If the Creators of HAIRSPRAY Don't Care About its Casting, We Should.

Melody Nicolette

The following piece is a response to Chris Petersen’s thoughtful  Should There Be All-White Productions of "Hairspray"?

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Emphasis mine.

The use of make-up to portray black characters in your production (e.g., blackface) is not permitted under this Production Contract. By signing below, you agree to inform the director of your production that such use of makeup is strictly prohibited.

If your production of Hairspray features actors who are portraying characters whose race may be other than their own, you may elect to include the below letter from the creators of Hairspray in your program. You are not permitted to edit the letter in any way.

Dear Audience Members,

When we, the creators of HAIRSPRAY, first started licensing the show to high-schools and community theatres, we were asked by some about using make-up in order for non-African Americans to portray the black characters in the show.

Although we comprehend that not every community around the globe has the perfectly balanced make-up (pardon the pun) of ethnicity to cast HAIRSPRAY as written, we had to, of course, forbid any use of the coloring of anyone’s face (even if done respectfully and subtly) for it is still, at the end of the day, a form of blackface, which is a chapter in the story of race in America that our show is obviously against.

Yet, we also realized, to deny an actor the chance to play a role due to the color of his or her skin would be its own form of racism, albeit a “politically correct” one.

And so, if the production of HAIRSPRAY you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn’t match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of “suspension of disbelief” and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!), you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully, have a great time receiving it!

Thank You,
Marc, Scott, Mark, Tom & John

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Man, I am so tired of crap like this.

Let me start off by saying that I love(d) the musical HAIRSPRAY. I love the John Waters film. I even love the film version of the musical, and I am absolutely not sorry about it. So colour me shocked and disgusted after reading the above statement.

HAIRSPRAY, with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray, has a creative team made up entirely of white men. White men who, apparently, don’t care if someone who isn’t Black plays Seaweed, or any other Black character in the show.

It's because they don't actually care about Black people or Black lives as long as they can use Black history to make money.

And, lo! We do not find ourselves a garden variety irony.  T’is a very special type of irony, all things considered, when you reflect on the fact that the majority of  dominant American and World popular culture has spent the last however many hundreds of years leaching off of African American culture. This is even touched upon in HAIRSPRAY.

This is the issue with non-POC writing POC characters or narratives (especially Black-POC, though especially ones that focus around a white antagonist and Black and other POC serving as supporting or secondary characters): not only do they not have context, they don’t care about the impact of the media they’ve created, because they’ve already collected the cheque.

Also, we must ask ourselves this: why do we prefer Black art and Black stories and history from non-Black sources? Why is To Kill a Mockingbird worshipped over the innumerable books written by Black authors about the exact same era?  Why do we continuously prioritize Black and Non-Black POC stories through white lenses with white main protagonists?

Let’s unpack this trainwreck of a letter a little bit, shall we?:

Yet, we also realized, to deny an actor the chance to play a role due to the color of his or her skin would be its own form of racism, albeit a “politically correct” one.”

Friends, I hate to break this to you, but reserve racism is not real. It’s not about being “politically correct,” it’s about being, well,  correct. (How to spot a Fake Woke™: use of expressions such as  “race card,” “politically correct,” “reverse racism,” etc.)

I am sure The Creatives want (and expect) brownie points simply for making the HAIRSPRAY musical a reality. I am sure they’ll parade all their “woke” “credits” that make them above reproach or critique. None of that matters given their staggering, and seemingly wilful, cognitive dissonance between the themes show itself and the absolute shocking tone deafness of its creative team. How dare we question their outdated views?

Let’s unpack some more of the questionable language used:

To “deny” someone the “chance” to play the role of Seaweed, when literally nearly every other show in the Broadway canon lets them basically be anyone else ever--- can this really be considered a “thing?!” You’re going to cry about not playing Seaweed when the rest of Broadway caters to you? Really?!

 From left, Melvin Brandon Logan as Seaweed, Jennifer Fouché as Motormouth Maybelle, and Tavia Riveé as Little Inez in Florida Studio Theatre's production of "Hairspray." Maria Lyle Photo

From left, Melvin Brandon Logan as Seaweed, Jennifer Fouché as Motormouth Maybelle, and Tavia Riveé as Little Inez in Florida Studio Theatre's production of "Hairspray." Maria Lyle Photo

In reality, to deny someone the chance of playing Seaweed “based on race,” would not be “reverse racism,” but would deny the creative team worldwide opportunities for royalties they don’t want to miss out on.  If you were inclined to believe that this business was at any point altruistic and anything more than just that, a business, well, then, I’m sorry. If you wonder why we as People of Colour remain distrustful of the authenticity of performative efforts by fake woke allies, one need look no further.

Quite literally the entire conceit of the show HAIRSPRAY revolves very specifically around racial segregation of African Americans under not that distant laws, and not casting the show appropriately renders the show immaterial. By insinuating that “reverse racism” is both real and applicable to casting of this show renders it immaterial. The “wishes” of the creative team do not  in any way, shape, or form supersede the necessity and responsibility that stories about race and race relations are depicted appropriately, with historical context and respect to present day implications.Apparently Black representation is disposable, and POC bodies are as interchangeable as Tupperware lids.

There is also no such thing as “colourblind” casting because the world we live in is not colourblind. If it were, the expression “colourblind casting” would not exist. What I think someone really means is “a deviation from the white default.” Stop saying you “don’t see colour.”  It does bother you; it’s why you mention it. Previously having written at length on the subject, I can tell you people get visceral about what they consider “distracting” “rainbow” casting. (But, you know, the  folks who live in reality and call out critiquing race are the TRUE source perpetuating  of racism.  So I'm told.)

(not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man)”

Um, well, there are a lot of folks who aren’t happy with that, either, as it borderlines transphobia.

This “White Creatives’ Penchant For Throwing The POC They’ve Made Profit Off Of Under the Bus” thing is not that uncommon, unfortunately. Baz Luhrmann just being able to “walk away” from ‘The Get Down’ is another great example. If we’re talking about non-POC/ non-Black people telling POC/ Black stories for profit, the importance of context, etc., well, this was an example of a mess. Albeit, it was a stunningly beautiful mess, one that falls in line with the rest of the Baz  canon and its propensity of making poverty, suffering, and pain “tragically” “glamourous.” (yawn) For him, the stories and histories of People of Colour, especially Black and Afro-Latinx people, were good enough to make money off of, but could just be abandoned when they are no longer lucrative for him. In others words, we are only good enough when we’re making them money. Luhrmann can just walk away from POC stories, because it doesn’t actually mean anything to him. Yes, I get he was only co-producing and that, ring-a-ding-ding, it’s a business out to make money, but telling the story of the history of Hip Hop ALSO CAME WITH A RESPONSIBILITY TO ITS SOURCE. “Art” never takes precedence over real life consequence.  Calling whatever thing you do ~*art*~ doesn’t mean it cannot be critiqued or held accountable.

So, while the all-white creative team behind HAIRSPRAY seems to think that reverse racism is real and that Seaweed can be played by anyone non-Black, them not caring doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care. It means we have to care more. Non-Black people, including and especially Non-Black POC,  have to stand up and push back against this rhetoric. They say “yes” because they cash that cheque, but we have the Power of the Almighty Wallet to say “no.” These stories are not disposable. People of Colour, especially African Americans, cannot divorce themselves from history or context. People of Colour live in a world where our histories are not distant, and inform our entire lives, and we have the ability and the responsibility to ensure our narratives and stories aren’t commodified by white lenses for profit (anymore than they already have been).

I am not saying you shouldn’t be in a production of or love HAIRSPRAY. I effing love HAIRSPRAY.  It’s a fun and funny show, with great characters, and a heart-warming message.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a great show with a great source material, but you cannot always divorce media from those who make it (or their beyond problematic views). Given the stance of the creative team, I am less inclined to give it my money now.

Always be critical of the media you consume and who makes it, and why.

Here is some further reading, if you are so inclined:

·       The Dangers of ‘Hairspray’

·       Is History Something to Sing About?

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

·       Social and Historical Context of Hairspray

·       Hairspray’s Revealing Portrayal of Racism in America

·       'HAIRSPRAY' PROBLEM: SEGREGATION WASN'T FUN

·       Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies

·       All-White Production Of ‘Hairspray’ In Texas Raises Eyebrows

·       Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties?

·       On False Equivalences

·       Authenticity in casting: From 'colorblind' to 'color conscious,' new rules are anything but black and white

·       Why saying “I don’t see race/gender/etc.” is offensive

·       Race and parenting: Why raising 'colorblind' kids is actually a terrible idea

·       Why the way race is cast on stage and screen needs to change

·       If You ‘Don’t See Race,’ You’re Not Paying Attention

·       When you say you 'don't see race', you’re ignoring racism, not helping to solve it

·       Forget Atticus: Why We Should Stop Teaching ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

·       These Scholars Have Been Pointing Out Atticus Finch's Racism for Years

·       warmly embrace a racist novel (to kill a mockingbird)

·       Is To Kill a Mockingbird racist?

·       How To Kill a Mockingbird Reflects the Real Civil Rights Movement

·       ESSAY — MY 'TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD' PROBLEM… AND OURS
Why Are We Still Teaching 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in Schools?

·       To Kill a Mockingbird and Antiblack Violence: Why White Readers Love Atticus Finch

·       Black History Month, Empathy, and To Kill a Mockingbird

·       Matthew McConaughey Can't Stop Being a Badass White Savior in Free State of Jones

Baz Luhrmann on ‘The Get Down': ‘I Always Knew It Wasn’t My Story’