The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: How Important is Ethnicity in Casting?

When a role that is specifically written for a queer Latinx performer, is it unethical to cast someone else, even if they could be just as convincing to take that role?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at InterfaithUnderstanding.org.

Submitted to an Ethics and Religion Talk Panelist:

“Recently comedian Sarah Silverman stated that Jewish actors should be cast for Jewish roles. People of underrepresented subject positions, such as queer performers, or performers of color, are frequently denied opportunities to play 'universal roles' because of that identity. So, when a role that is specifically written for a queer Latinx performer, is it unethical to cast someone else, even if they could be just as convincing to take that role?”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“I come from a religious tradition that teaches all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. All human beings deserve a level of respect that reflects the divine. Focusing on the religious practice, gender, skin, hair or eye color, sexual orientation, or ethnicity may reduce that human being to a stereotype. The question appears to reduce individuals from subjects to objects by not focusing on the spiritual.

“I believe God created the human community to support the vocation of humanity, which ‘is to show forth the image of God and be transformed into the image of the Father’s only Son’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 459). Because the common good ‘concerns the life of all’ (ibid., p. 465) and because ‘human interdependence is increasing and gradually spreading throughout the world, embracing people who enjoy equal dignity implies a universal common good’ (ibid., 466). Therefore, ‘the common good [must] always be oriented to the progress of persons’ (ibid.).

“Common sense tells us we do not cast a man to play a woman’s role. Why should this be different for Jewish actors and actresses or other genders and ethnicities? The focus is on the dignity of the human person, not on any subjective attributes.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Some Reformed Christians hold that all acting is bearing false witness, a violation of the ninth commandment in God’s law (‘Thou shalt not bear false witness,’ Exodus 20:16). Presbyterians only denounce ‘lascivious stage plays’ as a violation of the seventh commandment (‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ Ex. 20:14; see Larger Catechism, Q. 139). There is no mention of stage plays in the New Testament, possibly because in those days they were connected with festivals of the pagan gods. In more recent times, many Christians go to the theater, and many Christian actors appear on stage.

“A good actor can play almost any role; but in the past, casting decisions were driven by the perceived biases and expectations of the audience. Lead roles were reserved for actors who belonged to the white Gentile majority. At one time Jewish actors had to assume Gentile stage names because, so it was said, ‘Who wants to see Jews on stage?’ Black actors had to be content to appear as maids and chauffeurs, or field hands. Much has changed in recent decades, but the ‘profit motive’ still has undue sway, not to mention persistent racial and other forms of prejudice.

“Members of minority groups long to see authentic representations of themselves on stage or screen. As a Christian and a minister, I would like to see more positive representations of my faith and my profession; they are few and far between. (Thank you, Father Mulcahy!)  But if only Jews may play Jewish parts, should they be excluded from Gentile roles? Should Jewish playwrights be allowed to write only Jewish-themed plays? American theater would be much the poorer were such strictures imposed. Why not judge each actor’s performance on its merits?”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“I think of actor Daniel Day-Lewis’ Academy Awards winning portrayal of Christy Brown in the movie My Left Foot. Brown was a person born with cerebral palsy. Day-Lewis delivered a stellar performance. But I believe casting an actor who really lives with cerebral palsy would have done so much more for the film and for people with disabilities. Seeing an authentic representation of oneself in roles helps under-represented people feel included in our larger society. I think ethically it would be best practice to consider actors who most authentically represent the character first before considering ‘mainstream’ actors. Society as a whole would benefit greatly from seeing more diversity in leading roles.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“I believe I am the only professional SAG dues paying member on this panel, so I can speak from experience. About 20 years ago I won a national award for an audiobook I narrated. It was a memoir written by a Taiwan born Chinese-American who spoke with a rather thick accent. My phrasing was very delicate, not sounding like a caricature, but offered a slightly stilted delivery which hinted that English might not be my first language. It was well received by the author. Recently, I was told by the woman who directed me in that project that if she were casting for that same book today I would not be eligible due to my ethnic background. And I completely get this line of thinking. Asians have been quite underrepresented in various forms of media. And there are plenty of roles I can play.

“That said, I would not want to see a time when we have to submit DNA tests along with our headshots to vie for a role. As far as playing Jews, I will say that Italians (my people) and Jews have been portraying one another for a long time. I don’t know any Italian who would ever have thought to see anyone besides James Caan, who was mistaken for being Italian, but is Jewish, on screen as Sonny Corleone.

“I am so glad that Jewish Theatre Grand Rapids has no such policy that would require Jews to play Jews. I’ve always enjoyed my time on their stage.”

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

I appreciate the conversation. Perhaps because I am a cis-gender, white, female who is part of the dominant religion in my community, I would not characterize casting someone of a different gender, orientation, ethnic group, or religion than the role they are playing as unethical. An actress is expected to take on a role, which requires research, in order to capture the essence and physicality of the person they are playing. When I go to the theater or watch television I want to see a convincing performance.  

A weightier ethical question for me is why a gay or Jewish or Latinx performer is not cast is  universal role because of their gender, religion or ethnic background.

 
This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to ethicsandreligiontal[email protected].

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