Race and Representation in Theatre: Introduction

Zachary Harris


Representation and Theatre

As a group it’s sort of become a meme every time a sure-to-be intense conversation about race comes up, and as it continues to move forward as a society I am sure the conversations will just grow in frequency. As a biracial theatre artist, I often get stuck in the middle of these conversations, but as an African American Studies major (along with theatre!) my opinion has really been shaped by reading about things such as the achievement gap (educational or otherwise) for African Americans and other institutionally based issues.

Here is my attempt at breaking down why accurate representation in theatre is important, if you have questions/comments PLEASE leave them as I will try to respond to them in another article. Hopefully this will be a multi-part sort of thing, and discussion is very important in situations like these. This will be about why race matters and given circumstances in theatre, and hopefully at the beginning of each I will try to redefine why race matters… Either by quoting comments or finding quotes from other sources.

Why Race Matters

You see this argument made more than enough in these discussions, “if the person is the best for the part, who cares!” along with the idealism of “I don’t see color”. While this is fine and dandy, this thought process too is problematic. The meaning behind it is well intentioned, but the idea behind not seeing color is closer to saying that you’re not seeing them or that racial identity is erasable/not important. The suggestion of “I don’t see color” is really more so leaning towards that their experiences aren’t valid or real even though they do. Now obviously, this is not what anyone is usually meaning to say, but this is what that means. The person, usually, is meaning to say “I see you, the person (along with your racial identity), but I’m not going to actively (emphasis on actively, or knowingly) discriminate or have active prejudice against you” which is great. In practice, this common erasure of someone's race in such a way is neutralizing the things that people of all colors/creed/ethnicity go through. There are certain things that particular subsections of the population deal with that most of us will never go through, especially here in America.

 Though I serve as a black body in this country (though I am biracial, which we can unpack that sometime if you’d like) I do not deal with the same thing someone who is Latinx does on a day to day basis. While yes, there are similar institutional things riding against us there are many things that I would just never be exposed to. When you’re not white the ignoring of your race is just not something that can be done (regardless of privilege). The existence of racial identity is linked to a vast amount of experiences and history that is so special, however can also be linked to a painful past. This all needs to kept account when discussing these sorts of things.

 For those looking for another interesting read, I would look up Dr. Osagie Obasogie, a professor at the University of California’s Hasting College of Law and the author of Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind… Where he researches if the blind can see race. Tl;dr the conclusion was yes.

The Idea of Given Circumstances

 Continuing on though, let’s talk about actual roles in theatre. In Uta Hagen’s teachings there are 9 questions we should ask ourselves as actors:

Who am I?  Filling in as many details here as you can (though I suggest making these things playable) including name/age/likes/dislikes etc.

What time is it? Sometimes this is a big thing, and sometimes it’s not. However, keep in mind general setting and how that may change things for you.

Where am I? Self-explanatory!

What surrounds me? In the literal, in a scene what do you have around you? Does an argument change with the presence of a weapon on stage… etc. etc.

What are the given circumstances of the past, present, and potential future? By answering this question, you can create a progression that is specific. Again, don’t lock yourself in, but this can be helpful!

What are my relationships in the scene? Define for yourself your relationship to the events, other characters, and objects in each scene.

What do I want? Be specific about your character’s needs, immediate and longer term.

What do I do to get what I want? Which is found in rehearsal through the exploration of objectives (what you want) and tactics (how you get them).

With this in mind, many people state “well it’s just acting”. Obviously most of these given circumstances that are evident for a character will never exactly line up for who you are as a person/the time you live in. That is what the art of acting is for, bridging the gap between you and the character you’re playing to create a well-rounded character. However, your body is always on view and in many cases informs performance either through things The Alexander Technique or Viewpoints… So ignoring race isn’t really an option.

Some Examples

Actor: Oh no! A character owns a cat and I’m allergic! I can’t do the show anymore!!!!

This is obviously not something that should be a thing as everyone has the possibility to own a cat, or even another pet. This is a given circumstance that you can figure out, as if your scene is LOVING this cat with your life that can be substituted. This is a universal feeling that can be shared. Looking for plays/musicals with cats that isn’t CATS? Read Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin Martin McDonagh!

Actor: My hair isn’t black, I can’t play Wednesday Addams anymore?

Again, something that can be changed or wigged. This is fine, and another one of those universal things that can be changed. Not only can this be changed, anyone on this earth can experience having black hair if they so choose. These things are fickle and can be adjusted if need be.

Actor: I’m white, but I can act ________… Why can’t I play Coalhouse Walker/Seaweed?

And this is where the issue lies. For those of you who don’t know Ragtime, please listen to the recording as it is beautiful. The issue here is that the only reason that Coalhouse Walker/Seaweed/lots of other people are having the struggle that they are having is because they are of color. If Coalhouse isn’t black, Ragtime doesn’t happen. While you can create a character while not black, it removes the point from the musical. You don’t get called a n-word (yes, hard “er” and all) by another white person if you’re not black. While yes, we are supposed to stretch our imagination and it is the magical world of theatre there is such an importance to this representation. While I understand the want to play roles there are hundreds of other roles that have nothing to do with race (or are assumed white until proven otherwise). Black bodies (as this is what I’m talking about specifically) are placed through these similar instances even today though the show is set in 1906, and the stripping of that importance is ignorant in nature.

Yes, our given circumstances will almost never line up with the characters we play. Yes, it is very important to think about race when looking at people while not discriminating against them or making their value being the color of their skin. But, we have to make sure that we are conscious in the role race plays in society. As artists and fans, this awareness will only make things better while also making our art more authentic in the long run.

Next article I will be addressing some of our favorite shows to bring up while discussing race. If you have suggestions as to shows I should dive into, please comment them in the thread!