One might have thought it was an issue already settled at the box office. On stage, in film, and on television black performers have proven themselves to be box office gold. Whether populating hit Broadway musicals, such as ``Dream Girls,'' or headlining such smash Hollywood fare as ``Beverly Hills Cop,'' or snaring the year's top Nielsen ratings as in ``The Cosby Show,'' black performers have become integral to many of the entertainment industry's top grossing hits.
But beyond the headline-grabbing successes and the glittery star stories lies a far different employment picture for most black and minority performers.
During the past five years minority actors earned only 12 percent of the acting jobs in the nation's film and television industries, according to the Screen Actors Guild. In Broadway productions since 1982, ethnic actors earned fewer than 15 percent of all performing jobs. And among the nation's regional theaters, now the largest employer of stage actors, less than 10 percent of all roles went to ethnic actors from 1982 to '85.
``Ninety percent of the plays performed by mainstream theater in this country are performed with all-white casts,'' says playwright Romulus Linney. ``The question is: How does this hurt us?'' For hundreds of theatrical producers, directors, actors, and agents the answer is ``socially, aesthetically, and artistically.''
In what was billed as the First National Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting, more than 500 theater professionals met here a few weeks ago to explore the casting of ethnic minority and female actors where ``race, ethnicity, and gender are not germane to the character's or play's development.''
Sponsored in part by Actors' Equity Association, the stage actors' union, the two-day conference addressed minority hiring practices - an imbalanced employment record that actor and director John Houseman called the result of ``prejudice and long-ingrained habits'' and that other participants cited as inhibiting the artistic quality and cultural relevance of theater.
``If we can ... overcome the limitations of typecasting, we will begin to infuse the theater with a desperately needed vitality,'' said Joanna Merlin, co-producer of the conference.
``We're not talking about the vitality of a single production, but a much larger issue,'' said Dr. Bernice Reagon, director of the program on black American culture at the Smithsonian Institution. ``We need a rehearsal in this culture [of] when racism will not be the order of the day. There is no better place for this to occur than in the theater.''
In an unusual forum of panel discussions interspersed with specially selected scenes in which roles traditionally played by whites were performed by black, Asian, and Hispanic actors - for instance, James Earl Jones as Big Daddy in ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' - the conference probed both the reasons for and resistance to cross-cultural casting and whether the current neglect was the result of racism or economics.
``This is not a remedial issue of civil rights. We are simply trying to expand our artistic strengths,'' said John Dillon, artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, one of the few regional theaters to adopt a colorblind hiring policy. ``If I close off one half of my casting options, then I've limited that artistry.''
While casting across cultural lines is more the norm among opera and dance companies, it is less frequent in theatrical productions. Although for the past six years Equity has included in all production agreements strongly worded clauses encouraging the casting of ethnic minorities, women, and even disabled actors where feasible, theater professionals say the discrimination against the minority actor begins at the student level and continues on into professional circles until they no longer appear at open auditions.
``If there is an open call on a role, I won't even go,'' said actor Robert Gossett, who is black. ``I know that part has really already been cast.''
Even the recent tendency among regional theaters to stage a specifically interracial play or a minority version of a classic or avant-garde work has done little, according to industry observers, to bridge the gap between the growing pool of minority actors and current employment opportunities.
``The classics are not the problem. Both they and the avant-garde plays have been [integrated],'' said Barry Moss, a casting director. ``The question is: How do you do that in [naturalistic] drama?''
For many minority performers, ethnic theater companies, such as the Negro Ensemble Company, Pan Asian Repertory, and the INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center, have become a chief source of employment. During the conference, other possible solutions ranged from mandating colorblind casting practices in the nation's regional theaters to increasing the number of productions of work by minority playwrights.
``The starting point is with the writers,'' said Douglas Turner Ward, artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company. ``Once the mainstream theater is able to present [an ethnically] rich diversity of work, there will be a natural cross-cultural casting.''
``I don't think `The Philadelphia Story' should be cast with anyone other than white WASPs,'' said Ellen Stewart, artistic director of La Mama Experimental Theater Company. ``The playwright has a right to his particular vision. But mainstream theater should be encouraged to go beyond `The Philadelphia Story.'''
Some participants, however, cited commercial pressures - ticket prices, operating deficits, adverse audience and critical response - as deterrents to minority casting. ``There is a difference between what one would like to do and the day-to-day production pressures,'' said director Ken Frankel. ``There seem to be certain commercial boundaries.''
Others, however, disagreed.
``There is no way to do it but to do it. We will bring our audiences to follow,'' said Sara O'Connor, managing director of the Milwaukee Rep, adding that the theater showed an increase in subscription renewal rates after instituting its colorblind policy.
``We'll never get totally colorblind casting,'' said one actor. ``But if even one casting director begins to question whether a role must be played by a white male, then that's progress.''