A recent flap in British theatrical circles flew in on the wings of an American import called Falsettos. The play, according to the Guardian, “follows a dysfunctional Jewish family as they come to terms with the Aids crisis.”(1) The problem, according to protestors in an open letter, is that the producers demonstrated
a startling lack of cultural sensitivity and at worst, overt appropriation and erasure of a culture and religion increasingly facing a crisis.
To the best of our knowledge, no one in the cast of the UK premiere is Jewish, and neither is the director or anyone on the team.
The letter, the Guardian reports, “used the term ‘Jewface’ to describe the casting of non-Jewish actors to play Jewish roles."
Now, Maureen Lipman, one of the most prominent of signatories of the protest letter, is an actress I respect. But I have to feel that the power of Ms. Lipman’s protest is somewhat vitiated by the fact that over her distinguished career she has played Enid Blyton, a character called Reverend Alicia, other characters with the surnames Shortstop, Higgins, Lucas, Dormer, Spencer, Richardson, Liddell, Whittle, Firebrace, Haddon, MacBride, McShane, and Riley—as well as the Princess of France. I would venture to suggest that one or two of those characters were shiksas.
Indeed, Jewish thespians have prospered by playing goyim. And the world hasn’t seen a protest by, say, Italians at the host of Jews appropriating their roles. A few:
James Caan—Sonny Corleone
Kirk Douglas—Frank Ginetta
Tony Curtis—Sam Giancana
Leonard Marx—Chico Marx
and Edward G. Robinson, who almost cornered the market (Rico, Joe Ventura, “Big Jim” Riva, Mario Manetta, Vincent Canelli, Gino Monetti, Johnny Rocco, Little John Sarto, Remy Marco, Nick Donati and Tony Garotta).(2)
And no Vulcans, to my knowledge, have complained about Leonard Nimoy’s Spock.
It should be noted that the Jews have come late to the cultural appropriations party. There have been protests by Black, Chinese, Latin, Native American, disabled, gay, and other actors about persons of the “wrong” backgrounds playing minority characters. And just to show that there is nothing new under the sun, consider that in 1983 Egyptians went nuts when Louis Gossett, Jr., a Black American actor, played Anwar Sadat in a TV mini-series.
If I may be allowed my penchant for reductio ad absurdum, I would like to ask, when it comes to pass that characters must be played by actors who are the same stuff as the characters—who will play Hamlet’s Father?
(2) Offset slightly by Italian actors playing Jews. Such as,
Tom Conti—Adam Morris (in “The Glittering Prizes”)
Robert DeNiro—Sam Rothstein (in “Casino”)Anne Bancroft—Golda Meir.