The Downside of Being an AOC (Actor of Colour)
Before you start assuming that this is an article about hatred and racism in the theatre industry, this isn’t that kind of article.
I am very happy to be seeing more people of different ethnicities being included in theatre. It shows that we are becoming more open in the most accepting industry in the world.
But though being an actor of colour (AOC) has its benefits in theatre, I cannot help but feel as if that only benefit is to emphasize the fact that a theatre company that hires me is not “racist”.
I witnessed this kind of casting first hand when I was holding auditions for a show I had directed and written in high school. There was one African girl who auditioned. She wasn't the greatest actress and very quiet, but I had no control over the casting and I could only consult with my supervisor (my teacher) to approve of my vision. He insisted that I make a character that was originally only in two scenes, a lead for her to play. He said it was because they needed diversity in the show. She and my brother (who also wasn't the greatest actor) were the only ones who auditioned who were of colour, so they both received lead roles.
I understand this whole idea completely, and I am glad to see AOCs be hired, but how would this girl have felt knowing I only cast her to make our program look good? Given, in the end my brother and her both did an amazing job after plenty of rehearsal and I don't regret rewriting her part as it was fun to write, but his reasoning for casting her is what opened my eyes and thus inspired me to write this article.
I’ve discovered that many actors, myself included, had this experience as well. I've been cast in shows simply because I'm Filipino, or half anyway. That's not to say I haven't been told I am full of promising talent, but it can be quite obvious sometimes when they clearly place the full Caucasian actors in the leads and I am cast as roles where someone of colour is not specified or is needed to reference to the original text.
I recently performed the show The Who's Tommy for my University. In auditions, they called me back for the role of Mrs Walker, the female lead. The callback went very well and I had done my research and memorized the songs they instructed us to learn. The other girls were not as prepared and brought lyrics to read off of when we were supposed to memorize them, and I wasn't shy about my voice. It was clear I was the most experienced and prepared of everyone there and I was ready to play the role, only to find out that they chose someone else (a Romanian girl) who got a callback for Gypsy to play the role, and I was cast as Gypsy.
Why is this an example of racial casting? First of all, a chorus member and I were the only AOCs in the show. Second, the girl who ended up getting the role over me didn't have any control over her voice or much musical experience. Third, the original person cast as Gypsy was Tina Turner: an AOC.
I know I should be grateful for being cast at all as many actors (especially women) struggle to get even a callback for a show, but this makes me feel used and understated. Maybe I don't fit their vision for the female lead, but I can't help but feel as if they are seeing my being cast as me doing them a favour for the sake of the audience.
Not only that, I’m finding AOCs are only being cast as secondary characters and never the lead, unless specifically called for it such as Miss Saigon or The King and I. This can also call for controversy and people are more aware of it such as when the Shaw Festival’s production of Sweeney Todd in Canada cast an African man as Judge Turpin, the villain. Somehow, it’s become “a risk” to be placing AOCs as the lead and people are finding secondary characters are more flexible and easy to change a race, thus avoiding the “racist” card.
Because of this, I fear of only being cast in coloured roles. Of being cast as Heather Duke because the original was Asian and needs to speak in multiple languages. Being cast as Christmas Eve because it’s a requirement of her to be Asian. Never playing Elle Woods because my skin colour would be evidence that I am not a natural blonde. I could play Heather Duke but I can hit Veronica’s notes. I can play Christmas Eve, though I’d be hesitant because I’m not Japanese, but I can also play Kate. I could play Elle, if they gave me the chance, but they won’t because my heritage gives them a second thought that wins every time.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t be happy to play a character called to be cast as someone of colour, but there aren’t enough lead roles in the theatre world, Hamilton being an exception, for me to be cast in.
The point I'm trying to make is that I want to be cast for my talent. I want to be seen as more than someone so the company “won't look racist”. I know looks are most of the vision a director has, but I want to be cast in a show where the colour of my skin doesn't matter. I want to be seen as an actor.
I want directors take a chance in casting AOCs as roles they could play. To take someone with the range of Sandy and casting them as such instead of a white woman because everyone expects it. There will be people who will see race as a casting choice in the audience, but with the world we live in today, why are we still only just bringing in the first Asian Christine this year, or the first black Jean Valjean two years ago to Broadway?
I’m telling every director to look past the colour of someone’s skin, and see their talent. The African guy playing Judge Turpin, he has the range to play Sweeney. The Indian man playing Padamadan, he has the voice and acting for Emmett or Warner. That half Filipino girl playing the Gypsy, she could play Mrs Walker… too bad, we need someone of colour for this other role.
I am not just someone of colour who’s an actor and can sing.
I am an actor who can sing and just happens to be of colour.
Aly is a University student in Canada majoring in Dramatic Arts. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do with her degree, but she doesn’t care as long as she stays involved with the love of her life: theatre.