Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts vs. Abigail Breslin

Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin, is set to play Helen Keller on Broadway. Not everyone's a happy camper.

Sharon Jensen, exec director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, has this to say: “We do not think it’s O.K. for reputable producers to cast this lead role without seriously considering an actress from our community. I understand how difficult it is to capitalize a new production on Broadway, but that to me is not the issue. There are other, larger human and artistic issues at stake here.”

The media is overhyping this statement, suggesting that Deaf and Blind advocacy groups are upset by this casting choice. Really, Sharon Jensen just needs a Xanax. If casting a hearing and seeing child actor in a play is the biggest human issue happening amongst people with disabilities, we're living in a pretty rad world.

People can be so sensitive about casting. I remember when Zhang Ziyi (world-famous Chinese starlet) was cast in "Memoirs of a Geisha" and there was a huge uproar over her casting. China banned the film, calling Ziyi "an embarassment to China" for playing a Japanese Geisha girl. Do people not understand the definition of "acting"? Should Ted Bundy be cast in any role involving a serial killer? Should royalty be cast in Disney productions? Do gays have to play gay roles? Who cares. The whole point of acting is to find a kernel of truth in playing a character other than yourself. Transformation. Somehow, that got lost in the mix.

I remember playing Helen Keller on stage. It was one of my favorite performance memories, and the role and courage of Helen Keller inspired me to tempt to learn American Sign Language, with which I thought about being an ASL interpreter. The role had a strong impact on my life, you don't have to be blind or deaf to be inspired by this brave woman's journey.

I agree that it's unfortunate that certain minorities and the disabled community don't get more work in Hollywood or on Broadway. This has been an issue from the beginning affecting countless groups of people. It is not an inclusive industry and stereotypical depictions abound. Aside from the amazing Marlee Matlin, few of us can name a slew of deaf or blind actors.

While I encourage all minorities and peoples of every background and walk of life to share their experience with the world and pursue their dreams, I highly doubt a statement like this made after-the-fact makes much difference. I am reminded of Marlon Brando's then-wife Sacheen Littlefeather (an Apache Indian and president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Comittee) accepting rejecting his Oscar for "The Godfather" at the Academy Awards as a statement of opposition to Hollywood's exclusionary casting of Native American actors. She was promptly booed off the stage, and decades later I can't recall many Native Americans in film since. This doesn't mean minorities and actors with disabilities should cease the fight for recognition and casting. Change never occurs without opportunities for raising awareness and demanding your voice be heard. Hollywood may be a fast town, but it's slow in fundamental areas.

While I respect the idealism displayed here, I disagree with the idea that deaf or blind actors should be cast in the role of Helen Keller as much as I see no point in any actor being boxed in for any reason. There is much we can all learn from this character, regardless of whose eyes she is shown to us through. I also disagree on this level of attention being brought to a matter that pales in comparison to the inequalities in the educational system for the deaf and blind or the numerous health and social issues regarding minorities and disabled individuals face on a daily basis. Let's get the focus back on the real "larger human issues" at stake, not the sideshow diversions.


John said...

Hear, hear! (So to speak)

Anonymous said...

I remember the uproar when the non-Cuban Al Pacino played a Cuban in "Scarface." But isn't that one of his best, most iconic roles?

And why the uproar over Brasline, when Patty Duke was a far moe tastelss choice?

The one I object to is when they shrank normal-sized actors to play dwarves and hobbits in "The Lord of the Rings." Why not hire dwarves? Certainly they would have looked better.