The Color Barrier Erased

Innovative theater casts plays to mirror the makeup of its audiences. THEATER

THE Wheelock Family Theatre cast performing ``Anne of Green Gables'' was made up of white, black, and Asian actors. Their matinee audience included a busload of students from an inner city school, a contingent of senior citizens, a hearing-impaired section, and a group of disabled youngsters from the Massachusetts Hospital School. ``It was a great audience - one of the best we've had,'' said an ethusiastic Jane Staab, who serves as both the resident principal actress of the company and its business manager. ``The dynamics were amazing.''

By casting minority actors in roles traditionally played by whites and by seeking out culturally and physically diverse audiences, the nine-year-old theater has built a reputation for social consciousness while maintaining high professional standards.

``We really believe that the theater should be of the culture it is a part of,'' explained producer Susan Kosoff. ``Too often the arts have been only for the few. But the arts should be for all the people. And the fact is that we really don't live in an entirely white upper-class world.''

Given this commitment, it's not unusual to see special-needs groups here, but this particular day was a handful even by Wheelock's standards.

``The kids from the hospital school were severely handicapped,'' Ms. Kosoff said. ``I don't think there's another theater in town that would have let this group in. I think it's a real testimony to this theater that these people felt so comfortable here.

``This is the sort of thing that keeps me going,'' she added. ``If you get close and see their faces when they're watching a show - an experience they've never had before in their lives - that is really the magic of the theater coming alive.''

Staab and Kosoff, along with two colleagues, founded WFT in 1981. It is located on the campus of Wheelock College and operates under the auspices of that institution. It pays no rent for the 650-seat theater; it receives a subsidy from the college; and both Staab and Kosoff are on the faculty.

It is not a ``college theater'' in any sense, however, but a separate nonprofit organization operating under a development agreement with the Actors Equity union, which permits it to use a combination of professional and amateur talent.

The theater tries to offer plays that will appeal to a family audience with a wide age range. The plays usually - though not always - have some youngsters in the cast. Wheelock doesn't shy away from heavier material, however, programming one serious drama each season along with a musical and a work aimed at the younger set.

Next up after ``Anne,'' for example, is Eugene O'Neil's ``Ah, Wilderness!,'' which opens Friday night for a four-week run. Past efforts have included ``The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,'' ``Antigone,'' ``The Belle of Amherst,'' and ``I Remember Mama.''

From the beginning, Kosoff and Staab have sought out minority actors for key roles. Blacks appeared in the title roles of early productions of ``Superman'' and ``Cinderella.'' Daniel Kim, who is of Asian descent, has played a wide variety of roles usually given to white actors. And in a real eye-opener last season, the black singer and actress Merle Perkins played the leading role of Maria in a well-received production of ``The Sound of Music.''

``That was a classic example of how it can work,'' says Mr. Kim, who had the supporting role of Max in a cast that also included a black Mother Superior and a handicapped actor on crutches playing Herr Zeller, one of the Nazi sympathizers.

Some people thought nontraditional casting improved the production. Kim said it made the play seem ``less sugary.'' Peter Battis, a white actor who played Captain von Trapp, felt it emphasized the musical's theme of tolerance.

Kim sees theaters like Wheelock as providing rare exceptions to the generally conservative casting policies in professional theater. ``In community theater, I've never had any trouble getting good parts,'' he said.

``But when it comes to paying money, I guess producers have different expectations. ... I can't think of an Asian actor I've seen on a Broadway stage in a role not specifically written for an Asian. And it's pretty much the same for blacks - even in plays where it wouldn't seem to matter.''

In addition to giving minority actors more chances, of course, Wheelock's policy also helps attract a more diverse audience. ``Our idea is the old children's theater idea: that if people see somebody up there they can identify with, they will enjoy it more,'' says Kosoff. Staab recalls, a six-year-old black boy excitedly telling one of her colleagues, ``I've waited all my life to see a Superman who looked just like me!''

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