Director casts attention on inequity

School play prompts discussion about race, history and intentions

February 20, 2002|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

When director Scott Susong chose The Miracle Worker as Roland Park Country School's spring play, he knew his decision to maintain historical accuracy in casting would require explanation.

Because The Miracle Worker was set in Alabama in 1887, that meant Susong would cast white students as the blind, deaf and mute Helen Keller and as Annie Sullivan, the "miracle worker" who teaches Helen to communicate in the main roles. African-Americans would appear as the Keller family servants, who were black, or in added roles as singers and sign-language interpreters.

Susong's decision was bound to raise a few eyebrows in Baltimore, a city where two-thirds of the residents are African-American, so he met on several occasions with students and teachers to explain.

"I have never cast a play racially specific," Susong says. "In this play, we are embracing a piece of cultural history. I think it is appropriate if we can make a point with it. In this case, the play points to the disenfranchisement of minorities."

No students or parents have complained, according to the head of the Roland Park school, its director of multicultural affairs and Susong. But the decision has generated plenty of talk.

"This play has become a conversation piece even before the rehearsals have started," said student Sydnee Wilson, 16, a sophomore who will appear as Tallulah, the laundress.

Outside the school community, Susong's plan has raised concern from the city branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Michael Hunt, NAACP youth coordinator, says his group wants to pursue whether bias was connected with the casting. "Our primary concern is whether ... students of color were discouraged from auditioning for the main roles, fearing rejection due to the color of their skin and not the content of their character."

Nathan Carter, chairman of the fine arts department and director of choral arts at Morgan State University, says the reasoning behind the casting should be addressed before each performance or in the program.

"In my own mind, I would not have a problem with the play, but I can't speak for the general public," Carter says. "I would definitely address why the play is being performed this way."

Susong says he selected The Miracle Worker because he was looking for a play with a lot of roles for females. Roland Park has about 700 students, all girls, in kindergarten through 12th grade. The Miracle Worker - based on the true story of Keller and Sullivan and written by William Gibson, originally for television, in the mid-1950s - is taught in sixth grade.

Susong, who notes that The Miracle Worker was written during the civil rights movement, says he didn't want the students to misinterpret his intentions in casting the play for historical accuracy and in trying to show the parallel between the disenfranchisement of Southern blacks and the disenfranchisement of Keller because of her disabilities. So he talked with the upper-school students in the spring, and again in the fall.

Susong added roles for singers of spirituals so more students could be in the play, bringing the number of parts to 24. The singers, who also appear as blind girls and interpreters, include three African-Americans and three whites. Whites also were cast as Keller's and Sullivan's relatives, Keller's doctor and Sullivan's mentor.

Verna Moore, Roland Park's coordinator of multicultural affairs and a language arts teacher, says Susong met with the school's Black Awareness Club before auditions to clear up questions.

Jean Waller Brune, in her 10th year as head of Roland Park, says one teacher and one African-American student questioned her about the play because of an initial perception that blacks were being cast only as servants. Brune says she approved the play after Susong explained his vision.

"The girls will be acting a role, and that's what it's all about," Brune says. "If I thought otherwise, I would have pulled the play."

Usha Tyson, Allison Davis and Wilson, three of the six African-American students who got parts, say they are not concerned about playing servants or singers because they were not typecast. They look forward to starting rehearsals for the play, which is to be performed April 26-28.

"All of the students who were cast fit the roles," says Tyson, a 17-year-old senior. During the auditions, she wanted to try out for the part of Keller's mother, and Susong offered to let her read for it. But she decided to accept the bigger role of Viney, the housekeeper, she says.

Tyson says her mother, who is from India, supported her decision to play the housekeeper.

Susong, in his second year at Roland Park, is studying for a master of fine arts degree at Towson University, where he also teaches. He has been a professional actor for 15 years, and does free-lance directing and theater design.

"Sometimes, you have to take risks with art," he says.

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