Racism in the performing arts may not be on the forefront of peoples’ minds in the same way that other forms of racism are; however, this form racism still stands true. For example, seeing an all-white cast of “Anything Goes” may not send people out of a theater in protest as witnessing an Arab American person with incredible skill and eligibility lose a job to their lesser qualified white counterpart would. In order to truly delve into the issue of racism on Broadway, we must first define what we mean.
The issue of racism comes mostly in the casting of a production. A report conducted by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition provides raw statistical evidence for racism witnessed on the Broadway stage.
“On Broadway in the 2014-15 season, numbers for minority actors dropped to 22 percent of all roles from 24 percent the previous year. Despite Asian numbers increasing from 2 percent to 11 percent (largely due to the Lincoln Center revival of The King and I, which was responsible for employing more than half of all Asians hired in the industry) and Latino representation increasing slightly from 1 percent to 2 percent, numbers for African-American actors suffered a severe drop, from 21 percent in the 2013-14 season to only 9 percent in the latest year, one of the worst showings on record and leading to a net loss for the Broadway industry as a whole.”
These numbers help gage the lack of representation of minorities on Broadway, however there is still more racism beyond just these figures.
An article published by The Huffington Post speaks to the racism seen in the casting of the hit Broadway show, Aladdin. The Disney musical production, which is based entirely in the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah, is composed of a 34-person cast which contains absolutely no people of Middle Eastern decent. In defense, the production company claimed to use the method of “colorblind casting.” At this point, the article states:
“Critics of colorblind casting argue that the practice exacerbates, rather than corrects for, the demographic imbalances that already exist in the world of theater.”
Similar to issues experienced in day-to-day life, it must be realized that differences of race and culture should not be overlooked, but rather embraced. The fact that one person’s background differs from another is what brings such diversity and complexity to the world.
I agree that the initial concept of colorblind casting was in an effort to give minorities the opportunity to portray roles that have been traditionally played by white counterparts. In contrast to these original intentions, however, the method of casting has now morphed into an opportunity for white actors to portray non-white characters, as seen in Aladdin.
In doing more research on how to revise this issue of being conscious of color rather than completely ignorant, I happened upon an article which explained just that.
“Color-conscious casting intentionally considers the race and ethnicity of actors and the characters they play in order to oppose racism, honor and respect cultures, foster stronger productions, and contribute to a more equitable world. Without it, we risk perpetuating a system that privileges whiteness with greater access and opportunity, and appropriates the cultures of communities of color.”
I was intrigued to discover this method, after battling mentally with the complications that arose from the initial colorblind movement. It manages to perpetuate the idea that theater is a place for transformation, yet also promotes the fact that not all characters can be portrayed accurately by a white performer, nor do they need to be if they traditionally are.
Throughout my blog series, Hamilton has most certainly popped up every time I research the topic of diversity of Broadway. Similar to Aladdin, Hamilton used a method of casting in order to encourage a diverse cast as well – except this time, it was a forward goal.
Hamilton’s production team issued a casting call for all non-white performers and it stirred up a huge controversy.
Was this racist in itself?
During my research, I happened upon an article that discussed exactly that. Additionally, I agreed with practically every point the author made.
“This isn’t a case of reverse racism. This isn’t a case of people of color excluding white people despite bemoaning their own lack of inclusion in media. That’s the whole point. Hamilton has created a space on Broadway for black and brown performers that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Opening up roles designed specifically to be played by performers of color means encroaching on that space.”
This got me thinking of all of the instances I have personally encountered in my hometown, where I go to an audition, read descriptions for roles, and often find the word “Caucasian” glooming at me from on the paper.
Why is this not considered racism?
As I discussed before, the fact of that matter is, some roles are meant to be performed by a certain race for interpretational purposes. However, casting is way past that point.
Jumping back to that casting call produced by the Hamilton team, I am going to focus in on the particular instance where lawyer, Randolph M. McLaughlin, threatened that the release of such a casting call was a violation of New York’s Human Rights Act.
And I quote:
“What if they put an ad out that said, ‘Whites only need apply?’”
Well, you’ve got a big storm coming. Have you seen a casting call before? Now, I will agree with one thing: calling for non-white performers is where the flaw lies. The situation could’ve been altered from the start by calling for minority performers as opposed to stating the performers mustn’t be white.
Sure, I know what you are probably thinking, and I honestly agree. White people can be very hypersensitive, often in a hypocritical manner. The two phrases I mentioned about who to call for the auditions are, point-blank, equivalent in meaning. And quite frankly, considering what America has done regarding the treatment of minorities in almost every setting over the course of the country’s life, it is ridiculous that white people feel threatened one time and it is the end of the world. But the solution to this compromise undoubtedly lies in the wording of the casting call post.
Ok, ok, moving on from Hamilton.
I moved from researching specific shows to researching specific minorites.
Native Americans on Broadway.
Seemed like an issue of underrepresented minorities which goes underrepresented. As I was reading through articles, I came across a series which truly had me giggling. Although, I must say, I was giggling in shock of the true ignorance of people, not about the very frank subject matter.
The first post:
“As I’ve been awaiting for “The New World” to come out in theatres, I’ve been a very Native-centric mood. Does anyone know of men or women of Native American heritage who have been on Broadway?”
The next few posts give answers, providing names of Native American performers who have been seen on the big stage.
Then I happen upon this:
“Kristin Chenoweth is part Cherokee.”
First, let me say that I do not mean to discredit Kristin Chenoweth in her talent or ability, and I especially do not mean to shame her for her decent. However, if you can look at me at tell me that casting Kristin Chenoweth is the equivalent of casting a Native American, I would just laugh at you. By analyzing her appearance only, which is after all what can be noticed from stage, Chenoweth appears as Caucasian, her European genes shining through. Once again, this is not something she or anyone should be ashamed of, however, it is just absurd to say that a Native American person is accurately represented on stage in the casting of Chenoweth.
Last, but certainly not least, I want to bring the focus back to diversity in my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina.
Over my years of performing with many different theater companies in my town, I can proudly say that in recent years, they have abided by the method of color-conscious casting. There are many people of color in our theater community, and the opportunity for leading roles grows every audition.
Here is a picture of some of the actors from my favorite company in a photo promoting the annual fundraiser it does:
What a good-looking, diverse, group of guys, am I right??! I am more than proud to say I have performed with each and every one of these actors on stage. Opera House Theatre Company is the company in my town which specifically works to cast in a diverse, color-conscious manner. In two of the shows in our past season, the leads have been held by people of color. In addition, the ensembles of productions are always composed of a diverse blend of races and ethnicities as well.
From the big stages of Broadway in New York City to the humble stages at Thalian Hall in Wilmington, North Carolina, diversity is certainly making its way. But as encouraging as that is, we must also realize the fight is nowhere close to over for equality. I hope my long post about the existence of racism in the performing arts helped you understand the depth and complexity behind this topic. If you have any questions, please comment below.