Diversity in American Theater
The Mythology of Color Blind/Conscience Casting
There has been much talk in recent years about the lack of "diversity" in American theater. This four part series is meant to redefine the conversation in a way that will move us past the buzz words and move us closer to meaningful change and actual inclusion. Find the full series to date here.
I heard about a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where the woman cast as the mother was African American and the only person of color in the cast. Close your eyes and picture this for a moment…got it? Now I don’t know about you, but this image bothered me—and it happens every season. Every season, someone in some theater decides that it would be cool to do stuff like adapt the tragic myth of Phaedra, with the story set during the Boxer Rebellion or to produce Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but cast it with two African Americans, a Latino, and another actor of ambiguous race. Let us not forget that no theater season in America is complete without an adaptation of a Shakespeare play (pick one—it doesn’t matter) with an all white cast except for the one black girl who I like to call the “third black girl from the right,” set in New York during the roaring twenties. This has always bothered me.
Over the years, when I have spoken to my colleagues about my discomfort with this trend, someone inevitably asks me to relax. They argue that these are valiant attempts by theater companies to cast people of color. My colleagues (of all backgrounds) would argue that these adaptations and casting choices were good steps in the right direction to help attain full diversity and inclusion in the American theater. At this point in the conversation, I stop talking. I decide to stay in my new work bubble and leave everyone else to do his or her casting business. Then about a year ago, I heard the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof story, and it became clear to me why this practice bothered me so badly: the practice is
b) undermines the playwright’s intentions by ignoring the cultural and historical context in which their work was created,
and c) is counter intuitive to real inclusion.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s examine color blind/color conscience casting as it relates to the Greek tragedies. I love the tragedies because they feel very familiar to me. They feel familiar because they were written in an era that was much like our modern world. The world in which those works were created was extremely diverse and those ancient people were dealing with many of the issues we are dealing with today—civil unrest, holy wars, immigration, migration, imperialism, ethnic cleansing, and ethnic blending. Dare I say it, but many of those people probably looked a lot like me, and most of my fellow artists of color. That being said, is there really a need to move these works into some re-envisioned space and time to manufacture diversity? All one must do is honor the inherent realities of the age in which they were created and cast them with historical accuracy.
Is there really a need to move these works into some re-envisioned space and time to manufacture diversity? All one must do is honor the inherent realities of the age in which they were created and cast them with historical accuracy.
The need to practice color blind/color conscience casting in almost all instances where we are dealing with classical work is not just unnecessary—it’s insulting. Because however well-meaning this practice is, the underlying message it asserts is that theater was created for, and belongs to “white” people, and said “white” people are graciously finding a place for people of color in their world. I understand that color blind/color conscience casting in the examples I set forth seeks to remedy the lack of cultural diversity on American stages by checking the one African American, one Asian, and one “woman cast as a man” boxes. But the journey to reach actual representational parity on stage doesn’t have to be that convoluted. I put forth that one can simply stage most classical work as written and cast it with cultural and historical accuracy.
I have a couple of questions I would like artistic leaders to consider when choosing their next season: With all of the plays that we have at our disposal, plays written over thousands of years from various cultures, why are these practices of color blind/color conscience casting even necessary? Wouldn’t looking deeper into the canon for plays that both fit your theater’s mission and are multicultural in their construct more readily allow for the diversity and inclusion that you seek?
My point is this—there is no need to find a place for people of color on stage. The only thing that actually needs to happen is that theaters work to understand the historical and cultural context around which the plays they select were written, and honor it. In doing this, the inherent diversity in many plays will become evident and the door for many more actors of color will be opened.