Culture, color and Caleen Jennings on theatre
Why can’t a black mother and white father have two Asian-American children?
Black stereotypes filled the pages of the script 27-year-old Caleen Jennings read as she auditioned for her biggest theatre role yet. Growing up, she dreamed of performing on stage and thought the job would launch her acting career. But there was one problem: she was Shakespeare, and the casting director wanted “urban.”
The year was 1976, the height of the Blaxploitation era, and the acting world associated black women with inner city stereotypes. Jennings wasn’t “black enough” for the role, the play’s casting director told her at New York City’s Public Theatre. She had just graduated from New York University with a master’s degree in theatre and was well-traveled, different from what the director sought for the role.
“I don’t know if my feelings were hurt because I didn’t get the role or if my feelings were hurt because they told me I wasn’t black enough, but I think it was a combination of both,” Jennings said.
Now, in her 27th year as an AU professor in the Department of Performing Arts, the 65-year-old has a tough time remembering the play’s name for which she auditioned for 40 years ago. She said she remained driven toward her goals as an actress, even after the rejection. To pay rent in New York City, Jennings took a job as a copywriter on Madison Avenue, a position she held for six years until her husband encouraged her to branch out and create her own plays.
“My husband asked me why I didn’t write my own plays,” Jennings said. “And I said, ‘You don’t understand theatre: actors act, writers write, directors direct.’ And he said, ‘Well, musicians compose.’”
A year later, this conversation coupled with a newborn child, propelled Jennings’ playwriting career, which she said she fell in love with after her first play, “Rainy Season,” was staged in 1980. She entered the playwriting profession at a time when directors such as Joseph Papp started casting people of color in Shakespeare and other non-traditional roles.
Jennings said she faced continuous adversity as an actress attempting to find her place in a post-Civil Rights Movement society in New York City. Her parents, activists during the Civil Rights era, knew Malcolm X in the midst of state-sponsored segregation. She also lived through two coups in Nigeria and the Six-Day War in the Middle East. These experiences prompted her to create openings for students of color in theatre, opportunities she wished she could have tackled while pigeonholed as a young actress.
“I’ve always been in environments in which people talked about politics, in which there were people from different countries,” Jennings said. “I’m always looking at what happens when we create a ‘they’ and how can we remind ourselves that everybody has a right to a place and has a right to a voice.”
Prioritizing multiculturalism over tradition
Jennings has casted a Vietnamese-American student as villainous Richard III, directed hip-hop versions of Shakespeare and even presided over a racially diverse production of “Our Town.”
Her casting for “Our Town” in 2006 marks one of her most unique experiences as a theatre professional, she said.
The original play follows two white families in New Hampshire during the early 1900s. When hiring actors for the family roles, Jennings said she did not allow race to limit her selection: a mother was black, her husband was white and their two kids were Asian-American.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating based on race and gender, among other traits. According to a 2006 brief from the University of California Chicano Research Center, when a production uses race as a prerequisite for a role, the director violates Title VII. However, casting directors often argue that following this provision in the acting profession will threaten the integrity of the performance, according to Jennings.
Jennings’ inclusive version of “Our Town” received positive feedback, she said.
“It took the audience maybe like a minute to say, ‘Oh,’” Jennings said. “And then they got caught up in their story, totally got caught up in their story. It takes a minute, but the magic of theatre is that you believe.”
The theatre world has seen an increase in color-blind plays where casting directors ignore ethnicity when choosing actors. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” debuted earlier this year and tells the story of Alexander Hamilton using hip-hop and a diverse cast. Miranda and Javier Munoz, who are both of Puerto Rican descent, play Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington is played by Christopher Jackson, a black actor.
The musical received positive reviews from The New York Times, with theatre critic Ben Brantley telling people to “mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets” for the show.
Jennings said on the night she attended the play, she saw a diverse cast in addition to a diverse audience.
“The night my husband and I went, Busta Rhymes and Joe Biden were in the audience,” Jennings said. “Any play that can attract Busta Rhymes and Joe Biden is phenomenal.”
Whether it be her love for Miranda’s new musical or a hip-hop rendition of “Much Ado About Nothing,” Jennings sees hip-hop as a force for world change. The genre spread through the United States, without regard to race or ethnicity, acting as an inspiration for original “hip-hoppers” who are now in their 30s and 40s, Jennings said. She believes hip-hop culture will not only revolutionize the acting community, but may also help combat modern racism.
“I have a friend who’s a hip-hop artist,” Jennings said. “She is black and Cuban and Malaysian, and she says, ‘I have traveled all over the world. I have experienced discrimination, but I have never experienced discrimination in a hip-hop community.’”
Making adaptations in life
Jennings now teaches courses at AU on history, performing and playwriting, but plans to retire in approximately three years. In the meantime, she continues to write plays and is currently working on a project on the intersection between Shakespeare and police.
When she left acting for playwriting, she altered her life on a mission to change the theatre community.
Since she began writing plays, Jennings has produced numerous shows with diverse characters; she has owned a children’s theatre company called Black Kids in Theatre, which aimed to help black children learn acting techniques; she trained on-air television personnel in Nigeria; and she helped form The Welders, a playwrights’ collective that supports playwrights who may feel discouraged by the theatre industry’s bureaucratic structure. She may have never encountered these opportunities if the casting director 40 years ago hadn’t rejected her for not being “black enough.”
“There are no detours in life,” Jennings said. “You work away, you live your life, you try to find as much joy in each day as you can and then suddenly you look up at 65, and you look back, and you say, ‘I’ve had a good life.’”