential for POTUS to perform King Lear on a live stage.

              You’ve got me all worried now, Doug!…

              1. Doug Ross

                I’d settle for him passing the standard test for dementia live on tv. Think he could pass it?

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Yep, and I’d resist with all my might his engaging in such a demeaning stunt. The dignity of the presidency has been degraded enough in recent years.

                  I’d also ask him not to play saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s show, if that show were still around…

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