This weekend I had the pleasure to see both “Come from Away” and “Dear Evan Hansen.” Rest assured, this piece isn’t a review on either (or both) shows because if you’re reading this, you probably already know the main plot points to each. Instead, this is to highlight how casting people of color makes sense in virtually ANY scenario of ANY show.
Come from Away features a cast of 12 actors portraying numerous roles, all of whom are based on real people. Some roles are based on just one person, like Jenn Colella’s portrayal of Capt. Beverly Bass, while other roles are amalgams of several people be it Newfoundlanders or plane people. Besides those plane people and Gander residents who were interviewed and shown on documentaries, I don’t know the ethnicities of anyone, and you know what? It doesn’t matter. Come from Away showcases the very best of humanity during some of the darkest days that have occurred in my lifetime at least.
Yes, the story does highlight a plane person of Middle Eastern descent so in that case, it is helpful to have the actor of that background, although I don’t honestly know if Caesar Samoya is or not. He’s a damn good actor, and that’s all I cared about. In fact, the ethnicity of the characters matters so little, that the writers decided to change one of the ethnicities of the main character from real life to the stage. The character of Hannah is portrayed on stage by Q. Smith, a woman of (I think- I’m basing all ethnic typing off their photos which is the worst thing possible and only being done for this article) African-American descent. According to a documentary I saw, the real-life inspiration for Hannah is an older, Caucasian woman. The fact that Hannah is now African-American doesn’t change the story one bit. It doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking seeing what Hannah goes through. Almost 7,000 plane people landed in Gander that day, and I’m sure they were of virtually every nationality and every color under the sun. Why not have that reflected in the cast?
In Dear Evan Hansen two of the five young adult roles are portrayed by (again I think) actors of African-American descent while the remaining three are Caucasian. I don’t think it matters one bit the ethnicity of any character in the show. Black, white, Hispanic- I wager there isn’t an ethnic group in the world who doesn’t suffer from anxiety and thoughts of self-loathing and self-harm. This show’s message is so important and so needed that they should almost be required to have every ethnicity represented in the show somehow whether it’s in NYC or through the touring production. Let everyone see a part of themselves up there in one or more of those characters. It’s when we see ourselves on stage that we’re able to make sense of what we’re going through.
These two shows are an excellent start to shaking up the Great White Way but we all know more is needed and more can be done. If the character can be portrayed by someone of any ethnic heritage and the show’s premise isn’t altered (but might just be enhanced) do it. Offer it to the newcomer or veteran of a non-Caucasian background. A mother and her two daughters sat in front of me for Dear Evan Hansen who appeared to be of Indian descent. Don’t those girls deserve to see a bit of themselves on stage too? If not now, when?