The casting of white actors in roles specifically written for people of color is nothing new. In recent memory, the original production of Miss Saigon in 1991 was embroiled in controversy when Jonathan Pryce was cast as The Engineer, the half-Vietnamese and half-French owner of Dreamland. And 1996 saw the infamous casting debate between August Wilson and Robert Brustein in which Wilson denounced color-blind casting leading Brustein to label Wilson’s thoughts as an “appeal for separatism.”
Nearly twenty years later, we are still having this debate.
Exhibit A: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players cancelled their production of The Mikado after a poster promoting the show circulated online causing an outcry over the use of yellow face. (Find HowlRound coverage here.)
Exhibit B: Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. Only after the production at Kent State University did playwright Katori Hall learn that the director had cast a white actor in the role of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Exhibit C: Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India. Playwright Lloyd Suh halted the production of his play at Clarion University when they refused to recast roles written specifically for actors of color. The university had two white actors and one mixed-race actor in those roles.
The last two examples were college productions.
Productions at colleges and universities offer Latina/o playwrights opportunities to make a livelihood and have their work seen by the next generation of theatremakers. However, as the diversity of a theatre program’s acting pool can greatly vary—are there Latina/o actors to take on roles written for them by Latina/o playwrights?
In light of these recent controversies over casting white actors in ethnically specific roles, the Café Onda Editorial Board asked several Latina/o playwrights the following questions:
Should Latina/o roles be cast with non-Latina/o actors? How do you approach productions at colleges and universities when your play calls for characters of color but the acting pool at the university may or may not have the actors? How are you thinking about casting?
Martín Zimmerman: First I want to say I wholeheartedly support playwrights who stop a university production of their work that has cast white actors in roles written for actors of color. But I also feel I'm in no position to judge playwrights of color who agree to change a casting breakdown because a university has said it won't produce their play otherwise. I'm sympathetic to the fact that refusing such requests can mean taking money out of the hands of playwrights of color.
I would not let a department exclusively cast white actors in all (or even most of) the major roles of one of my plays. That's where I draw my own line (since I've never been in a position to have this discussion with a university department). But beyond that line I'm open to discussion. That personal rule also goes for plays of mine in which I don't specify ethnicity in my character breakdowns. For those particular plays (most of my plays), I make it clear that no specified ethnicities in the character breakdowns does not mean the play should have an all-white cast, but rather that it should have a racially diverse cast.
But it also would be important for me, personally, to try to turn a university's request to alter one of my casting breakdowns into a dialogue about how to increase diversity in that university's department.
And that's because I've been fortunate enough to see university faculty lead efforts to diversify departments by programming work in which they needed to go outside their known actor pool to cast. These faculty just firmly believed they would find good actors of color to fill those roles if they worked hard enough. And 100 percent of the time they found those actors of color.
Given that, I would be reticent to outright reject a university's request to do one of my plays if they asked me to alter the casting breakdown. I would instead try to seize it as an opportunity to strategize about the real and immediate steps that university can take to cultivate a more racially diverse pool of actors. And if altering my casting breakdown somewhat ends up creating opportunities for several actors of color who wouldn't have had those opportunities were that university to produce a different play? And leads that university to cultivate a more diverse actor pool? In that case, I'd think my decision was worth it.
Marisela Treviño Orta: Almost all of my characters are Latina/o. And most of them are women. Back in the Bay Area my Latina actress friends loved this.
Why are the worlds of my plays populated like this? At first, that was who just showed up in my imagination. Now I'm more intentional. I see that I am creating roles for Latina/o actors. I am creating stories that need to be told and added to the American canon.
In the Bay Area I had go-to actors for readings and productions. But now I'm in graduate school. In Iowa. There are three other Latina/o grad students in my program. Only two of them are actors. And I know of one undergrad in the theatre department.
How will I cast my own shows?
I feel very conflicted. Not just about casting for the private workshop reading I have each semester. But for the potential university productions that are in discussion.
Can my work be done at a university level without causing harm? And by harm I mean perpetuating brown face?
I recently shared these thoughts with a fellow playwright, friend, and graduate of my program. He said, “Don't write for the program..”Meaning, don't adjust what I write about to fit the acting pool that's there. I need to write for myself. I agree with that. But where does that leave me with casting?
Again, conflicted. And my thoughts are ever evolving.
I have thought about allowing the other actors of color to step into those roles. If I was writing to provide Latina/o actors with opportunities, perhaps giving opportunities for other actors of color is my answer.
(This poem was originally written in 1996 in support of August Wilson on the “color blind” casting debate.)
Yes, of course
you may audition
for the role of an Asian
if you are willing to
walk down the street
and have somebody’s
nine year old
give you his version
of Jackie Chan
gushes over his
Yes, by all means
let a white man
play Paul Robeson,
a white woman play
you will be expected
for all accusations,
ridicule, exile and lynchings,
Yes, let’s have
an all white cast
wait in the wings
for the moments
when you will have to get
out of your jogging clothes
and into a suit
to withdraw money
from your own bank account
without being wrestled
to the ground,
or followed when
attempting to buy socks.
Be prepared to get
for the insolence
of driving a Lexus
or any car
with a working
First Nation Peoples may be played
by white acting students.
They must be willing
to submit to
on the status of
be poked by curious
and greeted with
They will be expected
to heal canker sores
with a rattle,
to the New Age rich,
regardless of gender.
It would be my pleasure
to have white actors
as long as they are
available for extended runs
in prison camps,
and be on call
for career ending
cameos and extended solos
that will separate them
from their agents, families,
friends, and union reps.
I myself would
prefer to be played
by a white man
as long as he is willing
to undergo my yearly mammogram,
and be paid much less
than he’s worth.
Oh, yes, he must be willing
to be called a Puerto Rican whore
with a chip on her shoulder
when he disagrees with anyone
who was born with clout
and thinks the Great White Way
should stay that way.
Reconnaissance can be a form of resistance to the tyranny of exclusionary racism, outright negligence, or the ignorance of convenience. People of color may also suffer from whiteness, a by-product of the colonized mind. We cannot rule out the complicity of our own in any situation regarding racial and ethnic parity.
If one is either pursuing, or invited to have a play produced in an academic institution, or anywhere for that matter, one must first be clear of one's casting vision for the work.
Once, at an audition to perform one of my solo shows for a women’s festival, at the turn of the 21st century, I was thrust into a time machine of insult. The festival was to be held at a university affiliated theatre. After the audition I was told my audition was “fabulous” and left fairly certain I had been cast. Soon thereafter, I learned that the same team that had auditioned me, put out a casting notice for my solo show that read: “Seeking a Latina or someone who can pass.” I ended up having to educate that team of theatre “professionals” as to why what they had done was reprehensible. I performed my own work in the festival, each night dealing with childish retaliatory behaviors by one of the festival directors. That experience affirmed the decision I had made in the early 1970s, when a high-powered casting agent, dangling a golden carrot asked me “to pass” and I refused. The agent pushed regardless of how clear it was that the request was deeply wounding: “You’re beautiful, you can sing, you’re the perfect ingénue and Maybelline is interested in you.” That moment affirmed my earlier decision to be a performance poet. I knew it would be the only way I could get my work performed and allow me to maintain control of my cultural production.
Since getting work produced all too often feels like a miracle, the playwright might not think to ask questions regarding the director's vision. Yes, it is the director who does the casting, however, the playwright might insist on having a conversation prior to auditions to clarify expectations. In the case of colleges and universities it would be in alignment with “town/gown” initiatives, to share audition notices with surrounding communities. Prevention as intervention. Ask the questions before you sign, and the most important question of all: At what price production?
Irma Mayorga: I think the permissions you want to put on your plays is a personal choice for every playwright. For me, there is no all-encompassing “yes” or “no” answer to inquiries. And, I also believe there is no blanket answer that can be applied to every school: location matters, for example. For me, it is a case-by-case basis, which takes time, care, and energy. “Why this play for your school/community?” is one of my top questions—especially if you do not have the population to fill the roles? With this query, it becomes a conversation, not an edict on my part.
I cannot easily envision non-Latina/o actors in the roles of my plays about Mexican American life-worlds. I have written plays that hope to articulate the US Latina/o body in different social contexts and, with that, a certain representation of the US Latina/o life-world through means of a live-based art form, theatre. Stories of this sort are not the only stories I have crafted nor am capable of writing, but I chose to write stories of this kind in the name of the absence and invisibility of Latina/o bodies and life-worlds on the US American stage: this is why I started writing plays.
As a woman of color, that is, as a Latina who can never under any circumstances pass for white, I am all too aware of the racial significations inscribed on my body that proceed and oftentimes impede me. These impediments and the way bodies have learned to mediate their racial significations is part of the story I want to tell on the stage.
As a playwright I am not solely concerned with words on a page; plays are more than thoughts and dialogues spoken aloud, more than words said. Plays are also the images constructed, the moods conjured, the totality of sensory and verbal devices used in a liminal space that is inhabited for that moment of telling a story to folks seated around you.
Elaine Romero: Here’s the call I’ve received many times, “I love your play, but we don’t have Latina/o actors,” This has been true not only of all-Latina/o plays, but plays with as few as two Latina/o characters. Universities that have performed my work have cast the Latina/o actors outside of their theatre departments and even outside of their universities. These artists have received pushback from students for taking a role and making it not available to them. The authentic representation of my work has cost these artists.
As writers of color, we need highly trained actors. These actors need the full benefit of the education at all universities without obstacles to entry via the canon itself, presuppositions about who should play whom, and being limited to roles that writers of color have written for them. Color-blind casting has to happen when students audition for program entry. It has to happen in high school and grade school. It has to become normalized, second-nature. If students of color have limitations on their ability to grow in a program, they will not dedicate their education to the theatre.
I want Latina/o actors to play Latina/o roles in my plays. A recent statement by the Dramatists Guild notes:
Play Licenses clearly state that 'no change to the play, including text, title, and stage directions are permitted without the approval of the author,’ or words to that effect. Casting is an implicit part of the stage directions, to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.
No matter how a director slices it, casting falls under the purview of the playwright’s copyright and must be legally handled as such. Yes, I do not want my diversity to be a barrier. The truth is that universities are worried about diversifying and are wondering how. Playwrights want students exposed to their work and wondering how. The educator in me fights with the playwright in me. Should universities who do not have students of color still be able to do my plays? The educator says yes and the playwright says no. If universities produce ethnically specific plays with any of the available swap-out options, what are we teaching the next generation of theatre artists? Experience has taught me that artists will duplicate whatever they have learned in school. I propose a national Diversified Guest Artist Program. This Diversified Guest Artist Program would include directors as well. The program would include training and mentorship for students of color. As a field, we have to find out what the barriers of entry are for students of color and find ways to address the diversification of our future. Otherwise, our future will be our past.