Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Family Problems are Universal

Thoughts on Curious Frog's Production of Rope of Sands by Toni Seger


As an actor, auditioning can feel like a full-time job. Soon after I wake up in the morning, I read all the casting notices in my email inbox. Once that's done, I make some phone calls, search jobs at the Actors' Equity building, and then of course, prepare for auditions.

Most of the time, I see roles that are specifically marked for white actors, while other times the following message is placed as a footnote: “Performers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds are encouraged to attend.”Such a notice would give an actor reason to believe that the casting director is interested in assembling a diverse cast. I, along with other performers of color, respond accordingly and audition for these parts.

Months pass, however, and when these roles are finally cast, they usually go to Caucasian performers despite the call for actors of all colors. I respect the vision of the people who made these decisions – the playwright, director, producer, casting director and others – and no one should be forced to cast a show in any way other than how they see fit.

On the other hand, I applaud the theatre companies that take risks in casting. I believe the rewards for these risks include the advancement of art in showing the universality in human problems and experiences.Additionally, non-traditional casting enables underrepresented performers to show the range of their talents in works from William Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams and beyond.

I am thankful to Curious Frog Theatre Company for the opportunity I had these past couple of months to perform in the play Rope of Sands by Toni Seger. Director, Renee Rodriguez had a vision to cast this upper-class family as interracial even though the play had been performed previously with Caucasian actors.Ms. Seger enthusiastically agreed and was so supportive of the production.

My character Peter is the kind of role I have wanted to play for a while – a young professional, educated, sophisticated, but with deeper layers of alcoholism, family strife and an out-of-this-world ego.

While I take pride in the roles I've played previously (which include parts in everything from comedies to slave dramas), the diverse casting of Rope of Sands is very contemporary and necessary in this age of Obama.There are affluent African American and multiracial families dealing with the same troubles as successful white families and while this play never explicitly says that, it more importantly shows it.

The lack of mention of race brings to mind the film, Things We Lost in the Fire, which stars Benicio Del Toro and Halle Berry as husband and wife. In that film, the ethnicity of the family is never brought up. Similarly, my biracial character in Rope of Sands never says, “Hey Dad, you're black,” or “Hey cousin, you're white,” but what this play does highlight is that this family's troubles are relatable to families of all ethnic backgrounds.

I thoroughly enjoyed bringing Seger's work to life under the direction of Rodriguez as well as working with my fellow cast (Barry Phillips and Angela Sharp) and the talented crew.

I hope more theatre companies will follow the “leaps” Curious Frog has made in its mission of non-traditional casting. I believe that is the way forward.

-DeSean Stokes

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Forsake thy cage, thy rope of sands..."


Thoughts on Curious Frog's production of Rope of Sands

by Toni Seger

At the time I wrote this play, I never would have imagined it being produced with a mixed race cast, but it works beautifully and adds layers for the audience to ponder. The bias I wrote about was financial. Meredith makes less money than her uncle and cousin and all of their communications with her are colored (small pun intended), by that bias. Adding the element of race, however, compounds the questions it raises. The fact that race is never mentioned in the script also works well. There’s no reason why it would, in this case, when the focus is the effect of a family suicide that is not race based.

As I got to know Renee Rodriquez, I wondered if she might want to approach the claustrophobic suburban world in which Rope of Sands exists with a mixed race cast, but I assumed Meredith would be the character with dark skin. Renee turned the tables on me by making Meredith white, with all the ironies that choice brings, and the beauty of the casting illustrates that an unconscious bias can appear in any form.

I’ve created a lot of characters, but Meredith is one that’s always stayed with me. When I write, I become the conduit for the passions of my characters and I let them speak for themselves (which makes alcohol helpful because it loosens their tongues and they start saying things they’d normally sit on). I created Meredith for all the folks who wish they’d said the thing they didn’t dare say, at the last family gathering they didn’t want to attend…

Frustration is a good dramatic driver for me and frustration is the underlying emotion that drives Rope of Sands. It’s the frustration of people who desperately want and need to connect with each other, but keep failing at it without realizing the role they play in sabotaging things.

I’m thrilled that the feedback has been so enthusiastic and I’m very proud of this production. I’m also very moved at the seriousness and commitment with which everyone involved approached it. A playwright could not hope for more than to have their work treated with respect by the talented people tasked with interpreting it.