Art in Color is a column that strives to answer the question of how artists of color — who set themselves apart from other artists with their ethnicity and the exotic quality their works possess — meet the challenges posed by the beloved visionary of creation.
While my professor was critiquing my musical theater coursework, he asked me a question that’s been stuck in my mind for the past few days: “How many minority characters have a role in your play?”
I remember being pleased that discourse on minority representation was actively taking place in one of my classes. With a new gained interest in the subject matter, I decided to conduct some personal research on minority representation in the theater industry. From my findings, I can glean that though there are significantly more efforts to portray the marginalized parties in an sensitive way, discrimination is still widespread and needs to be confronted.
In some spheres, progress is being made. For one thing, unprecedentedly diverse casting is taking place for several major roles. Take Norm Lewis, an African-American actor, who performed as the Phantom in the mega-hit musical The Phantom of the Opera in 2014, or Kyle Jean-Baptiste, another African-American actor, who starred in Les Miserables as Jean Valjean in 2015. Perhaps the most striking instance of racially diverse casting so far is “Hamilton,” written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Multiracial casting is at the crux of the musical, with Miranda himself being of Puerto Rican descent and portraying Alexander Hamilton. The roles of Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson — two prominent figures in United States history — were both originally portrayed by black men, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs, respectively. Considering the success of “Hamilton,” it’s clear that audiences were enthralled by the talent of these actors portraying the founding fathers regardless of their race or ethnicity, which attests to how diverse casting can and does work.
But progress is a relative term which compares the achievements of the present to those of the past. There are certainly more people of color in major roles previously unavailable to them. But is there enough diversity within the industry now? The answer is a definite no. There is an obvious preference for characters to be cast in what is deemed as the seemingly traditional way. Take, for instance, the Edward Albee estate’s infamous refusal in 2017 of legal rights to the play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” when a casting director made an attempt to cast a black actor as Nick, a lead role. Since Nick was portrayed originally as a blond character, it would be impertinent to cast a non-white, Albee’s estate said.
There are similar instances with the representatives of other playwrights of acclaim, such as the late Tennessee Williams’s or Samuel Beckett’s estates. Their reasoning, likewise, was that actors of color in certain roles would deviate from the original intentions of the authors. This implies that even if an actor of color is capable and will represent the work faithfully, they will be disregarded just because traditionally, those of their ethnicity were not given those types of roles. But to say that an actor’s race would compromise the integrity of a role simply further enforces the narrative that actors of color don’t belong in famous stories that are meant to resonate with all types of audiences.
That being said, even when diverse casting is taken into effect, some choices are fraught with complications. Take, for instance, the 2018 Broadway production of “Carousel,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. When Joshua Henry, an African-American actor, took the role of Billy Bigelow, the protagonist, there was concern over the possible affirmation of the stereotype of black men causing domestic violence, which the character is famous for. Despite the controversy which this particular incident incited, such risks should at times be confronted with audacity. Even if there is margin for error in instances such as these, it is still preferable that more of these progressive castings take place. Complex characters like Billy, with all his flaws, allow for ample opportunities for experimentation on the part of the actor of color, which sets the stage for the manifestation of their talent.
The theater industry is one which is run predominantly by white producers. Because of this, the casting is bound to be dictated by a very specific group that is not made up of minorities, leading to unfair treatment of minority talent. It is easier to shrug and choose to be content over the expressions of diversity as they exist currently.
But it is also rigorous work to embed into the public conscious and subconscious the need for representation of all races. Even at the risk of seeming radical or self-important, we must continually demand more opportunities for talented minority artists. I sincerely hope for the day when all Broadway and off-Broadway producers ask themselves a variation of the question that I was asked: “How many deserving minority artists are you hiring?” And I hope that they answer that question with integrity.
Ash Ryoo is a student of the NYU Tisch Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program. Email Ash at [email protected]
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