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Children’s Theatre celebrates diversity with Christmas play
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A diverse group of actors make up the cast of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever." (Photo by Donna Bise.)
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The cast of Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s latest production, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” doesn’t reflect what audiences might expect from a play about a middle class family and a church Christmas show set in the 1960s.

Two of the lead roles — couple Bob and Grace Bradley — are portrayed by an African-American man and a Caucasian woman, and their two children are played by Caucasian students. Young actors of different races play six siblings. Black and white women portray friends who gossip together about the goings-on in the pageant.

“The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” which tells the story of six outcast children who decide to take part in the church Christmas pageant, was written by Barbara Robinson and published in 1972. Based on the illustrations from the original book, the author envisioned all the characters as white. But director Mark Sutton said that for this production, it was a high priority for him “to get as much diversity on the stage as possible.” He reached out to several casting agencies and local groups to encourage actors of all ages and races to audition.

While the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte has been practicing “color-blind casting,” or choosing the best actor for a role without factoring in the actor’s appearance, for several years, Sutton wanted this cast especially to mirror the play’s messages of acceptance and tolerance.

“One of the elusive things about the term ‘color-blind’ is it’s as though we’re supposed to ignore or not see different skin tones,” Sutton said. “I want that to be seen, to see and celebrate the differences and see how irrelevant that is to the human experience. We all have the same hopes and fears.

“Besides,” he continued, “I feel that it’s deliberately bold to take something that’s taking place in the mid-’60s and go this route with the casting. I think it enhances the show’s central themes.”

Guest artist Nick Johnson, who plays Bob Bradley, said he was pleasantly surprised when he learned he had been cast into an interracial couple in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

“It’s nice that they would step outside the color lines like that,” he said. He praised the diversity in the cast, noting that even the church’s congregation was portrayed as multiracial.

Johnson said that he approached the role of Bob Bradley, whose wife Grace directs the Christmas pageant and whose children are in the play, as the “universal dad” rather than one constricted by race or culture. “It’s just the basics,” he said. “Every man wants his children to be successful and to be strong and confident and to love his wife.”

Children’s Theatre leaders say that young audiences who attend their plays sometimes write letters to the company; their comments, however, don’t mention race — instead they discuss how much they like the costumes or how amazed they were that an actor could memorize so many lines. One student even commended actors for staying awake on stage.

Sutton said that at the beginning or rehearsals for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” he talked with the children in the cast about the Herdmans, the six siblings in the play who are ostracized by the town because they are poor and badly behaved. Two girls of different races play Herdman siblings Ollie and Claude, roles written for boys. The cast often refers to them as “the twins.”

“We talked about the socioeconomic differences (with the Herdmans),” Sutton said. “I never discussed with the students anything about race. It’s kind of surprising, but no one ever asked about it. It’s as though the kids have totally accepted this already.”

The Children’s Theatre of Charlotte is now in the midst of long-range planning and choosing its 2013 playbill, and interim artistic director Michelle Long said they are looking for shows that reflect diversity in the community.

Sometimes plays call for specific race casting, such as the upcoming production of “The Secret Garden,” which revolves around characters from India and England in the early 20th century. But when the story allows it, directors are open to re-envisioning traditional roles by casting actors of different races or even gender.

“We want to throw our doors open to all members of our community, and it’s important to not just see your story, but yourself reflected on stage,” Long said. “This has been a real topic of discussion to say what stories are we telling, why are we telling these stories and how are these stories reaching into our community and touching lives.”

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever plays through Dec. 23 at the McColl Family Theatre at Imaginon. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit: www.ctcharlotte.org/our-season/best-christmas.

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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August 30, 2014
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