Should Able-Bodied Actors Play Disabled Characters?

An advocacy group is protesting the casting of Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller in a Broadway's upcoming revival of The Miracle Worker, arguing that a deaf or blind actress should have gotten the chance to play the part.

The Miracle Worker's producer, David Richenthal, countered that he needed to cast a proven star in order to secure the ship $3 million financing, and that it would be "financially irresponsible" to choose someone unknown. According to Patrick Healy of the Times, he also said, "It's simply naïve to think that in this day and age you'll be able to sell tickets to a play revival solely on the potential of the production to be a great show." Sharon Jensen, exectuive director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, disagrees. Her group represents deaf and blind actors, and she says,

We do not think it's O.K. for reputable producers to cast this lead role without seriously considering an actress from our community. I understand how difficult it is to capitalize a new production on Broadway, but that to me is not the issue. There are other, larger human and artistic issues at stake here.

The group also protested the casting of a hearing actor in a deaf role in the upcoming production of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and their concerns raise the question of whether Hollywood and Broadway should be trying harder to include actors with disabilities. It's an issue that comes up often in films with intellectually disabled characters — historically, nondisabled actors have played these roles. I found it somewhat distasteful to watch Sean Penn impersonating an intellectually disabled person in I Am Sam, and I would have preferred to see someone who actually lived with those disabilities in the film. People with intellectual disabilities do act — famously in the movie The Ringer, but also on television — and although producers do bear an extra responsibility for not exploiting them, there's no reason for them not to be in mainstream films.

Except money, of course. Just as no deaf actress is as famous as Abigail Breslin, no intellectually disabled actor is as famous as Sean Penn, and Hollywood stars tend to be — or least, to look — able-bodied. And since producers — both in Hollywood and on Broadway — feel they need to cast stars in order to make big bucks, disabled actors don't have a very good shot. Of course, as Sharon Jensen points out, if people with disabilities never get the roles that could make them stars, this will never change. It used to be common practice to cast white actors in roles of people of color — once that became unacceptable, more actors of color rose to prominence (although you could argue that Hollywood is still pretty racist). Maybe it needs to become unacceptable for able-bodied actors to "play" disabled in order for disabled actors to succeed.

The question of authenticity is a tough one here. As I said, Sean Penn's performance as Sam made me uncomfortable, probably because seeing someone pretend to be disabled reminds me of playground mockery of actual disabled kids. And there's an argument that an actor with intellectual disabilities would have been more convincing. But ultimately, it would be nice if disabled actors were respected not for their ability to effectively portray their own disabilities, but simply for their acting chops. That would mean casting, say, deaf actresses not just in "deaf" roles like Helen Keller, but in other roles that don't specifically involve disabilities. If Hollywood and Broadway could do this, audiences might become more comfortable seeing people with disabilities in all areas of life — but as Richenthal's words show, we're still pretty far away from that. He has said he will consider casting a deaf or blind actress as Breslin's understudy — a step in the right direction, but a pretty small one.

Advocacy Group Opposes ‘Miracle Worker' Casting Choice [NYT]