It’s back. Two years after Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman seems to have coined the term, accusations of theatrical producers engaging in “Jewface” casting have returned. The focus of this tempest-in-a-thespian-teapot is the decision of the producers of the current Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” to have a non-Jewish actor/singer named Katerina McCrimmon to play the title role of the play during its national tour. The thought of having someone who isn’t a member of the tribe pretend to be Fanny Brice is causing anger in some precincts of her profession, as well as the public.
Some may put down the complaints as just another chapter in a series of silly stories that are more the function of the bruised egos of some of the Jewish members of the Actors Equity union who weren’t given the part than a genuine issue worth discussing. The question of who plays the title role in “Funny Girl” is much like the grousing about the casting of Kathryn Hahn as Phyllis Diller in a project that has apparently fallen through, which helped start this genre of protest because of Silverman’s dismay about being beaten out for the role by a non-Jew—like the choice of Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein or Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in films that will be released this year. It’s difficult to take any of this seriously. After all, in a time of growing antisemitism and demonization of Israel, surely the Jews have more to worry about than whether Cooper or Mirren had to wear prosthetic noses to impersonate Bernstein and Meir, or whether anyone who wasn’t raised as a Jew could possibly impersonate them in a film.
While it’s easy to treat this as satire rather than serious commentary, the fact that so many people and supposedly serious publications think it remains important is nothing to laugh about. In fact, it demonstrates how pervasive ideas about intersectionality and critical race theory have penetrated our society.
Identity racial politics
You would think that only 80 years after the Holocaust that Jews, who remain the object of hatred from both the right and the left, wouldn’t need to conjure up fake issues in order to be seen as victims. But the problem for contemporary Jews—especially those in the arts, where leftist ideologies pervade virtually every aspect of cultural life—is that they are no longer perceived as a minority group or as the prey for hatemongers. In a world where critical race theory (CRT) and intersectionality have taken on the aspect of a religion that treats all criticisms as a form of racist heresy, the notion that humanity is divided between those who are oppressed and the oppressors, wicked possessors of “white privilege” or righteous “people of color,” has caused Jews and the Jewish state to be falsely labeled as “white” oppressors.
This way of thinking deprives Jews of something coveted in 21st-century culture: victim status. Antisemites may always be eager to victimize Jews via terrorism and prejudice, but in the intersectional worldview, a Jew killed for the crime of being Jewish is no longer enough to generate much sympathy among those who subscribe to fashionable opinion, especially in the pages of publications like The New York Times.
That means in order to be a victim, those who accept these toxic myths as revealed truth must invent a Jewish version of woke concepts of racism. Hence, the belief that having a non-Jew portray a Jew is a heinous act of “cultural appropriation.”
In the arts world, it is now a given that no one who is not a member of a group with official victim status can depict them. So why can’t Jews play the same game and thereby assure themselves of being cast as Jewish characters?
The changes in casting practices aren’t entirely the function of foolish or dangerous theories like CRT and intersectionality, whose purpose is to divide us in a perpetual race war. Up until relatively recently, it was normative for producers to choose heavily made-up white thespians to play people of color or even Asians. During the 1930s and ’40s, in some of the great classic films in Hollywood history, Jews of European descent like Paul Muni and John Garfield played every variety of non-white ethnicity. And, of course, there was the lamentable practice of blackface, which brought 19th-century minstrel show parodies of African-Americans into the cultural mainstream. The most famous 20th-century practitioner of blackface was Al Jolson, a Jew who was among the most popular singers and actors in the country during the time when Fanny Brice was active.
African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American parts are now almost always played by actors who conform to the racial or ethnic identity of the character; that’s also a way to assist members of groups formerly shut out of the profession.
We may be glad to no longer have movies where Native American chiefs like Cochise are played by Jews from Brooklyn such as Jeff Chandler, or Asian detectives like Charlie Chan are played by Swedes like Warner Oland. But the recent obsession with “cultural appropriation” and CRT has extended this reform far beyond such common-sense decisions.
Acting is, after all, the art of make-believe. As seriously as actors take their profession and their attempt to get inside the minds of their characters, the idea that the only people who can play certain roles are those that share every aspect of their lives, nationality or sexual preferences reduces art to mere mimicry and identity politics.
Fanny & Barbra
Still, there are those who claim that Brice is such an archetype of the American Jewish woman that it’s simply unthinkable for someone with a different background to play her.
Brice was an early 20th-century star of the vaudeville circuit who made it on Broadway as a comic foil to the more glamorous female members of the cast of producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s “Follies.” From there, she went on to be a star on radio in the heyday of that medium, portraying an annoying child called “Baby Snooks” to the delight of a generation of Americans who lived through the Great Depression and Second World War.
But if Brice is remembered today, it is only because of the 1964 Broadway musical “Funny Girl,” which was very loosely based on her life. Which is to say that her place in American culture is inextricably linked with that of Barbra Streisand. The singer’s performance in the play at the age of 22, and then the 1968 film version that gained her an Academy Award for Best Actress and a sequel (the 1975 “Funny Lady”), launched her on a career that made her one of the most iconic and influential performers of the last 60 years.
So, when people complain about a non-Jew playing Brice, what they’re really saying is that they can’t envision them as Streisand.
The play was so closely associated with the superstar that it was not revived on Broadway until last year—58 years after its first performance. The revival opened to decidedly mixed reviews largely because of the inability of audiences and critics to accept Beanie Feldstein in the title role made famous by the larger-than-life Streisand. The revival gained more applause when she was replaced first by Julie Benko (who had a triumph the night I attended the play) and Lea Michele, who, like Feldstein, are both also Jewish. They seemed better able to step into Streisand’s shoes and make a case for a musical whose virtues have long been overshadowed by the idea that it was merely a vehicle for the woman who would become a dominant figure in both popular music and Hollywood.
But when we transpose this sort of disconnect onto the ideas that pass for intellectual fashion among those who control the arts world, what we get is claptrap like “Jewface.”
Just as Jewish actors have no difficulty pretending to be all sorts of non-Jewish characters, so, too, can non-Jews capture the essence of those who are Jewish. Indeed, the most stereotypical Jewish character in recent television history—the title character of the recently concluded Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”—was successfully brought to life by Rachel Brosnahan, who is of British and Irish descent. Would Midge Maisel have been funnier or more likable if played by Sarah Silverman, a real-life Jewish comic? All we know is that Brosnahan was able to convincingly portray a Jewish housewife turned comedian in a way that made millions love her and the show.
The same could be said for many other classic acting performances when Jews played non-Jews and vice versa.
Jews gain nothing by trying to get in on the victimhood game that is behind the talk of Jewface. We would all be better off if our society—and popular culture—was less obsessed with race and identity, and more willing to think of everyone as individuals with equal rights rather than as people trapped in an identity and status as victim/oppressor from which the ideologues allow us no escape. Doing so doesn’t undermine Jewish peoplehood or show disrespect to any other group. But it would make for a saner and less divisive world, as well as better theater, films and television.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.