Representation

Spotlight on the Small Ones: National Theatre of the Deaf

Jonathan Fong
When we talk about the ‘small ones’ in theatre, we must never forget those among us who may, by some metrics, be considered less fortunate, whom are often silenced and left without a voice. And yet, in a world which may seem so cruel to them, there is always a silver lining, a microphone left to those who wish to sing out.



The National Theatre of the Deaf, or NTD for short, is one of the oldest theatre companies in America—not only relative to theatre companies that cater to the deaf, but outright too. Based in Connecticut, they’ve been performing since the 1960s and, while operating somewhat out of the limelight relative to the able-bodied dominated theatrical establishment, they’ve had a massive influence on theatre not just in the US, but worldwide.

Conceived by Edna Levine and with the support of various influential people within the theatre and deaf communities, including Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan, actress Anne Bancroft, and Broadway set designer David Hays, the company was founded in 1967 with just 12 actors, 11 of which lacked formal training. The theatre company, whose first performances were at Wesleyan University, initially got off to a rocky start with the deaf community—the ASL used was hard-to-understand, while the material (mostly existing works translated into ASL) failed to explore issues relating to the deaf community itself, concerns which still sound familiar to those working in deaf theatre and theatre with disabilities even today.

However, as the theatre company matured, deaf artists moved into leadership roles and the company began producing not just translations, but entirely original works too focusing on the deaf community and deaf culture. Recognizing the aesthetic and visual qualities of sign language, the company left behind the traditions of realism and naturalistic theatre, moving towards a performance style dominated by the spatial aspects of communication. They branched out from the theatre too: collaborating with the Children’s Television Workshop, they’ve worked with TV shows such as Sesame Street to bring deaf awareness and understanding to the next generation.

Employing both deaf and hearing artists, the company caters to both the deaf and hearing communities—they often make use of shadowing, where deaf actors portray a role via ASL with a hearing actor standing either close by or off stage to speak or sing lines in English, allowing a diverse audience to understand their onstage art. Via outreach programs, they spread knowledge and encourage a sort of human connection only the theatre can provide. They train countless deaf artists, helping them hone their art; actors and performers who have passed through NTD’s doors have gone on to do truly great things, opening their own deaf theatre companies and spreading understanding of the deaf community further (Deaf West comes to mind).

NTD was, is, and will always be a pioneer in the theatrical industry and the deaf community in bringing together those without a voice and giving them a platform they were once denied. And in a world where people are so often silenced, one can only be glad they’re here.

How Broadway Changed LGBTQ+ Stories

Amelia Brooker
For decades, kids in high school theatre have been labelled as “gay”. Male singers and dancers have faced the same labels for their often-feminine expression, and musical theatre as a whole is stereotyped as a place for queer people. But this connection between the queer community and musical theatre is more than just a stereotype. It is clear that both of these communities are well integrated. Musical theatre is a cultural staple of the queer community, and vice versa. This begs the question; how has musical theatre revolutionized the LGBTQ+ experience?

People in the LGBTQ+ community are constantly searching for spaces in which they are represented. As a queer woman, I understand this search. Growing up, movies and TV shows rarely, if ever, showed same-sex couples - much less individuals of varying gender identities. Like many others, I never saw myself represented in media as I was (and still continue to be) growing up. Had I known from a younger age that my feelings were not only valid, but shared within a community, I would hold a stronger sense of identity today.

While many young adult TV shows and movies in the last few years have featured queer stories, they are not free of issues. These storylines can feel ingenuine, the product of a marketing team trying to make more money. Queer characters are flat and used as stereotypes, almost never with a happy ending. And most notably, the biggest blockbuster movies that dare to feature an LGBTQ+ character almost always receive backlash. Musical theatre however, exists as a safe space for LGBTQ+ actors and patrons alike. Discrimination definitely still exists in our corner of the world, but the Broadway community shares such a great sense of acceptance and pride that I have yet to find anywhere else. From La Cage Aux Folles to Kinky Boots, from The Color Purple to The Prom, from Angels in America to Falsettos, Broadway shows have a long history of representing people from all across the spectrum.

The difference I see between representation on screen versus the stage is that TV and movies usually treat their queer characters as one-dimensional stereotypes to support the straight characters. Whereas plays and musicals feature imperfect gay characters. LGBTQ+ people with ambitions and flaws that exist outside of their sexuality. People whose stories deserve to be told in a realistic and inspiring way. I believe it is this nature that pulls many members of the queer community into the world of musical theatre. Such an accepting world also allows writers and directors to feel comfortable sharing their stories and bringing their experiences to an audience.


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Broadway not only illustrates queer characters through its shows, but it also recognizes and supports its community of queer actors as well. In June alone, three openly transgender actors made it to Broadway stages. Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS has raised more than three hundred million dollars for people with HIV/AIDS since its inception in 1988. And at its simplest state, kids in high school have a place where their gender and sexual identity is accepted. Down to its core, musical theatre is a place not only welcoming for all, but one that is willing to tell the stories of its community members. The stories that matter, and that represent what the Broadway community stands for; love, acceptance, and pride.

 

 

Rodgers and Hammerstein? No Thanks.

By Grumpy Olde Guy® (a/k/a Michael Kape)

When I was three years old (yes, I really was—once in 1957), my mother, the late, great Frumah Sara(h), bought me a box of 45 rpm records filled with Rodgers and Hammerstein for Children. And I played those 45s until they wore out—even the songs from Pipe Dream and Me and Juliet and Allegro. No Flower Drum Song or The Sound of Music; those had not been written yet.

Got older, wiser, and learned a thing or two along the way. Played the Professor in South Pacific in my junior (and last) year in high school. Did my senior thesis in college about the impact of Oklahoma! on American musical theatre. Actually saw productions of Allegro, Me and Juliet, and (*gasp*) Pipe Dream. Cringed through the stage version of The Sound of Music (a/k/a Life With Father in Austria). Read the biographies of both men as well as Musical Stages, Richard Rodgers’ autobiography. Was even accused of reporting a wayward production of Oklahoma! to the R&H Library (it was indeed wayward—setting the show in a rehearsal hall on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed; don’t ask but we at Atlanta Theatre Weekly carried the review in 1997).

No one can say what I’m about to discuss comes from a place of ignorance.

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* * *

I was maybe 10 years old; the television remake of Cinderella was airing (with Lesley Ann Warren in the title role). She starts singing, “In my own little corner,” and I remark to my family (gathered around our giant 24-inch RCA color television at the time), “That sounds just like all the other Rodgers and Hammerstein songs!” Same exact music. Same cadence. My 10-year-old self had called it. It’s pretty damn sad when a 10-year-old can see through the miasma and deception now known as Rodgers and Hammerstein.

* * *

The first (and only) time I saw The Sound of Music onstage, I couldn’t help but notice something very odd about the song, Do Re Mi. It’s a song filled with English language puns (“Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray a drop of golden sun”). So far so good. But here’s the rub. The characters singing it (seven children and their governess) only speak German. They don’t know from English language puns. Just one of the many things I dislike in Austrian Life With Father.

* * *

Richard Rodgers wrote incredible scores with Lorenz Hart. Some stunning work. American Songbook classics. Rodgers wrote the music first, and Hart then supplied the (often-brilliant) lyrics. In Musical Stages, Rodgers spend two-thirds of the book on his collaboration with Hart. It was about the art of creating Broadway musicals and how much it thrilled him. Then he gets to his time with Hammerstein. Just a few scant chapters. It was a business deal. And he got bored after Carousel, which might be why all his subsequent shows with Hammerstein began to sound the same (even the melody to Me and Juliet’s No Other Love, arguably the best song in the musical, was actually a cutout from an earlier effort, just as The King and I’s Something Wonderful sounds so much like Love Look Away from Flower Drum Song). Is it any wonder my 10-year-old self could immediately identify an R&H song? After all, the songs for the “slightly-older-but-wiser” alto they wrote all sounded the same from show to show to show.

* * *

Ever notice how the best music Richard Rodgers wrote had no lyrics? I mean Carousel Waltz. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue Ballet. Victory at Sea scoring. March of the Siamese Children. But when he did his own lyrics in No Strings, they were pretty lame (except the opening number, The Sweetest Sounds).

* * *

There is the matter of R&H racism. Before you start citing South Pacific, let me go further back and cite Oklahoma! Even in my college thesis I called out the racist approach Hammerstein used with the character of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler. I’m not Iranian, but I found the characterization to be extremely offensive and, yes, racist. It was meant to be funny; it was not. Racism is never funny.

Likewise, examine the casting of African American actress Juanita Hall. First in South Pacific, because her skin was darker than others in the show, she played Bloody Mary, a Tonkinese proprietress (and pimp—more about that shortly). A few years later, R&H cast her again, this time as an Asian American in Flower Drum Song. Really? What about the casting of Jewish actor Larry Blyden as Sammy Fong? Another case of “Oh just give them slant-eyed makeup and the audience will think they’re Chinese.” Yeah, not racist at all (bullshit).

Bloody Mary is a character in the short story Fo’ Dollar, one of the pieces in Tales of the South Pacific R&H used as the basis for their show. She also pimps out her 14-year-old daughter Liat to Lt. Joe Cable. Liat’s age is never discussed in South Pacific, but it sure looks like pedophilia to me (not unlike one of the storylines in ALW’s Aspects of Love—but I digress). Can we say this is just oh-so-distasteful? I knew we could.

I even question the pseudo-liberal bent of South Pacific (You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught). I’ve checked and anti-Tonkinese discrimination is not now nor then running rampant. Just me, I guess.

* * *

When the last revival of Carousel (the one R&H show I can stand) was playing, a lot of discussion arose (finally) about the matter of spousal (and child) abuse. Billy strikes Julie. He strikes Louise, his daughter. He’s a sexist pig (Soliloquy) who would much prefer having a song to a daughter. The problem here is simple—what worked in 1945 doesn’t work 70+ years later. It definitely makes an audience uncomfortable—and not in the intended way.

* * *

For 62 of my 65 years, I’ve had Rodgers and Hammerstein drummed into my head. I want them out. Gone. Vamoosed. If I could reach out to my 10-year-old self, I’d say, “Kid, you’re smarter than you realize.” (I’d say smarter than you look, but I was a bespectacled geek back then and I looked pretty damn smart.)

I know people will start raining venom on my head because I just don’t like the work done by these two. “It’s classic American musical theatre,” they’ll cry. It might be classic but it ain’t good. “But I love [fill in the name of any R&H show]. How can you not like it?” After all this time, believe me, it’s very easy.


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.

 

 

 

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!