I remember watching August: Osage County. It's a show I can't let go.
It has the distinction of being the only show I’ve paid to see twice. I saw it first with Deanna Dunagan, who was fantastic, and then again with Phylicia Rashad, who was also fantastic. Getting to see two powerhouses tackle a powerhouse of a role with their own unique flares and talents was a clinic in the creative process. However, I remember going into Ms. Rashad’s performance asking myself a well-worn question: How are they going to deal with her race? Are they going to deal with it at all?
From the outside it was a non-issue - it read as any color-blind casting does, in that it didn’t read at all. I can’t speak to Ms. Rashad’s motivation, but there was no outward indicator that she wasn’t playing the White matriarch to a White Oklahoman family. Afterward though, I asked myself, what if race wasn’t a non-issue? How would the show be different if this Black actress was playing a Black woman?
Imagine a young Violet Weston - a Black woman in rural Oklahoma, in the early to mid-1960s. She’s married to Beverly Weston, a White poet, who has recently published a very popular book. Her upbringing has been difficult, as has his, but they are making their life work together. They have three daughters, all fair-skinned and fair-haired. Violet is lonely - Beverly’s teaching at the University or traveling to promote his book. She has few friends, partially due to her naturally acerbic personality, but also due to the--mostly unspoken--racism that permeates her existence. There are stares, not-so-kind words, invitations that don’t come, and some insults that do. Decades pass. Violet self-medicates through pills and bitterness. Beverly drinks. Beverly’s promised greatness never comes. They are both resentful and complacent. They yell. He continues to drink, she continues to abuse pills. Their children leave. Or become enablers. But no one, not even Violet’s far-lighter sister, really understands the burden of being an invisible brown face in the crowd.
When we begin the show, this history creates a context for Violet’s anger and drug-abuse. This provides an alternative truth for a powerful work simply by allowing the identity of the performer to inform the character. Color-blind direction creates some opportunities while obscuring others. I like to ask, what is the story that isn’t being told?