Race & Theatre: Colorblind Cacophony

Race & Theatre: Colorblind Cacophony

Danon Middleton

OnStage Columnist

There are roles I will never have the opportunity to play on stage. I am on the shorter side of tall. I am on the older side of young. And I am on the fluffier side of fit. As such I look for and audition for roles that suit me – or rather, that a director can believe I am suited for. The one thing I don’t have to think about much when searching for the next opportunity on stage is my skin tone. Unfortunately, not every actor has that same luxury.

Would I have been offered the role of Sky Masterson – a traditionally white gambler-king falling in love with a white missionary woman during the pre-civil rights era – if I were on the darker side of color? Probably not. What about the offer I got to play George in Of Mice and Men – a white travelling field hand during the Depression-era? Not likely. Sound of Music? Nah. Oliver, Fiddler, Annie Get Your Gun? Nope, nope, and nope.

So when I hear white performers lament never getting the opportunity to play any of the leads in Hamilton, my ears perk up and I get out my soapbox.

It has been a year now since the mild controversy over Hamilton’s ‘diverse’ casting call specifically recruited actors of color and whites need not audition. While the semantics of the notice begged for a copy editor, the need for diversity casting has been a long time coming. Notice I use the word ‘diversity’ casting as opposed to the more culturally acceptable ‘colorblind’ casting. There is a distinct reason for that.

Colorblind casting was outreach to the non-white performing community by white producers and directors. It is a passive effort to show good will and placate anyone that would have cause to bemoan yet another all white cast of characters. It works in theory as it posits as an audition meritocracy – the best actors get the roles regardless of skin color. Inevitably, however, it becomes impractical. I’m sorry but a Latino husband plus an Asian wife does not equal an African-American child in Revolutionary France - not if every other family racial dynamic on stage makes logical sense. Ironically, it also has the opposite effect when a production has one or two tokens on stage highlighting the homogeneity rather than its integration. Hence the need for diversity casting.

Diversity casting is the purposeful placement of performers of color into traditionally white roles. Rather than a passive effort, this is an intentional decision meant to elevate characters above their racial identity. It is also largely comprehensive for the entire cast of a production. There are no tokens here.

I once directed a production of Death of a Salesman. Anyone that knows the show knows that every single character is white. I went another way. Willy was white, but his wife and sons were black. When Biff catches Willy cheating on his wife with a white woman, you could hear the gasps in the audience! Diversity casting added a conflict and tension that wasn’t there otherwise. It also made the story more relevant to modern struggles of racially blended families. It created new exploration for the actors and new revelations for the audience. Colorblind casting could not have achieved the same result.

When it comes to productions such as Hamilton, Caucasian actors have absolutely no cause to complain for their exclusion. First, as expressed earlier, there are literally thousands of other roles for which they can be considered. Second, many of those roles are traditionally allocated for solely Caucasian actors and it is therefore hypocritical to challenge the very privilege one has enjoyed when it goes the other way. Finally – and most importantly – if one wants a role like Alexander Hamilton, go write it!

Consider for a moment the enormous vulnerability Lin-Manuel Miranda underwent to write and produce his show. The closest anyone has come to doing such a thing is when directors adapt Shakespeare by changing the setting in order to add racial or LGBT issues that do not fit in the original. Not Miranda. He kept the setting, kept the accuracy of historic events and kept all the personal relationships. He purposefully changed the colors of faces and added hip-hop/rap music. It could have been an enormous flop. The risk of that happening was high. He took the risk anyway.

It paid off. Hamilton is a must-see Broadway sensation and a box office smash with a soundtrack that still sits in the top fifteen on iTunes a full eighteen months after its release. It won eleven Tony awards and brought diversity casting into the limelight.

For any of my white actor counterparts that bemoan never getting the chance to play Eliza, Alexander or Lafayette, I have a simple question: are you willing to take the risk Miranda did and write your own show? If not, then stop complaining.

Diversity casting works. With persistence, diversity casting may very well lead to a legitimate form of colorblind casting in which any actor can be considered for any role regardless of his or her racial composition. But that cannot happen until we begin to see every role not for what they look like but for whom they are. That is what makes Miranda’s Hamilton so special.

There are roles for which I will never get the opportunity to play. I will never be Eliza Doolittle as I am male. I will never be Coalhouse Walker as I am Caucasian. I will never be George Washington as I am under-tall. I am okay with that as there are plenty of roles for which I am justly suited or can conceivably convince a director thereto. In the superficial industry of theatre where height, weight and attractiveness play such a large role – how many times have we heard the phrase, “You don’t look the part” – diversity casting can at least remove one barrier for a large and underrepresented segment of our community. That is a good thing.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get another spanx and a new pair of lifts.

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