It is sad to record that the main controversy provoked by this summer’s West End mega-hit, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was the casting of a black actress to play the part of Hermione Granger. Despite her Olivier award-winning credentials, some fans objected to the casting of Noma Dumezweni, saying that the original character’s identity was being altered — and not in a good way. Typically, twitter and social media provided a forum not only for fans who are passionately protective of the identity of character they, and many millions of readers of the original books, have grown up with, but also for out-and-out racists whose comments can easily be imagined, and don’t need to be repeated.
The good news is that JK Rowling, author of the original Harry Potter book series and a collaborator on the story of the two-part play version, was quick to condemn the worst of the racists. In an article printed in the Guardian newspaper, she denounced them as “idiots” and said, “I had a bunch of racists telling me that because Hermione ‘turned white’ — that is, lost colour from her face after a shock — that she must be a white woman, which I have a great deal of difficulty with. But I decided not to get too agitated about it and simply state quite firmly that Hermione can be a black woman with my absolute blessing and enthusiasm.” She also summed up the matter neatly by saying, “But what can you say? That’s the way the world is. Noma was chosen because she was the best actress for the job.”
Earlier this year, the same point of view must have been behind the casting of 25-year-old Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), and now of Lucian Msamati as Salieri in the upcoming revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus at the National Theatre in October. While it is a bit dispiriting that it has taken the RSC so long, more than half a century, to cast a black Prince of Denmark, other European theatres have had a better record. For example, Adrian Lester played Hamlet for Peter Brook at the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris in 2000, and then triumphantly took the role of Henry V in London for Nicholas Hytner — making him the first black man to play the medieval English king at the National Theatre. Lester has not only had a distinguished career as a television actor, as well as being an advocate for more diversity in casting across the board, but he has also excelled as a classical actor. In 2013, he played Shakespeare’s Othello at the National, having previously played black American actor Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet, a play written by his wife, actress Lolita Chakrabarti.
And what role did Aldridge take on in 1833 when the legendary Edmund Kean collapsed on the Covent Garden stage? Othello of course. And he had to give this up after a handful of performances because of the racism of newspaper reviewers. So this problem has a long heritage. As critic Mark Shenton notes in The Stage newspaper, “True diversity in casting will only be achieved when we simply stop noticing the race of the actor.” And he concludes that British theatre might learn some lessons from Broadway: “On Broadway, Hamilton uses a fully integrated cast to tell the story of America’s all-white founding fathers. This is the story of the nation’s birth, and it is owned by all its citizens. That’s leading us to a place of not seeing the colour of the actor, just embracing the ideas and soaring music of its telling. And that’s the new utopia we should all be striving towards.”
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.