Race & Theatre: Our "White Lists"

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder

For any performer, we have what are known as our "dream roles". For some it might be playing Juliet, for others it might be Willy Loman. These roles serve as beacons for our careers and the ultimate achievement when we're cast in them. 

A couple of weeks ago I was in Louisville, KY attending an audition at a performing arts school. While I was waiting for the session to begin, I started to chat with a young Asian actress in the hallway. After exchanging small talk about theatre, shows, etc, I asked her what her dream roles were? Here answer took me aback. 

"Do you mean my real list? Or my White List?"

I paused. I knew what she meant by this but I had to ask. 

"Well one is a list of roles that I know I would get cast in. The other is a list of roles I could play if I was white."

Her "real list" was pretty much what I expected: Kim in Miss Saigon, Christmas Eve in Avenue Q, Marcy Park in Spelling Bee and Linda Low in Flower Drum Song. But her "White List" shocked me. It included roles like Elphaba in Wicked, Cinderella in Cinderella and Whatsername from American Idiot. 

I told her that none of those roles had to be played by white women. She replied, "Yeah but you know how it is."

Truth is....I do. 

As a young actor growing up, I too had two different lists of roles I wanted to play. The first being the roles I knew I could realistically play as an Asian man and the other ones if I was white. Over the years I've spoken with many other performers of color and I know I'm far from the only one who had lists like these. 

Lists like these are common for performers of color because we know the limitations that the theatre industry places on us. More than not, ethnically open roles are given to white actors. And while it's normal for us to figure this out by the time we begin our professional careers, it's more than disheartening to see that young high school performers realize this already. 

With each new major casting announcement, I find myself searching to see if a performer of color was cast in an ethnically-open lead role, it's rare that I find one. 

I only hope that casting and creative teams make the necessary changes so that young performers of color, like the young lady I met in KY, can rid themselves of their "White Lists" and simply dream to play all the roles they want. 

Photo: Korean Production of "Wicked"