On a recent visit to the Liceu opera house in Barcelona, Canadian playwright Tomson Highway was shocked, just shocked, by an insensitive production of Verdi's Macbeth he saw there. "A room full of Catalans and Spaniards running around in kilts singing in Italian telling a Scottish story. Is that politically incorrect or what?" Highway says. "Why doesn't that opera house send for all its actors and singers from Scotland?"
Highway's tongue – as the outspoken Cree writer's mouth muscle so often is – is planted firmly in his cheek. He has long considered "political correctness" in theatre casting a "pain in the butt" that has hampered his career as a playwright whose work has, in the main, focused on aboriginal characters.
In short, Highway's complaint, which he first voiced in an essay in Prairie Fire magazine a decade ago and has repeated many times since, is that his large-cast plays, such as The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, do not get professional productions as often as they would (or at all) because of a timid reluctance to cast non-aboriginal actors in the roles – and a difficulty (sometimes perceived, sometimes real) in casting all the roles with aboriginal actors.
This is why director Ken Gass's revival of The Rez Sisters at Factory Theatre, the first major one in Toronto since Native Earth Performing Arts premiered it in 1986, has Highway "absolutely thrilled."
In applying culturally diverse casting to a culturally specific play, Gass's production, opening on Thursday, is a significant event in Canadian theatre, which still regularly grapples with questions about art, fairness and multiculturalism. The issue affects all Canadian playwrights who write plays about characters who do not identify as white. You can write them, but will they get put on? More than once?
In Gass's production of Highway's brilliant play about an unforgettable group of bingo-mad women from the Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve, about half the cast members are aboriginal while the rest are actors from other backgrounds – black, Asian, white.
"We simply had an open casting call," the director says.
Of course, the full story is not simple at all. The acceptance of what is inadequately named "colour-blind" or "non-traditional" casting varies wildly from theatre to theatre (and audience to audience) across Canada.
At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, it is now entirely unremarkable to find a white Macbeth plotting his rise to the throne with a black Lady Macbeth, but the issue is different at theatres where contemporary (and naturalistic) fare predominates. You're still unlikely to find a multicultural production of one of David French's plays about the Mercer clan of Newfoundland, and even less so a colour-blind production of, say, the African-American classic A Raisin in the Sun.
At Factory Theatre, Gass has been experimenting with casting that better represents his city in one way or another since he resumed the role of artistic director of the Toronto company in 1996. And he has first-hand experience with how sensitivities can complicate matters – disagreements over skin colour and casting in Carmen Aguirre's The Refugee Hotel in 2004 led the Chilean-Canadian playwright to pull her play from company's season.
The revival of The Rez Sisters stems in part from research Gass has done since on "the semiotics of culturally diverse casting" in conjunction with the University of Toronto. With the help of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant, he investigated what occurs when you perform plays set in a particular racial or cultural context with actors from a variety of backgrounds.
As part of that project, he staged two readings of The Rez Sisters, one with an entirely native cast and another with a mixed cast.
During his explorations and discussion with participants, Gass seems to have come to the conclusion that what Highway calls "political correctness" is a bit of a red herring. The question of actors playing characters of races other than their own is less about cultural appropriation than about employment opportunity. "Actors that have been placed in a culturally diverse context… simply want a fair share of the full repertoire," he says.
And if no one is up in arms about Gass's production of The Rez Sisters not being entirely cast with aboriginal actors, it's partly because opportunities for native actors – and actors of different backgrounds – have increased since the 1980s.
In addition to the emergence of culturally specific theatre companies across the country, Gass points to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's increased adoption of "non-traditional casting" in recent years and National Arts Centre artistic director Peter Hinton's steadfast commitment to aboriginal theatre artists. (Indeed, Hinton will be directing the country's first all-aboriginal King Lear this season.)
With rehearsals for The Rez Sisters almost done, the exact racial composition of the cast has faded into the background for Gass. "What I find is, having gone through all these workshop and lab explorations, … when we finally get to the play, it's just artists working on the play and bringing whatever they bring," he says. "It's just artists working together."
The Rez Sisters runs at Toronto's Factory Theatre until Dec. 11.