More choice theater roles seen going to minorities. Franchelle Dorn's experience, while not wholly trouble-free, reflects improved opportunities
Washington — The Shakespeare Theater at the Folger has news for audiences who have never thought of a black Hamlet, a Chinese Juliet, or a Latino King Lear. It is bulldozing the fences which have kept minorities from playing some of the greatest roles in classic theater. The current news is a black Lady Macbeth, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, who gives a spine-tingling performance in what actors call ``The Scottish play.'' Ms. Dorn has had her share of discrimination in the theater world. But she finds herself starring in a ``Macbeth'' with an integrated cast which includes among others a black Banquo and her own seven-year-old daughter, Kirstin, as one of the Macduff children. Artistic director Michael Kahn of the Folger has also cast her as Lady Capulet in ``Romeo and Juliet,'' Paulina in ``The Winter's Tale,'' Titania in ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' and the Widow in ``All's Well That Ends Well.''
When Dorn is through washing Lady Macbeth's spots from her hands she will also be teaching classical scene study in a new Intensive Classical Training Workshop for Professional Minority Actors that was set up by Michael Kahn. The workshop is funded by a $40,000 grant from the District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Franchelle Dorn chats backstage in her cramped dressing room at the Folger about that. She says that minorities have not had the opportunity to study Shakespeare because of ``the discrimination that has gone on for years'' in the theater, and the limited resources for classical study. ``Perhaps minorities have been the last because they haven't felt welcome to do [the roles] because they never thought they'd need it, because no one was going to hire them.''
Mr. Kahn's commitment to building a pool of classically trained actors at the Folger led him, she says, ``to decide that this might be a very good idea, given the minority population of the Washington area.''
When James Earl Jones says he's played ``Othello'' six times and he'd like to do the play a seventh time, as Iago, there's an example of nontraditional casting. In fact, Dorn points out that Jones played ``Big Daddy'' in Tennessee Williams' ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' in a nontraditional casting symposium in New York last year. Before that says Dorn, ``Maggie the Cat was the only [role] I thought, stupidly, I couldn't play. Everything else I've assumed I can, I have a shot at. I hope someday to play Medea, and I hope someday to do `Hedda Gabler''' and other classic roles.
Hanging behind her as she talks are the heavy silk gowns and fur-trimmed costumes of Lady Macbeth. Dorn has changed into something a little less regal: black sweatshirt, navy kerchief bound around her head, navy jogging pants and sneakers. She has also checked the murderously obsessive Lady Macbeth at the door; the actress who plays her is warm, wry, animated, her wide brown eyes and her face full of light. Even when she talks about the discrimination she's encountered as a black actress there are no daggers in her voice.
Franchelle Dorn grew up in segregated Houston, where she studied acting at the Alley Theater School. After high school she went north to Finch College in Manhattan, a small, liberal arts women's school ``where I got all the leads [Electra, Juliet, Bella in ``Gaslight''] and people adored me.''
But later at the Yale School of Drama she learned ``that I was going to have to be tough. You have to get very sort of thick-skinned.'' A ``fairly benign example'' from Yale: ``There were five women in my class. And the first production we did at the Drama School was [Gorky's] ``The Lower Depths,'' not a cheery play. There were five women's roles in that play. Four of the women in my class were cast in that production and the fifth woman [cast] was a second year directing student. The fifth woman, myself, was cast as the hydrocephalic baboon in a little experimental production of ``Ubu Roi.'' And I've often said, Why didn't I pack my bags then and leave? But I didn't. Nor was I willing, at the time, to believe it had anything to do with racial problems. And maybe it didn't. I'll never know.''
Then there was the experience she had in Chicago after graduate school at a national auditioning event for theaters around the country. The representative from the Alley Theater said ``best wishes from everybody I'd known there, and finally we got around to casting. And he said, `Do you have any problem with playing servants or domestics?' And I said, `Right, well that depends on the role.' And he said, `Well, you know, sometimes we have had problems with actors who don't want to do that.' And I said, `Well, are those the only roles available to black actors at the Alley Theater?' And he said, `Of course we can't have interracial families, but uh....' Well, it's Houston, and that was some years ago now. I don't know what happens at the Alley Theater now.''
Discrimination in the theater, she says,``has happened to a great extent through carelessness. Some of it has been vicious bigotry, people who have definite prejudices against people of color. But I think most of it has been benign neglect, that people simply don't think about it.''
Out of those national auditions she did get her first role, with ACT in San Francisco, then went on to play several roles at Arena Stage as well as parts at the Long Wharf Theater and New Playwrights Theater.
Dorn has also appeared in two films and on PBS; next she's off on a European shoot for ``Timeline,'' a ``You Are There'' type of historical series produced by Maryland Public TV and a consortium of European stations.
She has also sandwiched in another role, teaching at various times at Princeton University, Georgetown University, the New Playrights Theater and the Folger. This year she has also produced a second child, a baby girl named Amani. Dorn is married to the man whose voice she fell in love with in high school, a visting Rhodes and Fulbright scholar, Ed Dorn, who returned to give a speech in his old alma mater's high school auditorium.
``I thought he was pretty nifty. I still do,'' she says. Her husband is a former Carter administration official who now works as deputy director of the Joint Center for Political Studies, a private think tank in Washington. The family lives in Burke, Va.
Does Franchelle Dorn think things will be different and better for her daughter Kirstin if she grows up to be an actress?
``My hope is that things will change. My gut feeling is that they won't, that there will be pockets like this theater.'' But, she explains, ``The first thing that people notice about you is your color. I don't know how we're ever going to get around that. I'd like to believe we can.''