Race & Theatre: Creation, Casting & Content

Carolina Ribeiro

  • Massachusetts Columnist

The First C: Creation

Creation is the process of crafting and telling the story. Anyone involved in shaping the play as a whole, be it the playwright, composer, or director, falls under this category. I would also consider musicians theatre technicians as creators, since their work can also hugely influence the way in which the audience experiences the story. Additionally, producers, though they may not always have a significant say in the artistic aspects of a production, are heavily involved with marketing, and thus create an expectation for the story before audience members even get to see it. This is arguably just as important as the story itself, and I would therefore be inclined to say that they, too, fall under the category of creators.

The most obvious reason why representation is necessary within this field is that it will empower young, budding thespians of minority backgrounds to create their own theatre. This is especially true when there is diversity in highly visible positions, namely playwrights, composers, and directors, since these are often the individuals who become most widely recognized for their work. If a twelve-year old African American girl watching the Tony Awards sees that there are black women who write plays and win awards for them, she will no doubt be comforted to know that there is a space for her words on Broadway. 

The second reason why representation is important among creators is perhaps a bit more uncomfortable to acknowledge. While there are plays that everyone can connect to, there are some stories that are intimately linked to a particular race. These stories are often based on common experiences shared by people of that race. Though we like to believe that theatre is always universal, on some level we must concede that certain experiences cannot be felt by others, cannot be understood by others, and most importantly, cannot be told by others. 

Regardless of our race, we all have something unique to say. The best creators are those who can recognize this fact and turn their own experiences into art. In other words, they do not try to tell anyone else’s story. This authenticity is theatre at its best. 

 “Anything you do, let it come from you.”
--Stephen Sondheim (my favorite creator)

The Second C: Casting

Ruthie Ann Miles’ Tony win for Best Featured Actress in a Musical was one of the most talked about moments from the 2015 Tonys. As only the second Asian American actress to win a Tony and the first ever to win in her category, Miles’ victory was nothing less than historic. I can only hope that this signals a new era in the American theatre, one in which theatre companies seek to build a diverse community of actors. This brings me to my discussion of the second C of racial representation: casting.

Emma Stone in "Aloha"

Emma Stone in "Aloha"

Backlash against the casting of Emma Stone as a Swedish-Chinese-Hawaiian in the film Aloha reveals the importance of race-conscious casting. Selecting actors who can merely “pass” for a certain race is particularly problematic in cases when a white actor is chosen. It perpetuates a culture of (dare I say it) white supremacy that has historically marginalized all other races. The roots of this problem are deep, and it is so entrenched in our society that many people go their whole lives without ever being aware of it— all the more reason for theatre artists to try to combat it.

In certain works, race and ethnicity are central themes. Take, for example, In the Heights. Nina, the protagonist, is the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. Throughout the show, she recalls the frustration she felt as a freshman at Stanford. Having come from a predominantly Latino community, the culture shock she experienced was due mostly to her race. Nina’s racial identity shapes her life in a way that only other Latinas could understand. To ignore this fact when casting the role is to disrespect the unique experience of second-generation immigrants in the United States. This is related to what I wrote about last week: sometimes, only members of a certain group can fully relate to an experience.

That is not to say that non-white actors should only play non-white characters. In fact, a great deal of the solution to the problem lies in casting non-white actors in roles traditionally played by whites. This may seem contradictory to the point I just made, but note that this applies mostly to shows that are not necessarily about race. For example, the role of Emily in Our Town is nearly always played by a white actress, even though the script makes no point of emphasizing her race. There is no reason not to cast, say, a black actress in the role.

Some argue that, in historical plays, casting actors of a certain race presents great inaccuracies. But the power of theatre lies not in its accuracy. Rather, it lies in the theatre’s ability to make audiences feel a genuine, human connection to a story. If non-white audience members only see whites onstage, how can we expect them to feel emotionally invested in the work?

The theatre should be a welcoming environment for actors of all racial backgrounds. It should portray and embrace the reality of America today: a beautifully multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural nation. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only kind of accuracy that really matters.

The Third C: Content

I should begin by first explaining what exactly I mean by content. In have already discussed those who create the story and those who perform the story. Content, simply put, is the story itself.

What, then, is the place of representation in content? Some might say that it is enough to just write plays that include characters of various races. But diversity for the sake of diversity can easily turn into tokenism, so this is only part of the answer. Representation in content requires accurately portraying the reality of life as experienced by people of different races, and thus involves a deep, thorough, and oftentimes uncomfortable investigation of inequality.

Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre

Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre

There are plays that accomplish this by drawing upon history. An example of this is Ragtime, a musical about whites, blacks, and immigrants living in New York City during the early 1900s. These kinds of stories force us to recognize our country’s dark past and further our understanding of race and racism, for there is no way of understanding where we are without knowing how we got here.

But historical plays have their flaws. Because audience members know the story takes place in the past, they are able to somewhat alienate themselves from the subject matter. They remain unaware of the fact that, to this day, our lives are impacted by our race. It is impossible to recognize this fact without an understanding of present-day racism as it operates on both institutional and interpersonal levels. 

That is why we also need plays that address the reality of racial relations today. We need stories about 21st century issues, from police brutality to immigration. Of course, there are some problems that have existed throughout history, but placing them in a contemporary context makes them more accessible.

The ultimate goal of representation through content is to provide a complete picture of racial relations. It would be naïve to assume that we have reached a situation where all races have access to the same opportunities. The narrative of the struggle for equality is ongoing, and theatre should reflect that. We should not shy away from these issues, but rather bring them to light onstage.