September 21, 2011

Pocahontas opera casting criticized

Duluth Pocahontas Casting CriticizedA Duluth opera celebrating American Indian culture is being criticized for its failure to cast Native Americans in principal roles.

The Duluth Festival Opera’s production of “Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds” opens this week. Native American opera soprano Lyz Jaakola, a member of the Fond du Lac band, says there’s no excuse for not casting American Indians.

Duluth Festival Opera director Craig Fields tells the News Tribune the auditions didn’t generate interest from American Indian opera performers. Jaakola says the casting crew didn’t try hard enough or in the right ways to attract Native Americans.

Fields says there are parts of the opera that call for only American Indian involvement and that Fond du Lac singers and drummers are involved with the production.
Duluth Festival Opera Casts 'Pocahontas' Without Native American Leads[W]hen composer Linda Tutas Haugen and librettist Joan Vail Thorne decided to write a Pocahontas opera for Virginia’s 400th anniversary celebration of Jamestown, they made sure to check their sources. According to the Duluth News Tribune, the two "researched Pocahontas, interviewed a Jamestown scholar, met with American Indians and spent time in Jamestown." Haugen said that many audience members, even Native Americans, "saw it and loved it and felt I had very much honored their past."

When the Duluth Festival Opera (DFO) began production, Director Craig Fields decided to hold "blind" auditions, valuing talent over heritage. Fields noted: "My personal feeling is that the work succeeds on its own merits, whether it is performed by a Native American or not." Although the team was open to a more diverse cast, apparently not many Native Americans came out to audition.
Protest planned today before 'Pocahontas' show

By Christa LawlerAmerican Indians who oppose the Duluth Festival Opera’s production of “Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds” will gather in Duluth today for a pipe ceremony and demonstration near Marshall School where the opera opens.

The production has been criticized for not using American Indians in principal roles—including both a younger and older version of the Powhatan Indian girl Pocahontas. The Duluth Festival Opera has included singers and dancers from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who will perform tribal music in the production.

Clyde Bellecourt, the co-founder of the Minneapolis-based activist organization American Indian Movement, said he is coming to town to voice his disapproval at an American Indian story told by non-Natives.

“We have a lot of talent within the Indian community,” he said. “It’s not an Indian people story. It’s (white people’s) story about our story. We don’t appreciate that.”
Amid Protests Over Casting, ‘Pocahontas’ Opera Opens in DuluthLyz Jaakola, an operatic mezzo soprano and member of the Fond du Lac band of Chippewa Indians, came out against the production in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune. “To me, seeing any non-Native Pocahontas … non-native Pocahontas’ mother, any extras in buckskin would be enough for me to cringe,” she said. “Poor Pocahontas has been dragged around enough.”

Duluth Festival Opera director Craig Fields countered that few Indians auditioned for the opera, and that his casting process was “blind”—meaning that he did not ask those trying out whether they were of Native heritage. “My personal feeling is that the work succeeds on its own merits, whether it is performed by a Native American or not,” Fields said. A number of Fond du Lac performers were in the cast, but played secondary roles as singers and dancers.

Jaakola felt that Fields didn’t try hard enough to attract Native talent, and added that “If I were casting an Indian opera and I couldn’t find ‘enough Indians’ to help me, I simply wouldn’t do it. … But that’s my cultural paradigm.” During the very early planning stages, Jaakola had been involved with the production, specifically to find Native talent to perform. However, due to clashes with Fields and a suspicion that the project would never get funding, she left the team.

The opera opened as scheduled on Thurdsay, September 21, and was performed in the auditorium of Marshall School. Outside, Jaakola and members of the American Indian Movement sang songs, played pow-wow music, and carried signs with slogans like “Stole our land—now our culture.”

“The people who know the truth of Pocahontas are Pocahontas’ people, and they are the ones who would tell her story...and they are the ones that should tell her story,” Jaakola told a reporter from WDIO TV on the scene. “There are times when when we are not represented appropriately in the media and moves and songs and it needs to stop. It’s 2011 and this kind of activity can’t continue.” As an alternative to the Pocahontas performance, Jaakola organized a “Native American Music Showcase” at a nearby church.
Comment:  A few points here:

  • Unless the play portrays Pocahontas as a girl of 10-12 and John Smith as a man of 27, it isn't well-researched or historically accurate. If it does take this approach, it must be the first play or movie in history to do so.

  • The play is likely a romanticized version of Pocahontas's story: the meeting of two cultures, the rescue and falling in love, the tragic end. In reality, the rescue probably didn't happen--a point usually ignored in these retellings.

  • Do we really need to retell Pocahontas's story at all? This and the first Thanksgiving are probably the only two "Indian stories" most people know. What else is there to say about Pocahontas that people haven't said already? How about telling some of the many untold stories about Indians instead?

  • I wouldn't count much on Indians' appreciation of the play. From what I've seen, the vast majority of people like everything uncritically. That's what they say when they're asked, anyway.

  • If you ask them to name a bad Native movie, for instance, they'll say "anything with John Wayne." They won't say anything critical about a movie starring Natives even if you press them. There's a huge bias toward being positive and supportive that skews any survey.

    Anyone can play minorities?

  • The "blind" casting claim is a joke. As we've seen many times, it applies only to minority roles. No one ever does blind casting for Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, or Martin Luther King Jr. So why would anyone do it for Pocahontas?

  • A couple of possible answers: 1) The producers were too lazy or arrogant to bother finding a Native actress. 2) The producers think of Pocahontas and other Indians as semi-mythical characters who have entered the realm of fantasy. Cavemen, elves, and pirates don't have to be particular race, they feel, and neither do Indians.

    That's exactly why the producers should cast Indians: because too many people think they're fantasy figures from the distant past. By furthering the status quo, the producers have furthered this misunderstanding. They're "celebrating" Native culture by reinforcing the belief that it no longer exists.

    Someday we may stop paying attention to an actor's race. Then Denzel Washington can play George Washington and Jackie Chan can play Jesus. Until then, apply the same standard to white and minority characters. If Queen Elizabeth, Ben Franklin, Marie Antoinette, and Abe Lincoln have to be white, then Pocahontas has to be Native.

    For more on casting issues, see Acting-Class Experiment Reveals Biases and TV Grows Whiter in 2011-2012.

    Below:  "A scene from 2007 debut run of the opera 'Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds.' That production, staged in Virginia to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, was uncontroversial; such has not been the case with the current one in Duluth, Minnesota."

    I guess the picture shows adult Pocahontas touching hands with child Pocahontas.

    1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    A case study can show what "colorblind casting" means:

    Take Jennifer Lawrence, an obscure actress who garnered national attention for an obscure movie and was nominated for Best Actress.

    Now take Gabourey Sidibe, an obscure actress who garnered national attentioni for an obscure movie and was nominated for Best Actress.

    They're both talented. But the reality is that Jennifer Lawrence is blonde and beautiful, by Western standards, and Gabourey Sidibe is black and plus-sized.

    Simply put, in addition to the fact that Jennifer Lawrence fits ideal Western proportions and Gabourey Sidibe doesn't, there are two other issues:

    1) There are more roles for white men and women than for black men and women.
    2) Invariably, "no race specified" means "white". This gets ridiculous; notice the almost all-white cast of the original Star Wars trilogy, though most of the action takes place in basically North Africa with two suns.
    3) Things get far worse with other minorities. Shigeyoshi Murao, a friend of Allen Ginsberg who was arrested for selling Ginsberg's poems, is elided from Howl.