"The quality of mercy is not strained." For some reason, my father loved that speech. He had little idea of the complex politics surrounding the play or the speech. He would just repeat it over and over again at the drop of a hat. I didn't know why at the time. It was a surprise to me, but no surprise to my father when I was hired by Stratford for its 1995 season. I had been given a supporting role in Macbeth.
I have absolutely no problem at all playing a supporting role, particularly one that pays incredibly well. But in the back of my mind I knew as well that this was an opportunity to prove myself as an actor.
Then, one day, my agent called me with good news and bad news. A theatre company in Toronto was offering me a major opportunity, but to take advantage of it I would have to quit Stratford in the middle of the season.
For days I struggled with what to do. The gig in Toronto was very promising but paid much less, and I really was excited about staying in Stratford and proving myself to the administration.
One night I was at the bar talking about my predicament, when someone who works at the theatre suggested there might be an unspoken policy never to hire a member of a visible minority in a starring role on the main stage. It was thought it would adversely affect box office sales.
On the smaller stages they could experiment with casting, but the main festival stage generates most of Stratford's revenue. To remain profitable, they couldn't risk visible minorities in starring roles.
I handed in my two weeks' notice the next day.
I would love to say I left for altruistic reasons, but I was really just thinking about myself and my career.
I left and basically forgot about Stratford and the whole issue until recently. I'll tell you why in a second. But I've always had that nagging question in the back of my mind. Is it really true? Would a theatre really deny top billing to an actor because of race?
Maybe things have changed since I left. So I called Stratford and spoke with Kelley Teahen, the festival's media manager.
"I fully understand the concerns that have been expressed over the years, but if you look at a production like Pericles.... ," she says.
And it's true. Pericles obviously is a huge step forward for multi-ethnic casting in supporting roles. Naznee Contractor plays Marina, and Karen Acheta is Thaisa, two large very prominent roles.
I am well aware that Stratford hires minorities in prominent roles. I get that. They hired me after all. That is not the issue. But I wanted to know about starring roles, lead roles, marquee roles, where the name of the character is in the title of the play, a Romeo or a Hamlet.
Since I left in 1995, there hasn't been a single Asian, black or First Nations actor in a starring role on the festival main stage. Period. (See related stories page 22).
Now, let's compare that to the casting experience in England. I spoke with Shakespeare scholar Carol Rutter at the department of English at the University of Warwick. "English theatre has gone through many stages of multi-ethnic casting," he says.
First there was Ira Aldridge, who broke the colour barrier in the 1830s playing all the black Shakespeare roles and even some non-black roles.
Then, 100 years later, Paul Robeson performed in Othello with Peggy Ashcroft, who was shocked when she realized she could perform at the Savoy Theatre with Robeson but couldn't eat with him in the Savoy Grill.
In the 1970s, director Trevor Nunn for the first time cast actors of colour in significant roles. In the 80s, Michael Bogdanov cast a black actor, Hugh Quarshie, as a sexy, cocksure Tybalt, giving him an Alfa Romeo and leather pants.
The casting of an actor of colour was meant to be part of the way you interpreted the play; it was meant to be bold, to make a statement.
By the time black actor Ray Fearon played Romeo in 1997, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, directors were no longer trying to make a statement. Finally, in 2003, we have Peter Brook's Hamlet, in which black actor Adrian Lester is simply accepted as the Prince of Denmark and nobody gives a damn.
But what about fears that casting a person of colour will affect box office?
I talked with John Barton, theatre director and advisory director at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England.
"Well, I think it's idiotic to fuss about it," he says. "There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why you should not do multi-ethnic casting in any role in any play."
Even at the risk of alienating your audience?
"You cast the best actor you can get, regardless of their colour, and don't worry about it," he says.
Now, if I were a white actor, I'd say, "Look, if you force white actors out of roles because of their skin colour, isn't that racial discrimination, too?"
And yes, that would be true. I don't want that. I don't want quotas either.
All I can say is, it's not that we actors of colour want to take the stage away from you, it's that we want to share the stage with you.
When it comes to actors of colour who can play starring roles, many in this country qualify. Nigel Shawn Williams just won a Dora. He's an incredible actor. I would love to know what his Hamlet would look like.
Graham Greene has been nominated for an Oscar. I'd love to see what he could do with Macbeth.
Sandra Oh is probably the most famous Asian actor in all of North America. I asked her if she'd want to work at Stratford. Unfortunately, her initial experience wasn't very encouraging.
"They made it very clear that I would never play anything but supporting roles," she says.
Any kind of racial discrimination is stupid. Not only is it stupid, but it's immoral, too. And not only is it immoral, but it's also illegal.
I'm sending a copy of this article to Stratford's funding agencies, the Ontario Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Canadian Heritage, and to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
I have to admit I'm a little scared. Speaking out like this could be detrimental to my career.
But now, more than ever, I know it's the right thing to do. A few weeks ago I had a baby girl. Suddenly, I understand my father.
I already know which speech I'm going to recite to her. Something about all the world being a stage and every player having their part. And every person onstage can reflect the multitude of cultures and ethnicities that abound in this young nation.