Race & Theatre: The Second C - Casting
Ruthie Ann Miles’ Tony win for Best Featured Actress in a Musical was one of the most talked about moments from this year’s broadcast. As only the second Asian American actress to win a Tony and the first ever to win in her category, Miles’ victory was nothing less than historic. I can only hope that this signals a new era in the American theatre, one in which theatre companies seek to build a diverse community of actors. This brings me to my discussion of the second C of racial representation: casting.
Recent backlash against the casting of Emma Stone as a Swedish-Chinese-Hawaiian in the film Aloha reveals the importance of race-conscious casting. Selecting actors who can merely “pass” for a certain race is particularly problematic in cases when a white actor is chosen. It perpetuates a culture of (dare I say it) white supremacy that has historically marginalized all other races. The roots of this problem are deep, and it is so entrenched in our society that many people go their whole lives without ever being aware of it— all the more reason for theatre artists to try to combat it.
In certain works, race and ethnicity are central themes. Take, for example, In the Heights. Nina, the protagonist, is the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. Throughout the show, she recalls the frustration she felt as a freshman at Stanford. Having come from a predominantly Latino community, the culture shock she experienced was due mostly to her race. Nina’s racial identity shapes her life in a way that only other Latinas could understand. To ignore this fact when casting the role is to disrespect the unique experience of second-generation immigrants in the United States. This is related to what I wrote about last week: sometimes, only members of a certain group can fully relate to an experience.
That is not to say that non-white actors should only play non-white characters. In fact, a great deal of the solution to the problem lies in casting non-white actors in roles traditionally played by whites. This may seem contradictory to the point I just made, but note that this applies mostly to shows that are not necessarily about race. For example, the role of Emily in Our Town is nearly always played by a white actress, even though the script makes no point of emphasizing her race. There is no reason not to cast, say, a black actress in the role.
Some argue that, in historical plays, casting actors of a certain race presents great inaccuracies. But the power of theatre lies not in its accuracy. Rather, it lies in the theatre’s ability to make audiences feel a genuine, human connection to a story. If non-white audience members only see whites onstage, how can we expect them to feel emotionally invested in the work?
The theatre should be a welcoming environment for actors of all racial backgrounds. It should portray and embrace the reality of America today: a beautifully multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural nation. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only kind of accuracy that really matters.