In 1978, as part of my work in the University of Delaware’s theatre department, I created a play for children based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Snow Queen. The main human characters are Gerda, Gerda’s Grandfather, Kai, and the Snow Queen.
The story is well-known and a lot of students turned out for the auditions. I asked each person what mattered most to them in the story and why they wanted to play a particular part. Some shrugged, not prepared to answer with any depth. A few loved the story and wanted to be in the production. I chose the most talented students who had clearly thought about their participation.
When I posted the cast list I was stunned by the barrage of outraged students, a few townspeople, and even some colleagues. How could I do such a thing? Why had I cast a Black male as white Gerda’s grandfather and a Black female as the Snow Queen? “Because they were the best for the parts,” I responded, an answer that was not well-received.
Letters. Phone calls. Angry looks. Threats of a production boycott. I chose to ignore the threats and focus my energy on directing the cast I had selected.
At our first rehearsal I welcomed the cast, wondering if any of them had heard about the racist reactions. They had. Both Black students offered to leave the production. The rest of the students and I were equally emphatic. We wanted them to stay. I told them, “I chose you both because I thought you were the best for the parts. That’s all that matters.” They agreed to stay.
The production was complex. I used still and moving images, canned and live music, small and large puppets—all integrated into the actors’ words and actions. Rehearsals were complicated and yet, it was a play for children and I always invited children to watch rehearsals to gauge their interest and the power of my writing.
After one rehearsal, when I asked the children what they thought about the play, and if they had suggestions or questions, a child asked, “How can a white girl have a Black grandfather?”
Before I could respond, another child asked, “How can the Snow Queen be Black? She’s made of ice and ice is white.”
I took a very deep breath while I thought about my response. Deliberatly not looking at the two, I asked the audience, “Who believed that Grandfather loved Gerda, his granddaughter?” All hands went up. “Who believed the Snow Queen was icy and cold?” All hands went up. “Well, this is what theatre is about—creating character who touch the audience’s emotions and feelings. According to all the hands that went up, it seems you were sure that Grandfather loved Gerda and the Snow Queen was cold and regal.”
I decided not to ask the two if my response to their question satisfied them. I felt they needed time to think about what I’d said, but it pleased me to notice they were among the group of children who chose to talk with both characters afterward.
The play was well-received and was nominated to perform in Washington, D. C as part of a childrens’ play festival. The Snow Queen received a standing ovation.
What choices have you made that created conflict? How did you deal with it?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.