Whitewashing in Theatre Will Always be a Method of Racial Exclusion

Rebekah Dare Guin 

  • North Carolina Columnist

When Tom Sawyer whitewashes, it is a cute anecdote about a little boy’s hilarious manipulation. When live theater whitewashes, it is a systematic method of racial exclusion. 

Whitewashing, or race-bending, is not referring to an old-school method of painting your garden fence. It is when directors cast white actors as characters of color. 

Most recently, Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theater cast a white actor in the lead of the new Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In the Heights.” This production is getting noticed because of Miranda’s fame and the success of “Hamilton,” but this is not the first time whitewashing has happened. 

Kenan Theater Company, the undergraduate theater company at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, produced “9 Parts of Desire” a few seasons ago. “9 Parts of Desire” is based on experiences among Muslim women of the Middle East. The cast was almost exclusively white. 

This problem can be tied back to racially charged instances of blackface. Though whitewashing is not a satirical portrayal of stereotypes for comic relief, it comes from the same place of cultural appropriation. 

In the same way an African American man should not play Otto Frank in “Anne Frank,” a white girl should not play Lil Inez in “Hairspray” regardless of the actor's ability to sing and dance. Racebending.com’s whole mission is to raise awareness of the topic in both cinema and theater. 

“More often than not, this practice has a resultant discriminatory impact on an underrepresented cultural community and actors from that community (reinforcement of glass ceilings, loss of opportunity, etc.),” the website said. 

Most small theaters claim that there simply are not enough actors of non-white ethnicities to fill roles that complete their seasons. This is true. Participation in the theater by minorities has always been disproportionate to the population as a whole. This is its own problem. The theater community should look at what is going on behind the scenes to cause these statistical inconsistencies. The search should start with educational theater and work up to the professional working environment. 

However, that is a long-term fix. Choices have to be made today. Casting directors of small theaters have to decide who to put in non-white roles. 

Most theaters already have a good understanding of their casting pool. Of course, some shows will draw in new blood, but most small theaters see the same faces audition over and over again. If these pools are known and known to be predominantly white, should a small theater produce diverse titles? 

Large theaters, particularly those in large and diverse cities, do not have these excuses. The casting pool is much larger, and they have the funding to expand their scope if need be. 

Theater is a place for the open discussion of real problems, real people, and real cultures.

Theaters should expand their seasons to include shows that examine all walks of life. Productions that talk about experiences among Muslim women of the Middle East, Latino neighborhoods in New York and African American struggles during the civil rights movement should be shared. They just need to be shared in the right way. 

Photo: Kenan Theatre Company, Chapel Hil