Oh my goodness. Quentin Letts is ‘a racist’ apparently . It says so on Twitter. In his review of the RSC’s The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich he referred to the quality of Leo Wringer’s performance and asked, ‘Was Mr Wringer cast because he is black?’
The RSC’s top brass assembled in full muster and denounced Letts for his ‘blatantly racist attitude to a member of the cast.’
I haven’t seen the production, only the reaction to Letts’s reaction to the production, but that’s enough. What’s striking is that the RSC’s accusation is false. Letts did not say the actor was bad because he was black. That would have been racist. Instead he asked if the actor was cast because he was black. Which is different. This refers to the ‘upside-down racism’ of affirmative action which is so ingrained in our theatrical culture that it usually passes without comment.
There are claims for and against this practice. The chief advantage is that it brings black actors, writers and audiences into the theatre. But it creates difficulties for them too. It discriminates against talented actors, who don’t need affirmative action, and it favours less talented performers who don’t deserve promotion. This has consequences across the continuum of ability. It exposes gifted black actors to the suspicion that their ethnicity, not their ability, helped them into the role. And it may create a surfeit of talentless black actors whose weak performances give the incorrect impression that theatrical ability is concentrated outside their ethnic group. And it tends to corrupt the contract between the makers of theatre and its consumers. Affirmative action treats audiences not as the honoured sponsors of great artistic endeavours but as useful idiots enrolled to applaud the moral probity of the theatrical profession.
The white elites who run most theatres are aware of these dilemmas. And they may be troubled by another deeper conundrum. Does not affirmative action treat ethnic minorities as second-class citizens? After all, only the congenitally weak are in permanent need of a hand up. And by the way, since misquotation is rife these days, I didn’t suggest in my previous sentence that black actors are congenitally weak only that affirmative action risks placing them in that category.
This is where we are. Our theatrical culture has adopted a racial policy, well-intentioned but with some malign consequences, which everyone is scared of mentioning. Until now. I expect that some who use affirmative action are a little panicky about its moral contradictions. And this may explain the RSC’s eagerness to leap in and call Letts ‘a racist’ even though his words lack any such bias. The prejudice lies with those who hand out jobs on the basis of racial profiling. In any other profession that would be illegal. A huge circus of tribunals, fines, enquiries and dismissals would follow. But in theatreland it’s standard practice. And to question it is to risk being called a bigot.