At moments when principles of fairness and inclusivity come into conflict with purity of vision, decisions need to be made. It becomes obvious that we can strive for the highest ideals, but perfection is only a word that describes something elusive.
Years ago, I was involved in a conversation with some colleagues who happen to be actors. We reflected about issues pertaining to the classical drama canon, especially the plays of Shakespeare.
We were all of African descent. At that point in time, some of us were doing some exploratory work inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello. One person involved in the discussion was more experienced than the rest of us. He was concerned about the possibility that we were going to lampoon or cast aspersions on the play’s title role. From his point of view, it is the only lead character that Shakespeare created with a black person in mind, so it should be treated with care.
Conditions have changed considerably for actors of African descent, when one looks at the struggles of The African Company – a group of black thespians based in 19th Century New York, who nurtured the likes of Ira Aldridge. Can the same be said for black classical singers or ballet dancers?
In a recent forum discussion on Facebook, some singers of diverse heritages expressed frustration with the stipulation made by a renowned American composer that his best known music drama should only be staged featuring singers of colour. The composer was within his rights in setting the rule, obviously. If anyone chooses to expand options and opportunities for black singers and dancers in the times we live in, there are many uncomfortable discussions yet to be had.