By Jennifer Walk
We tell little girls they can be anything: a doctor, an astronaut, or even the president of the United States. But as those little girls become women, they may find themselves hearing something much less inspiring.
Maybe it’s, “You look like this, so you cannot be this. Or, “You talk like this, so you cannot be this.” Or even, “You are this, so you cannot be this.”
Recently, however, the theater community seems to be telling us something else. In a variety of recent productions both on Broadway and the West End, women are quite literally flipping the script of what they’re allowed to be. Several roles that are historically (and even legendarily) associated with male actors have been cast with females instead.
To me, this reinforces what’s so beautiful about acting: It’s a repository of possibility. Anybody (in any body) can become anyone or anything, and for those of us in the audience, that can redefine what we understand to be attainable. This is what happens when a show like Hamilton casts actors of color to play the Founding Fathers, and with regard to women, it’s what has happened at least since Sarah Bernhardt toured the United States playing Hamlet.
But the cluster of new productions suggests there’s a richer commitment developing to showcasing female talent. In each case, the casting creates a thrilling opportunity.
Take the current Broadway revival of King Lear, starring Glenda Jackson in the title role. Jackson is not playing Queen Lear. She’s King Lear. This Tony, Oscar, and BAFTA-winning legend has more than proven her mettle, so why shouldn’t she tackle one of Shakespeare’s most demanding roles? She’s being afforded the respect of stepping into Lear’s skin with no adjustments made. She is playing the part because who she is and what she does are more than enough to match what any man could offer.
On the other hand, a recent West End production of Company did indeed revise happy-go-lucky bachelor Bobby into Bobbi, a bachelorette. In the case of this musical, which is explicitly about male-female relationships, it feels important for the role’s gender to be changed. London audiences saw a woman wrestle with commitment and with her own happiness, which invited a new understanding of the story.
Something similar seems likely to happen in the upcoming Broadway revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, which will feature women in all eight roles typically played by men. I’m eager to see how this changes our conception of the show, which investigates the raw realities of professional power.
More than anything, I’m eager for women to see these performances and others like them. They are bracing reminders that we can, in fact, become anything. If that’s true on the stage, then surely it can and should be true in the rest of the world.