Yesterday, a Los Angeles County based theatre company announced their cast for their upcoming production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
While the Mogran-Wixson Theatre didn’t say which actors were playing which roles, let’s just say the cast lacks what you would usually see in most productions of the show. Here it is:
While it doesn’t say which actress is playing which role, we can assume that some or all of the Urchins(Crystal, Ronnette, & Chiffon) will be played by white actresses.
It’s tough to know what type of reactions Morgan-Wixson was expecting when they posted this on social media but I’m willing to be they weren’t expecting what they’ve received so far. Folks have been quick to point out the problems with these casting choices.
The responses have ranged from “Oooh!!! Yes!!! Peep all that #blackgirlmagic oh wait..” to “Casting white women in roles written for women of color is shameful and lazy. It's 2019. When will community theatre represent the actual community?“ to the extreme, “Howard Ashman is rolling in his grave!”
Some of these responses are more passionate than others but they do have a couple of points. The first is that these characters were written to be played by Black actresses. The MTI description, which is approved language from the original writers, states “Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon are African-American street urchins, acting as the occasional Greek Chorus. Young, hip, and smart, these girls are the only ones who have a grip on reality.”
What makes the casting here a bit problematic is that the creative team at Morgan-Wixson weren’t looking exclusively black actresses to perform in these roles to begin with. Here is a shot of their casting notice:
By opening up the ethnicity of these characters, the creative team actively erased the intended identity of these roles and marginalized any black performer from landing them before they even walked into the room. They put black actresses in a competition for roles that there shouldn’t have been one.
The other problem is that this type of casting occurred in Los Angeles County. Last time I check, that region of the country is pretty diverse. So the excuse for not casting these roles as they were intended comes down to laziness on the part of the creative team. Even if no black actresses showed up to audition(which I’m being told wasn’t the case), it’s on the responsibility of the director/producer/choreographer/musical director to go out and find the right people to play these roles. If your theatre lacks diversity to perform diverse shows, you either have to go out and recruit a diverse talent pool or you don’t do diverse shows. What you certainly don’t do is whitewash. Because if you’re willing do that, good luck getting any POC’s to walk through your door in the future.
This issues comes off the heels of a similar problem at Bowling Green State University who cast white actresses as understudies for the Urchins. So this is nothing new.
But progress is on the horizon. Some Theatre Company, based in Maine, cancelled their production of “Avenue Q” when they couldn’t find a single Asian actress to play Christmas Eve. If encountered with the same issue, why didn’t Morgan-Wixson do the same? Not for nothing but Maine reports they’re 95% Caucasian, that’s far from the case in Los Angeles.
Believe it or not, most roles in theatre can be played by any race. And I love it when I see roles typically thought of as being for white people only, played by a myriad of performers of color. However, when it comes to roles that are written, intended or described as being people of color, theatres need to cast those roles correctly. Local theatres need to tread very carefully and perform due diligence to cast these roles. I would even support pre-casting to ensure they’re portrayed by POC’s.
So my advice to Morgan-Wixson Theatre? Recast or replace the show. Does it suck for the white actresses cast as the urchins? Sure. But those roles were never meant for them in the first place.