After months of anticipation, "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" has its first preview in London tonight.
The play follows Harry and his friends as grownups, 19 years after the events of the last book.
Newspapers have described it as the theatrical event of the decade. It hasn't even opened yet, but it's already a smash hit. It took less than 24 hours for the entire allocation of 175,000 tickets to sell out, breaking UK records.
It’s fair to say it’s causing a lot of excitement. It’s also causing controversy.
Actress Noma Dumezweni, who is black, has been cast as Hermione Granger. Despite her Olivier award-winning credentials, some fans have objected, saying that the original character's identity is being changed.
Over the weekend, author JK Rowling called the critics "idiots" and "a bunch of racists." She said Hermione's race was never specified and that Dumezweni was the best applicant for the job.
“I respect people being protective of their favorite characters. The Harry Potter series has been something a lot of us have grown up with,” said Akua Gyamfi, the founder of The British Blacklist, a UK database of black British talent in the arts. “But this is a different imagining of the story. The characters are older. They are on stage. None of us even know how this story is going to play out. People need to chill out.”
While conceding that not all of the online comments have been malicious, Gyamfi says some of the remarks have been genuinely racist. In her view, Rowling was right to "call out the trolls."
“JK has been really brilliant at stamping down on people who have unnecessary things to say,” she said.
The controversy takes place against a backdrop of continuing problems with diversity in the arts in the UK. One particular issue has been a "drain" of minority talent from the UK to US.
British actors such as Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo have based their careers in Hollywood rather than London, and some have argued that the UK is not providing enough opportunities to talented and well-qualified performers from minority backgrounds.
According to Gyamfi, it is indicative of a wider problem that this debate around a "black Hermione" is even going on.
“I’m not surprised at all”, said Gyamfi. “Things need to change so that it becomes less of a hoo-hah every time something different occurs and every time a black person is cast in a role that people are a bit surprised about.”
“It needs to become a more muted conversation, where people don’t blink an eye when things like this happen.”
That said, Gyamfi is positive about the play and its cast.
“This is a great testament to [Noma’s] talent. It’s a great testament to people embracing new ideas and new thoughts, and just not being restricted by boundaries and limitations.”
And as Gyamfi points out, the debate around Noma "doesn’t seem to have put people off."
If you didn't get a ticket yet, it will be at least May 2017 before you get a chance to see the new play. Tickets for tonight’s preview have reportedly been selling for nearly $3,000.
Unfortunately for Gyamfi, she isn’t one of the lucky ones who has managed to get one.
“My teenage daughter is really excited and I can’t wait to take her," she said. "Hopefully I’ll be able to get onto the waiting list!”
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