When It Comes to Casting Performers of Color, Consistency Matters

Chris Peterson

OnStage Editor-in-Chief

As a writer, actor, theatre fan and Asian-American, I am passionately supportive of performers of color being cast in any show, let alone in roles that historically have been played by white performers. I am also a huge proponent of having performers of color in roles that could be played by any race. For instance, there is nothing in the script of Dear Even Hansen that says the role of Alana has to be played by a black actress, however Kristolyn Lloyd is crushing it right now in that role. 

Given that we're in an era of awareness on the subject, many creative teams are jumping on he chance to cast performers of color in open race roles. That is a very good thing. But while I am supportive of this movement, it has to be done correctly. One way it cannot be done is when performers of color are cast in roles of historical figures who were in fact, white. 

Now I'm not talking about Hamilton, a show designed to have actors of color play historical white figures to convey messages about race and immigration at the founding of this nation. I'm talking about shows like The Sound of Music. 

It was announced earlier this week that actor Nicholas Rodriguez has been tapped to play the role of Capt. Von Trapp in the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein's iconic piece. While I would usually celebrate this news, I could not. Because a performer of color shouldn't be playing a role like that because the actual Georg von Trapp was Caucasian. 

While there are plenty of roles that could be openly cast with any race, the roles of the Von Trapp family are not. These were actual people and by casting them as different races, it not only distorts the source material but it actually hurts the case for more performers of color in open race roles and, reversely, strengthens the case for white actors to play roles of color. 

And before you decry that I'm off base, answer me this: If a white actor posed the question of "If it's celebrated that a Latino actor is playing a role based on a historical white figure, why is it wrong when a white actor plays a role based on a historical Hispanic/Asian/Black figure?" How would you, could you, debate that? 

As much as some might not want to believe it, race matters in The Sound of Music. The major conflict of the piece lies in Capt Von Trapp's reluctance to join the Nazi Party and then escaping with his family to prevent from serving in the German Navy. With a Latino/Black/Asian actor playing the role, the conflict becomes a bit silly because such a situation would never have arose given the Nazi's feelings toward those of different races. 

This piece is not to criticize Mr. Rodriguez, who I'm sure is a fine performer and person, otherwise he probably would not have been cast. But if producers want to truly advance casting equality and promote the casting of performers of color, it cannot be in roles that are actually meant to be played by white performers. Because in the end, it only hurts the progress that is so desperately needed.