Sidney Poitier receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, August 12, 2009

This is the final post on Studs’ 1968 conversation with James Earl Jones on his role as Othello at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.  This post takes a look at the racial prejudices that exist in casting film and stage roles, and includes excerpts of Studs’ conversations with Sidney Poitier and Peter Sellars.

Studs opens this clip by asking about prejudice in Elizabethan times.

James replies that there was prejudice against Jewish people and Black people in England at that time.  Studs had a related conversation nearly thirty years later with stage director Peter Sellars.  Here is Sellars talking about his production of The Merchant of Venice in the wake of the LAPD trial and the LA Riots.

Shortly afterward, Studs remarks to James, “The very interesting theme always comes up, open casting…

You said earlier that playing Othello calls for maturity almost as much as Lear does.  Does the idea of playing Lear, someday, not now, but someday occur to you?”

Studs asked Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier essentially the same question in 1959, when Mr. Poitier was on the program talking about his film The Defiant Ones.  Mr. Poitier replied, “I play Negro parts because this is the period in history when I must play Negro parts.  I think that in five, six, seven, eight, ten, twenty years, there will come a time when there will be more stress on merit and on creative ability than is paid now.  Now we give credence to casting according to type… I see no reason why an American Indian cannot play Shakespeare if he happens to be a tremendous Shakespearean actor, you follow?”

James also responded to Studs in the affirmative.  They go on to talk about Ira Aldridge (as Sidney Poitier did) and Diana Sands, and then James makes the assertion that “after the first fifteen minutes or so, you’re involved in the heart of the play as the playwright wrote it”: how the actors look doesn’t even matter to the audience.

Have we seen that change that Mr. Poitier predicted?

Not exactly, but here in Chicago, we’re seeing the second production in three years of Red Velvet, Lolita Chakrabarti’s play about Ira Aldridge.  Tarana Burke shook the nation when her Me Too campaign took off this year, joining the voices of celebrities and everyday people into a single chorus insisting on change.  Clearly the conversation about “Negro parts” is not over yet, but it has been incorporated into a broader conversation about Black voices and Black lives.

Hear the entire interview with James Earl Jones here.

Visit our post featuring more of the 1959 interview with Sidney Poitier here.

Visit our post featuring more the 1994 interview with Peter Sellars here.

Photo credit: The White House (White House video (around 29:10)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sidney_Poitier_PMF.jpg