Race & Theatre: "Change Comes Slowly" - The False Statement That Impedes Progress

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about the casting of Sheryl Lee Ralph(pictured above) as Madame Morrible in Wicked, who will be the first African-American to play the role. In our discussion about such castings and their progress, my friend remarked, "Well change comes slowly."

I've always rejected this statement, especially for 2016. While there is no doubt that for the past decades, performers of color have fought an uphill climb to be cast in ethnically open roles, times have changed enough that there is no longer an excuse for this slow progression. 

Change in this area doesn't have to come slowly anymore, it can come instantly. It relies on casting and creative professionals looking outside the Caucasian box in terms of casting. All we need are for these people to be brave enough to make such decisions. 

Given that we now live in a time where course can change with the drop of hat, why is the theatre industry so slow in implementing these changes? It's more than likely that it has to do with money. As much as these shows cost to produce, casting a relatively unknown performer of color in a lead role is a risk. Casual Broadway audiences usually like seeing faces and names they know, Lord knows The Front Page is chock full of them.

But I would pose this question to those who believe this, how are performers of color supposed to become known, if you keep casting them in nameless roles in the ensemble or not at all?

There is no doubt that one of the best ripple effects that Hamilton will have is that it has made its original cast members, known Broadway stars. It's evident by the fact that Phillipa Soo is starring in her own show, Amélie, later this year. I would also imagine that anytime Daveed Diggs and Christopher Jackson want to comeback to Broadway, producers will leap at the chance to cast them. 

And that's the point. Performers of Color need more opportunities to make an impact on Broadway stages to increase their name value which leads to more opportunities down the road. Change doesn't have to come slowly, it can happen right here, right now.