Whitewashing and color-blind casting on Broadway

Nishad More

Colorblind casting has three parts to it. The first part is where all casting begins: writing the characters. Some casting directors will try to match written descriptions of characters. In both of these examples, writers are justified in writing race into their characters, if they feel itís relevant. In a perfect world, writers would specify characters’ races only when it aids the story’s plot. Examples include Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” and Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud Nine,” both of which have race written into characters to intentionally subvert conventions. However, writers also tell stories that have nothing to do with race, and leave the characters’ ethnicity ambiguous.

This leads us to the second part of the issue: the casting process. Casting directors may logically abide by the writer’s preferred race for the character — if this has been left ambiguous, they proceed to make a judgment based on what an audience may want to see or what makes the most sense. More often than not, white actors are cast in typical English-speaking roles, which has now become so much of a norm that directors subconsciously fill in the blank the writer has left behind.

Casting, the third component, is a political act that involves artistic choices, an expression of creative agency. A character’s race, ambiguous or not, is not the same as an actor’s race, and it doesn’t have to be. Our concern should not be picking the right race for the right character. The problem is having white actors play parts that don’t require whiteness. The solution could be more diverse writing and casting, or an intentional race-swapping so that we balance the scales.

However, blindness toward characters’ races has often gone awry  instances that come to mind are the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ recently cancelled production of ìThe Mikado,î Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha” and the upcoming film “Ghost in the Shell” starring Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese character. Rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to cast diverse actors in diverse roles, these films are examples of whitewashing. “The Mikado,” for example has characters that are clearly Japanese, yet casts white actors. There is no political reason behind this, with an already disproportionate representation of white faces in the media. However, Donald Byrd’s “The Minstrel Show Revisited,” which intentionally calls for white actors in blackface to critique such a practice, is a perfect example of when a seemingly offensive artistic choice is made with a strong political intention, and this is when art does its job well.

At the end of the day, we as audiences and creators must take a step back from what we are watching and see the bigger picture. The only aspect of art that’s in question here is realism. Some might argue that diversity may not tell a realistic story, but in many cases race doesn’t impact the story, so there’s no reason to avoid diversity.

Tackling race in art is difficult in a world that seems to be bursting at the seams with political correctness, but it often fails to meet its own standards. An actor’s race does not define their ability to feel or to comprehend another human, and artistic choices can either have amazing or disastrous consequences.

A version of this article appeared in the Oct. 22 print edition. Email Nishad More at [email protected]

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