Need Asians for 'Miss Saigon'? : A Guide in Casting Roles of Color - Part 1

It's safe to say that one issue this blog has been consistent on throughout the years is that when dealing with roles of color, those roles must be cast racially correct. 

Whether it's authorial intent or the fact that the character identifies themselves as a certain race, those are choices that must be respected and followed, unless permission is granted otherwise. 

However what I have been seeing over and over again is that when a local theatre can't seem to find the performers of color (POC's) they need, somehow replacing them with a white actor "made up" to resemble that race, is the next best option.

I understand that there are some amazing roles, songs and shows that feature roles of color, and as much as a white performer would love to be Usnavi or Kim or Coalhouse or Christmas Eve, those roles were, in many cases, written for specific races to play them. 

But I realize that's something easier said than done sometimes and that many local theatres might have a tougher time casting roles of color than others. So that's why I want to offer some help. 

There are a bunch of steps theatres can take to ensure they cast these roles appropriately but many theatres might not know them. Let's solve that problem. 

What follows is my simple yet necessary guide to help local theatres cast roles of color. While I've never officially listed these like this, I have often offered it as advice to fellow directors and from what I hear, it works. Please keep in mind that this is my opinion. Since there is a lot of ground to cover, let's break it down in multiple parts:

Part 1: Show Selection, Pre-Casting & The Point of No Return

Thank You

First of all, let me just say that if your local theatre is considering doing a production that includes a role of color, thank you. While you might not think that's something to be thanked for, you'd be wrong. For every local production that's performed with a role of color, there are ten more that aren't. So encouraging diversity and inclusion into your local theatre season is nothing to be scoffed at. If you're doing a show that has a majority performer of color cast, I want to give you a hug. If you're thinking about casting non-traditionally with performers of color in roles that aren't race specific but are usually played by white actors, I am going to buy season tickets to your theatre. 

From this performer of color, I thank you. 

Show Selection & Pre-Casting

I know first hand the difficulties of picking a season. So when picking a show that includes roles of color or a show with a POC majority, there are a lot of things to consider. 

The first has to be "Can we get the appropriate number of POC's for this show?" 

By now you should know what your consistent roster of performers includes. For instance, if you want to do "Doubt", you should know if you have at least one Black actress who you know would most likely audition. If you're going to do "Miss Saigon" that might pose a bigger challenge but if you have the pool of actors (who will presumably audition) to fill those roles, go for it.

However, if your theatre typically doesn't attract POC's or your area is severely lacking in the diversity department, STAY AWAY FROM THESE SHOWS. If your theatre doesn't typically attract Black performers, don't all of the sudden decide to do "Raisin in the Sun" or "Ragtime". If your theatre isn't in an area with a Latinx population, it's probably not a good idea to do "In the Heights" or "Anna in the Tropics".

It's never a good idea to roll the dice when it comes to auditioning roles of color. Know that you can get the audition pool you want before deciding whether or not to do the show. You already go through this process when deciding the sizes of casts with these shows, so do the same with the population of roles of color within them. 

So when it comes to making sure these roles are cast appropriately, in my opinion, it's acceptable to pre-cast that role. I know how pre-casting is something that it typically shunned in most local theatres. However, I would much rather theatres do that, than gamble on whether or not enough POC's will turn up at auditions, especially if it's just one or two roles, ala "Doubt".

Now if it's a show like "West Side Story" or "In the Heights", that's a completely different task and you need to really make sure you have the numbers to cast it before auditions. Or at least know what steps you can take to attract interest in auditioning. That's something we'll get into in the next installment.  

The Point of No Return

Once you have decided to do a show that includes roles of color and have sent in the paperwork and deposits to secure the rights, you have now just passed the point of no return. You now have committed to casting this show correctly and it's something that needs to happen.

Again, deciding to do a show with roles of color is not something to be taken lightly. You have to take the time to consider whether or not you can cast it beofre deciding to do it. 

Part 2 comes tomorrow.