Ever since the announcement of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out, we knew what has made many people clamor: the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione, and Cherrelle Skeete as Rose (Hermione and Ron’s daughter). Many people were used to see Emma Watson as Hermione in all Harry Potter movie adaptations, so the change is understandably jarring. However, while I was honestly a bit taken aback when I saw the news several months ago, I say this loud and clear:
I’d love to see a play with black Hermione.
Emma Watson may have been associated with Hermione since her first appearance in the first Harry Potter movie, but we are talking about stage play here. I have to say that I never directly see a stage play, right in front of me, except from YouTube and local TV. However, stage play does feel different than movies, and I imagine I will feel different sensation if I watch a play directly. In a play, actors may practice and rehearse, but once they come up the stage, they face the audiences directly. They have huge burdens: to deliver performance not as “actors play certain characters,” but as “the characters,” while the audiences have options of clapping or booing them directly, based on that very performance. If they deliver, I’m sure it will be an ecstatic experience for the audiences. I mean, magic literally happens right in front of their eyes!
Which is why I am interested in seeing how Harry Potter play will roll.
Today is a movie era, so if we rarely or never watch a stage play, it’s probably hard for us to actually comprehend that a stage play is very different from movie. Unlike movie, a play can be featured many times in different places and star different actors, who can even bring different interpretations. A clear example: Shakespeare’s stories have international appeal, and his characters have been played by many different actors from various nationalities, not just Europeans. White, black and brown people have played Romeo, Orsino, Hamlet, Lear, and the Moor captain Othello. Women from Asian, Middle Eastern and African descent have played Juliet, Ophelia, Miranda, Cordelia, and Lavinia. These are not just in big, expensive productions, but also in small theaters and schools in many countries, despite the fact that many of Shakespeare’s plays have European, ancient Greek, or ancient Roman settings.
That being said, why a stage play taken from Harry Potter world cannot be played by actors with different skin colors? Since I love the books and admire Emma Watson as Hermione in the movies, I’d like to know how Noma will interpret the role. I want to see how this character, this book-smart, serious, achievement-driven, dorky, brave, kind, loyal Hermione will emerge from all her gestures, voices, and movements. Hollywood has pitched white actors to play black, Asian or Native American characters in movies, so I don’t see why stage play cannot be more varied in their castings. Unfortunately, I don’t live in the UK, and financial reason makes me unable to go and watch the play there.
By the way, I’m not a theater expert, so if you disagree with me and want to confront my opinion by pointing out things related to theater and play, I honestly say I cannot respond to that. But with all my heart, I’d love to see how this new Hermione will deliver. I imagine Noma and Cherrelle both have huge burdens: they have to be able to deliver in front of audiences who come with high expectations. They must prove that they are more than just skin colors. They must continue this “mission” by knowing that a lot of people have already judged them even before these people actually see the play, and with reasons such as “Emma will always be my Hermione” or “I don’t see why a black actress should play Hermione” or “my childhood is ruined.” (Or the craziest that I’ve seen so far: “clearly a liberal political agenda.” Yeah, totally not because they have nailed the auditions very well). I’m sure they are experienced and have good resume, but it must be nerve-wracking. I have to say, if they nail the roles, it will be such a great achievement.
Feeling disappointed, surprised or heartbroken after seeing the new casts that look different from how we have always imagined them is natural. I believe not everyone who was surprised and disappointed by this change is racist; they just have Emma Watson as the default Hermione in their heads. However, asking for the same actors to star in the stage play adaptation all the time is not realistic. Movie actors have different schedules from stage actors. Besides, if Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is somehow featured in different countries, why can’t actors from different nationalities, race and colors play Harry, Ron and Hermione? Just like how European, Greek or Roman characters in Shakespeare’s plays are played by Asian, African, and Middle Eastern descent actors.
Harry Potter series have been enjoyed by many readers around the world. I’m sure a lot of people can feel connected with such well-written characters. It’s not hard to imagine that a black or brown or Asian kid grew up thinking he or she is Harry, Ron, or Hermione. I am a Southeast Asian woman with light brown skin, and I have associated myself with various characters in my whole life: from Hunger Games books, Harry Potter books, Tolkien’s books, Sailor Moon, Xena, Javanese wayang, Natsuo Kirino’s novels, Indonesian novels written before our independence year, and many more. Once I get attached with a character, the character lives in me. Their essence, the very thing that defines them as a character, is in my mind and heart. I can see myself in them, even if I have to do mental switch to replace their faces with mine, or incorporate their life into mine. But here’s where imagination has its advantage. Who will stop you if you want to imagine Hermione as a black or even Latina girl? Who will say no if you imagine yourself as a lady version of Bilbo or Kenshin Himura? Why can’t your Katniss be an Asian girl with black hair and eyes? Who will chastise you if your mind reconstruct Neville Longbottom as a black kid with dreadlocks? In this case, I think stage play has many interesting possibilities in exploring characters.
Now, I don’t know how people will react once they come and see the play. Maybe they will change their minds. Maybe they will give decent applause. Maybe they will love it. Maybe they will still hate it. It cannot be controlled. However, I still think that people who actually have resources and time to see the play directly are in better position than me. They have a chance to actually see different interpretation of Harry Potter as we know it. If you can watch but refuse the opportunity simply because Noma is not the Hermione you know, I’d say it is a loss. Take the chance, if you can. Even if you still hate it, at least it is an experience. Because honestly, even if you are really not racist and simply surprised or disappointed by change, spewing harsh opinions before even watching the play does sound petty. I had had harsh opinions about The Hobbit movies, but once I saw the movies, there were many things that I liked in those movies. And yes, I criticized Tauriel, but there were also things in her that I liked once I saw her on screen for the first time. It was a precious experience; small, maybe, but precious nonetheless.
Take the chance. Watch the play. I hope it will become a memorable experience, even if you still don’t like it. Like what Cacambo said in Voltaire’s Candide: “If we do not meet with agreeable things, we shall at least meet with something new.” And I have to say: how jealous I am of you, people who can watch Harry Potter and the Cursed Child directly.
Noma and Cherrelle, I hope you do a great job. Good luck.