Race and Representation in Theatre: The Most Commonly Questioned Shows

Zachary Harris
On the heels of MLK Day, we start to look a bit closer at some shows that continuously come up in the race debate in our group. Before diving into this I wanted to share an opinion of mine that will be a helpful segue into this dialogue. I will also note that these are all my opinions as a Theatre/African American Studies graduate and I would love a dialogue!

 In many cases these conversations on race, representation, and what that means turns into a very black and white dialogue. It is very important to understand that more people are in the line of fire when it comes to underrepresentation than just black people or African Americans that audition for shows. However, I do truly believe that the idea behind telling authentic stories does then too extend to not having the broad stroke of people of color playing roles they shouldn’t because they are of color or having roles that in actuality should be played by white people. How often does a script actually call for a white person specifically? Not that often, however in an effort to to authentically tell these stories (given circumstances aside) these are all things that we must keep in mind when tackling plays or musicals of any type.

If I’ve missed shows that you think should be discussed, please let me know and down the line I can make another one of these! Before beginning I’m going to define two words that I’ll be tossing around a ton:

 Classism: prejudice against or in favor of people belonging to a particular social class.

 Colorism: Discrimination based on skin color, also known as colorism or shadeism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color.

 

Evita

 But Zach, why this show? Recently news broke that a company in the UK was searching for the first ever black Eva Perón. The show does not (to my knowledge) specifically discuss the characters race, which in many cases then becomes the standard of “should this be cast regardless of the color of the actor”, however in the case Eva Perón we hit a cross road - for those of you who don’t know Eva Perón was a real person. You can google her, there are books on her, and she did indeed exist (http://bfy.tw/H0vr for those of you curious). As you can tell, she wasn’t black. Now certainly she wasn’t white in the American sense either, because being from Argentina makes her South American or Hispanic. Historically speaking Eva Perón has been played by a white person, most notably by Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone, and Madonna (in the movie!) so what does that then mean? For me personally that then means that we should be casting Hispanic women in the famed role, along with the other roles in the show. However the show isn’t ABOUT race, but more so about the woman. This gives me pause, however I do truly believe that when picking shows to produce we have to be conscious of these decisions/what they then mean. In the same way many argue that Eva Perón is not black, she certainly wasn’t white either. There are HUNDREDS of shows, why pick this one?

 

Now I will note that my opinions on this show do differ than my strong opinions on similar casting decisions discussed later, and very plainly the reason is because the show doesn’t revolve around her race. While again I personally believe the show should be authentically cast, this rubs me less in the wrong way than other shows on this list. By no means does this imply cast the show with people ONLY from Argentina due to a lot of what I had mentioned in the previous article, however this is an opportunity to create a platform in musical theatre that (outside of works by Lin-Manuel Miranda) don’t really exist for Hispanic/Latinx people.

 

Aida

 Oh boy! Based on the opera by Giuseppe Verdi, Elton John and Tim Rice wrote a musical depicting this love story between Aida (played by the impeccable Heather Headley) and Radames (played by Adam Pascal!). The focus of this show are the Egyptians and the Nubians, who are longtime foes, and how that comes to head. The show in many cases is about love transcending time and culture, and honestly in many ways this musical is incredible (though, not my favorite). The question I kept asking myself is how Adam Pascal (or any of the Egyptians for that matter) look anything like Egyptians? Well, they don’t. Now this is an interesting thing because in many cases people who are from that region can really range in appearance. However, the stark difference between Nubians (all played by black people) and the Egyptians (you guessed it! White!) is really staggering to me and I think in this case really unnecessary. Why not cast the show with black people? What does stark difference do? In my mind the casting of white people as Egyptians is to create a stark contrast between the cultures and the people by connecting it to modern day race issues… I think the show and the text speak for itself when creating those differences (along with whatever dramaturgy would then be available to them). Is the concern that audiences can’t tell difference between the people onstage? Can people really not tell the difference between black people on stage? Sass aside, a show in Africa should probably have people who could generally look like the people in the story. Though this show differs from Evita in the sense that these people aren’t real historical figures, we should quite definitely be aware as to where the show takes place.

 Again, as artists and creators we are continuously at the helm of a platform, and a lot of the disparity in casting can be fixed with a bit of awareness. Aida, while not in the same spectrum as a historical piece like Evita should be looked at carefully. Why would we cast this show with someone other than people who look like Africans?

 Once on This Island

 I’ll begin this section with this - if you missed the revival you certainly missed some incredible theatre. Now, this show centers on the idealisms of colorism, colonization, and classism. The skin differentiation between Daniel and Ti Moune are incredibly important to the story and to these characters. To quickly quote a line from the song The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes “They despise us for our blackness, It reminds them, Where they’re from”. For those of you who don’t know the show the Beauxhommes are people who descend from France AND the French Antilles. They long for France and French culture, and the peasants are not able to access the same sort of luxury. Daniel is a Beauxhomme and Ti Moune is a peasant, the colorism and classism presented in the show really creates the obstacles that Ti Moune face within this show. White people playing Ti Moune in the original version of the script makes no sense. The whole script is about their struggle and classism created by their blackness, so doing it other ways is really missing the point. In the case of Daniel, he’s supposed to be biracial as the story says, however casting Daniel as white (which Isaac Powell is not, before you go there) really is missing some of the most important parts of the story. Here we should consider a fairer skinned black man before erasing the anchor to the island that the curse of the Beauxhommes gives to Daniel/his people.

 In the alternative version of the script (that apparently exists, however it’s not advertised on the MTI website), they remove all mentions of race and focus on the idealism of class… So problem solved? Not really. The classism here is all great and dandy, there are a ton of love stories that focus JUST on classism. However dramaturgically speaking, have we forgot the show still takes place on an island in the French Antilles? The island would still be inhabited by black people, and the sanitation of the materials inherent blackness is also missing the point. Again, there are LOTS of shows about classism, so why pick one that you don’t have the diversity for?

 

Hairspray

 This one always baffled me as to why this becomes such an argument. The show takes place in the 60s and uses a faux Civil Rights Movement as a platform the integrate a TV show. The obvious points to race being instances such as “though the night is as black as my skin”, “only see the color of my face”, and “the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice”. With this in mind, people always get up in arms about Hairspray when an all-white cast comes along. Now I will note, though I don’t have the copy of this that came in my scripts any longer, that the creators of the show state that disallowing anyone of any color to play any of the roles is racist and the suspension of disbelief should be used when watching (wrongfully) alternatively cast productions of Hairspray. I wholehearted believe that this is incorrect in this instance, and just people a particular majority has had most opportunities to do what they would like to does not then mean that everything needs to be universal. This story isn’t about some sort of universal grief, but of a white girl who gets fat shamed and black people who are facing segregation.

 Many note that their productions have used shirts, hairstyles, and (god forbid) blackface to get around such an issue, which I find odd. Obviously with these adjustments everyone involved then is realizing that they lack the people of color to do the show, so they do what they can to do what they can to fill the gap in a modern minstrel-adjacent way. What I then must bring up is that black and African American people can’t peel their skin off, and have to live with the harsh reality of what society gives to them on a day to day BECAUSE of their skin color. No t-shirt or other concept can really encapsulate what the symbolism of the black body on stage can stand for.

 

Miss Saigon (and other shows involving Asian heritage/culture)

 Admittedly, this is a show I knew far less about than the others mentioned. However first I would like to send you to when it comes to the (now corrected) yellowfacing history of the production.

 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/theater/the-battle-of-miss-saigon-yellowface-art-and-opportunity.html

 Outside of this, let’s talk about Asians/Asian Americans in musical theatre. From The Mikado to Miss Saigon there is a history of yellowface when it comes to shows based in Asian culture. I’m taking this moment to then also note that in many of these cases these shows revolve around a white person either saving or teaching or conquering the people of this area. Outside of the Jonathan Pryce scandal of sorts, Miss Saigon revolves around Chris (an American soldier there for the Vietnam War) and Kim (a prostitute). It has in many instances been protested against for being racist/sexist, and to quote Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre, dedicated to African American theater, states "It gets a lot easier to wrap your head around all of this for folks of color when we remember a key point: this work is not for us. It is by, for, and about white people, using people of color, tropical climes, pseudo-cultural costumes and props, violence, tragedy, and the commodification of people and cultures, to reinforce and re-inscribe a narrative about white supremacy and authority."

 Returning specifically to the point of the importance of casting, though I can discuss the potential problems within works written by white people for Asian Americans, we need to continuously remember that these stories are usually deeply entrenched in a portrayal of their culture and it’s incredibly important to give Asians and Asian Americans that opportunity to tell those that are previously written. Instances like The Mikado (which is historically done in yellowface) don’t have a space in an ever evolving society where authentic storytelling (read: not denying people of color to tell their own stories) should be at the forefront of every conversation. These dialogues are SO important, and in many cases the default is black or white… However the representational struggle of minorities is MUCH more than just that.

 

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Hamilton

 When creating works you get to set the rules for your world, in many examples things like race and gender get turned on their head to make a point (such as in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, which I highly suggest) … So why does Hamilton get people all in a rut? Obviously when looking at history books, portraits, etc. of the founding fathers none of them are of color, so why here? Lin-Manuel Miranda through his hip-hop storytelling and the standard created in casting by having everyone (outside of a few ensemble members and King George) being of color to show that they (like the immigrants of yesteryear) can “get the job done”. The link between the present and past creates a really strong image that is a huge part of what makes Hamilton great in my opinion. This then means that any use of Hamilton to backup the reasoning behind not casting people of color in other things is less than supported. Miranda created a unique world that then has no bearing on other things, and any fundamental understanding of the material would bring you to a similar conclusion. The artistic foundation with Hamilton is built is deeply rooted in that idealism, which isn’t present in other shows, is why George Washington can be played by someone like Christopher Jackson. That then doesn’t mean Motormouth Maybelle can be white, because George Washington certainly wasn’t black. While I understand that then means a huge group of people may never get the opportunity to be in a production of what many consider the soon to be (if it isn’t already) biggest hit in the history of Broadway that doesn’t then mean spaces that should be for people of color should disappear.

 For every Hamilton there are hundreds of shows that don’t have a single person of color in them, for every Lion King there are hundreds of shows that are long running that are just now having their first black principles, and while I understand the strife that may be caused by this reality the use of Hamilton to attempt to whitewash other works is very specifically working against what the story is meant to be about.

 Overall, I think theatre has come a long way, however we are chasing ourselves in circles many times in the comment sections of these debates. These dialogues are incredibly important and until we as individuals look at the privilege we each have (or don’t have) we can never really make headway in this department. Theatre is supposed to be accessible to everyone, however cultural appropriation and accessibility are not one in the same. In the same way I would never want to tell a story that wasn’t mine (or like mine, outside of the given circumstances) I hope that we continue to move forward as a community when going about casting. Race in theatre continues to be a hot topic, however we need to continue to work towards listening to our fellow artists on the matter instead of figuratively (or literally, who knows) smashing our heads against a wall. This series is a particular perspective, not the only perspective, and I will be more than to continue the dialogue in the comment section.