Looking at Tokenism on Broadway

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  • Kira Nolan

Hopefully at this point, we all agree that minorities are underrepresented in media. People of color deserve to be represented. However, this very public and debated issue of minority casting has created a whole new controversy of its own: tokenism. Tokenism defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “actions that are the result of pretending to give an advantage to those groups in society who are often treated unfairly, in order to give the appearance of fairness.”

This implies that people of color are being written/cast with the intent of creating a safe appearance of diversity. Of course, this means that more characters are being created for people of color in entertainment, but not out of respect for their abilities or talents, but simply for their superficial value to the media. 

While the issue is much more present in movies and television, Broadway is not exactly pulling its weight. When there is a single character that is consistently cast as a minority, it is a little suspicious.  This begs the question whether productions are really wanting to be more inclusive, or just appear like they are. Realistically, not everything can be Hairspray or A Bronx Tale, and that’s not what anyone is expecting. It is not that we do not want more powerful, racially and ethnically driven musicals, it is just that those being some of the only real content for minorities is outdated. They have incredible importance in their own right, but in our current world, we need simple representation of minorities, modern representations of people of color. 

Why is tokenism so controversial, though? Aren’t these characters helping diversify the world theatre? The short answer is no, not really. These characters are not written to provide roles and opportunities to minorities, they are written to save face. They are written to simply avoid white-washed scandals about not representing people of color. The thing is, a single minority character is not representative of the world we live in. If the appearance of a character is not crucial to the show, the most capable actor should be cast. We do not just want actors cast to stand-out against a white background. The color of someone’s skin does not affect their ability to perform as a character. We are tired of white actor after white actor being announced in a part.

Theatre is consistently growing; it’s not just available to the privileged, or at least it shouldn’t be. There are talented minority performers out there being shadowed by their insignificant roles or permanent understudy positions.  We want more Roman Browns cast as Evan Hansens, we want more Brandy Norwoods playing Roxie Harts. Honestly, we want talented people of color being cast where they deserve to be cast, not just in some pity role written for publicity.