Joseph Fiennes As Michael Jackson, Pinter People Ban Critics, And Forest Whitaker’s Broadway Debut: Roth & Gerard

By Jeremy Gerard, Jordan Roth

EXCLUSIVE: Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard and Jujamcyn Theatres majority owner and president Jordan Roth talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.

ROTH: So Joseph Fiennes is playing Michael Jackson. While the Internet was justifiably pouncing on the news, I recalled a piece that Katori Hall had written. I just saw Katori on Monday night at the extraordinary benefit performance for the Arthur Miller Foundation. Katori, Ayad Akhtar and other prominent playwrights read from Miller’s letters and autobiography, passages introducing some of his most masterful scenes, including Laurence Fishburne and LaTanya Richardson Jackson as Willy and Linda Loman.

Laurence Fishburne_edited-1You can already hear the smug arguments being rattled off in 140 characters: If Laurence Fishburne can play Willy Loman, why can’t Joseph Fiennes play Michael Jackson? And what about Hamilton?

Hall recently found herself in the middle of another casting controversy when a college production of her play The Mountaintop cast a white actor as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. without her permission. “The casting of a white King is committing yet another erasure of the black body,” Hall wrote. “Sure, it might be in the world of pretend, but it is disrespectful nonetheless, especially to a community that has rare moments of witnessing itself, both creatively and literally, in the world.”

The spirit and intent of color-blind casting has been so distorted as to be rendered almost useless. Instead, the idea of color-conscious casting is emerging. TCG’s Teresa Eyring recently explained. “Color-conscious casting intentionally considers the race and ethnicity of actors and the characters they play in order to oppose racism, honor and respect cultures, foster stronger productions, and contribute to a more equitable world. Without it, we risk perpetuating a system that privileges whiteness with greater access and opportunity, and appropriates the cultures of communities of color.” Michael Jackson famously sang “It don’t matter if you’re black or white.” But sometimes it does. And should.

GERARD: Well hold on — it turns out that production of The Mountaintop was a college student production in which the role of Dr. King was double-cast for a very brief run. Especially in light of the whirling diversity debate today, I can see the argument for such an experiment in this setting. Still, the argument for parallelism – if we cast actors of color in traditionally white roles, we must cast white actors in roles played by blacks – is a false one. Forest WhitakerIt’s come up here at Deadline as well, where our stories about diversity in Hollywood routinely draw responses about why there aren’t similar complaints about diversity in, say, pro sports. This spring season, a very exciting one for New York theater, I see exactly one instance of non-traditional casting on Broadway, and that’s the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, a one-act whose main role has been played by Jason Robards Jr., Ben Gazzara and Al Pacino. The new Michael Grandage production will star Forest Whitaker, making his Broadway debut. I look forward to this, and, as with James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in the recent revival of D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, I suspect the directors’ and actors’ take on the tone of these plays will matter far more than the tone of their skin.

And some day we may see our way toward an all-white, or even mixed cast production of A Raisin In The Sun or Porgy And Bess, but not any time soon, because it would be impossible to do them without reducing the characters to caricatures. However one of the most electrifying and mind-altering shows of the season was Barbecue, at the Public, in which first white and then black actors played a scene about a family intervention at the barbecue of the title. I can’t remember another show that took everything we thought we know about type-casting, threw it all in a blender and poured out such unsettling results.

Next subject: The New York State Attorney General’s office released a new study declaring – surprise! – widespread problems in the computerized ticket-selling industry “that prevent consumers from accessing tickets to popular events at a fair price.” How will Broadway producers respond to this shocking, shocking news?

ROTH: I’m still reading through the report, and though it’s focused primarily on concerts and sports which are different marketplaces from Broadway, I can already say that several of the recommendations are welcome help that would benefit theatergoers and that only the government can offer. Repealing the ban on transferable paperless tickets, enforcing laws against bots and restricting speculative ticket listings are all steps that will help our fans get tickets at face value.

Next topic: I’m interested in your critical opinion of the Pinter estate banning critics from the Wooster Group’s LA production of The Room. As I understand it, the estate has said that the company did not properly secure the rights to present the production, and rather than shutting it down entirely, it is requiring the company to bar reviewers from attending. Of course, while the estate can prevent the company from inviting and comping critics, it cannot prevent critics from buying their own tickets and printing reviews. Would you review it?

Tom Stoppard, Vaclav Havel, Harold PinterGERARD: Harold Pinter approved the expression “comedy of menace” to describe his work, and that applies here. Without getting into the we said/they said of the licensing dispute between the Wooster Group and the Pinter estate and its representative Samuel French Inc., I would say this assault on free expression — not theirs, mind you, but mine — is disturbing and dangerous. It’s bad enough when any hot tempered producer tries to “ban” a critic from a show — remember what happened when Joe Papp tried to keep Clive Barnes out of the Public? Such steps invariably backfire, and I’m pretty certain Pinter never tried to ban John Simon, his critical nemesis, from one of his shows. But here we have people representing a Nobel laureate in literature thinking it’s within their purview to “ban” reviews! Samuel French executive director says, “As the licensing agent, Samuel French stands by the decisions of the Pinter estate and continues to advocate for authors’ rights to control their property as they see fit.” Reviews are “their” property within their “control”?

So far, the Los Angeles Times has reported on the situation, but has not decided whether chief critic Charles McNulty will review the show, which begins performances on Thursday. That the paper is even discussing not reviewing as an option sends chills down my spine. So in answer to your question, I would do what I always do when a producer tells me I can’t review a show: I buy a ticket.

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