Who Tells Your Story? : Unpacking the History of Whitewashing in Theatre and What to do About It

Who Tells Your Story? : Unpacking the History of Whitewashing in Theatre and What to do About It

Melody Nicolette

The topic of whitewashed casting decisions in theatrical productions, both amateur and professional, rears its ugly head again and again. Again and again, you would think that something so egregious and, frankly, embarrassing would have seen itself fade out into the obscurity of a distant memory of bygone eras. Sadly, no. It just can’t seem to die. Article after article is written denouncing the casting of a white actor in a role written for a person of colour, and, again and again, these articles are met with the rabid defense of the cringe-worthy, archaic practice. “Best actor for the job!” they cry.

While Hollywood is notoriously guilty of whitewashing as well, for the purposes of this piece, we’re going to focus on whitewashing in theatre--in all its forms--, and why it matters, no matter what source of media is doing it. We’re also going to tackle how to make this unfortunate practice die out.

And, by the way, before the foolishness in the comments section starts in, let me start off by saying that the casting of a person of colour in a traditionally white role is not a double standard. (see later in this piece when HAMILTON comes into the discussion).

Why? You ask, is whitewashing such an important issue?

Whitewashing usurps voices from marginalized people and further contributes to their marginalization and erasure, making sure that white voices and faces are the centre of the conversation. All conversations. These are not those who were just “looking to be offended,” like Nancy Drew on the case, trackin’ down that reason to be offended. These are those who are trying to call their erasure into attention, those with already limited visibility in the media or control over their own narratives.

It’s a lot more complicated and nuanced than just “talent.”

Whitewashing exists in all corners of media: White actors (and singers), for example,  are rewarded for things that the people they are emulating have been historically punished for. An actor can be applauded for her ability to do a “Spanish accent” (which, for the record, and the love of GOD,  is not a Puerto Rican accent) as Maria in WEST SIDE STORY, whereas an actor who is actually Puerto Rican may have spent her career being passed over for roles because of her real one she lives with every day. Singers like Adele and Iggy Azalea are applauded for emulating African-American singing styles as white artists when instead we could be elevating African American or Black artists. Elvis is also a great example of a white artist being rewarded for a “Black sound” and taking credit from Black artists.  

Much like its heinous cousin cultural appropriation, there are those fervent to defend whitewashing, and their ability to do it, without any regard whatsoever to the people in question being impacted by it.  You would think that, when presented with the fact that they have participated in something harmful, they would [apologize,] reevaluate their actions and correct themselves.  Instead, again and again, the discussions go in circles, and these folks don’t seem to understand they’ve inserted (and centred) themselves in conversations that don’t have anything to do with them and made it all about them. Not unlike the way European nations have inserted themselves in countries all over the globe.

Whitewashing isn’t just limited to white actors taking roles from people of colour in roles that are written for people of colour. Nope, can’t just settle for that. Whitewashing also includes excluding people of colour from historical narratives and using people of colour as accessories in white-centered narratives.

“Historical accuracy”  comes up as an excuse for not casting of a person of colour in a role where race isn’t specified, but because it’s a “historical piece,” white is the assumed default. People complained about “historical accuracy” with Norm Lewis as King Triton in THE LITTLE MERMAID ...when he was playing… a magical half-fish-person (a merman is feasible, but being a Black one isn’t. Yeah, okay). There were multiple complaints about “historical accuracy” in the last two revivals of LES MISÉRABLES surrounding the casting of people of colour in prominent roles, even though Alexandre Dumas, one of Hugo’s peers, was a mixed-race Black man, and in the novel Javert is at least half Romani (and suffers from internalized racism). There are also several Black and mixed-race characters mentioned in the novel.  

Another example I love to use: several years ago, as I was exiting the theatre after a performance of BRIGADOON, another patron could be overheard grumbling as he was walking out of theatre, about how “distracting” and “inaccurate” some of the ensemble members were because they were played by actors of colour. Nevermind the fact that people of colour have been in Europe and the UK since the 11th and 12th centuries (partially because of the Crusades), and that Indigenous people from the Americas were brought over as slaves during the 1500’s, a hundred years before 1746 (the year the village is frozen in). Nevermind that the tartan used in the show had been outlawed right before this story takes place. Nevermind the fact that he just sat through two and a half or more hours of a show that takes place in a magical village that disappears into the Highland mist to reappear once every hundred years.  Why does the suspension of disbelief only lend itself to magic and not to the existence of people of colour?

Which brings this conversation to HAMILTON. “But what about HAMILTON?,” they whine. “A Black George Washington!!!,” “Historical accuracy!!!,” they whine again. OK, so, what about HAMILTON? The beauty of HAMILTON is it gives a moment for all of those who helped during every moment of American history who have been made invisible, who were purposely excluded from the American historical narrative, and considered secondary and supplemental to “real” history.  Let these unsung heroes finally have their moment: Thousands of slaves and mixed-raced people were crucial in the winning of the American Revolution. In fact, one of the biggest aids in the American Revolution were left of the HAMILTON narrative: the Algonquin nations who were allied with the French. Even in HAMILTON Native Americans still don’t have a moment (which is just sad, especially considering Alexander Hamilton’s relationship with them).  Where’s the cry for historical accuracy there?  They’re not upset that George Washington owned slaves, tried to starve out the Haudenosaunee  or wore the teeth of slaves in his dentures. They’ve never expressed any dissatisfaction with centuries of Crispus Attucks being excluded from the countless movies, books, miniseries--whatever. But they’ll lose their minds over a person of colour playing George Washington and froth at the mouth over “historical accuracy!”

Those to cry “historical accuracy!!!” also seem to have extremely short memories: people of colour have faced over a hundred years of cinema and countless other forms of media with white actors in egregious face paints, miserably trying to pass themselves off Native American Chiefs or Kings of Siam. Historical figures like the Lone Ranger who were people of colour in real life (Black, in this case) become white characters for radio, film, and television---the list goes on and on. Apparently, the need for “historical accuracy”  in a piece only matters when certain people can’t centre themselves in it. When discussing “historical accuracy” as an excuse for whitewashing,  here are historical contexts that are never taken into consideration:  imperialism, colonization, slavery, reservation systems and compulsory boarding schools, genocide, and intergenerational trauma.  

Traditionally when the roles for people of colour did come up, and when they weren’t usurped by white actors, these roles are traditionally secondary characters and vehicles for white-centered narratives. SOUTH PACIFIC, THE KING AND I, and SHOWBOAT, for example, are far more about the white protagonists. Racism as a theme is secondary to the romantic storylines of the white leads; they are still the faces of the show.

(Speaking of whitewashing, the real Anna Leonowens of THE KING AND I was mixed-race.)

The climate is admittedly changing; Broadway’s pallet is changing, as are the tastes of those who attend Broadway shows. A  lot of newer shows that centre around the stories of people of colour from their own perspectives. But we need more. The Broadway catalog remains predominantly white, even if there are shows who are chipping away at the status quo.

Alright, so, now what do we do about all of this?

Conscientious Casting Decisions.

This has been said innumerable times: if you don’t have the right ethnicities to fill the roles for the show in question, don’t do the show. Full stop. If you don’t have the appropriate person to fill the role, find another show to perform in its place. This is not a simple concept. Reach out. Try harder when trying to cast these shows.

Context matters.

Take the example of casting an African-American actor in the role of Judd Frye compared to casting him as Enjolras:

OKLAHOMA!  is a prime example of whitewashing; conveniently avoiding any of the very serious racial tensions and violence that were occurring during the period in which the musical takes place, we are presented with nostalgic pastoral images: fields of high corn, surreys and picnics Notably absent are the all-Black towns, Dawes Act, the effects of Land Run of 1889, and,  lest we forget the Native American nations who forcefully removed from their ancestral homes (death marches) who were now combatting for space with the Native nations who were already there. OKLAHOMA! takes place in 1906, the same year as the Enabling Act of 1906, which moved Oklahoma towards its statehood and helped displace Native people who had already been removed, and dissolved all tribal governments. Casting an African-American man, for example, as Judd, which would play on centuries of tropes of the savage black rapist, is a poor choice, to say the least. It treads not so lightly into Birth of a Nation territory. While there is a Persian character in OKLAHOMA! (and, I can’t lie, is pretty cool), Ali Hakim’s presence doesn’t really contribute to the discussion of aforementioned racial issues.

This is the fundamental difference between an African American man playing Enjolras and playing Judd: historically, it would make perfect sense for a Black man to play Enjolras, looking no further than groups such as Société des citoyens de couleur (Society of Colored Citizens), of the 1789 French Revolution, and France’s early abolition of slavery and adoption of egalitarian ideals. A Black man cast as Enjolras doesn’t contribute to dangerous stereotypes that historically got these men murdered.

Making conscious casting choices that don’t rely on centuries-old tropes.

This one reiterates the point above; know the difference between representation and tokenism. Casting certain roles of “sidekicks” or secondary characters (for decades this was Éponine) as a person of colour flirts dangerously with the trope of the Loyal Brown Companion who serves  as an accessory to a white protagonist (think: Tonto, Sacajawea, Pocahontas, Gunga Din, His Man Friday, etc.)( and, to make matters worse, these are often played in brownface). Think very carefully about casting for “edginess.” We’re people, not props.

Ethnicities are not interchangeable.

If you don’t have the appropriate ethnicity for a character, don’t use another ethnicity to “pass.” People of colour are not part of a mix-and-match Tupperware set where you can just substitute any brown person for another. Juanita Hall originated both Bloody Mary (Polynesian) in SOUTH PACIFIC and Auntie Liang (Chinese) in FLOWER DRUM SONG. Juanita Hall was African American. Casting African Americans, Latinos and Asians as Arab people in Disney’s ALADDIN isn’t “representation.” (And, no, it doesn’t matter that Agrabah is a fictional location, Arab people actually exist).

“Satire” is not an excuse.

Looking at your sorry ass, BLOODY, BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON. Not only did BLOODY feature redface, but its anti-Indian lines were not funny.  It’s not “playing a character.”  Satire isn’t an excuse for whitewashing or other forms of racism in art. It’s not that we don’t “get it.”  People of colour know we’re being dehumanized and made fun of. There’s not a whole lot to “get.”

Hold yourself accountable as an actor.

To white actors who complain about not being able to play, for example, Maria in WEST SIDE STORY or Nabulungi in BOOK OF MORMON: almost all of the rest of Broadway is catered to you. Accept that sometimes there are pieces you don’t get to be a part of. We can enjoy things even if we cannot see ourselves in them. Trust me, people of colour have to do it all the time. No matter how talented you are, taking a role that is intended for a person of colour is going to be reliant on stereotypes and stereotypes are going to inform your choices. Don’t do it. Don’t accept those roles, don’t audition for them. Instead, participate in dismantling this system, holding those in charge of casting accountable. Do you really want to participate in perpetuating centuries of racism just so that you can play Maria in WEST SIDE STORY or Christmas Eve in AVENUE Q? Respect and dignity for marginalized people is more important than glory for you on stage.

Being racially responsible is more important than “art” or “talent.”

Lastly, and, more importantly: support new work.

SHOWBOAT was considered a revolutionary milestone when it came out, but now is seen as incredibly dated and stereotype-ridden. Not all shows age well. Sometimes, it really is okay to let these ol’ chestnuts go and be the museum pieces they are and make room for newer and more diverse narratives. It’s why ALLEGIANCE was so important, and why the Broadway community should have fought for it to stay longer.  THE MIKADO doesn’t really have relevance anymore; it’s okay to retire it for a real Asian-centric piece (like ALLEGIANCE).

As creatives, you should be pushing for these important stories. As a Broadway community, you should let The Powers That Be know you want to see actual diversity and use The Power of the Wallet to get your point across. Whitewashing is as old as media itself. It a part of the history of theatre and film that is inescapable. It just doesn’t have a place, and it never did.  Let’s be the generation who puts an end to it.

~~~~~

Melody is a performer from the San Francisco area. She can be followed on Twitter @lebasfondmusic

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