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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

a) unnecessary,

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.

Thoughts from the curator

This four-part series redefines diversity in a way that will help us move past the buzzwords and closer to meaningful change and actual inclusion.

Diversity in American Theatre


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To be honest, I'm not 100% sure I know what Ms. Stillwell's point is. I think I understand (and agree with) what she's saying about play selection being an underlying factor in having diverse casts. But beyond that...she seems to be implying that Shakespeare plays should be cast "literally" (i.e. mostly white, English actors) and that classical Greek plays should feature exclusively Mediterranean actors. I hope I'm mistaken in that take-away because it belies a strange misunderstanding of the theatre, in my view.Those type of plays (that we usually lump into the term "classical"--including Shakespeare, the Greeks, etc.) are not naturalistic plays. They weren't even cast in "literal" fashion when they were new. No female actor ever played Viola or Juliet. The actors in the original Greek plays wore full masks. These plays on their face are extremely representational; they are written in verse, even! It seems only natural in my view, to take a completely "color-blind" approach to casting them today. The ethnic identities of the characters (and therefore the actors) are completely unimportant in a play like Richard II or Oedipus. To assert that its some form of tokenism to cast an actor of color as Hamlet because, after all, the play is about a Danish prince, misses the entire point of the play and shows a startlingly vapid view of theatrical dramaturgy in general.

In theory I agree with your statement that theaters honor the context around the plays they pick to produce. In practice however, I see that leading to further casting divides. Much of the American canon was written for white actors but these plays do not tell stories that are only applicable to white bodies. If the directors I've worked with had followed these rules, I never would have been cast in Waiting for Godot, The Cherry Orchard, and Our Town, in which I am currently playing Dr Gibbs. I have been cast in roles written for a black actor and have done well in them. I have also been cast in roles that, when originally written, I might not even have been allowed to audition for them. I say this out of a gratitude for the opportunities I've been given in the past, but also because of the context of those opportunities. For the three plays I mentioned, these were performed with all-black casts, and not, as in your examples a white cast with a black actor sprinkled in. I believe this can make a huge difference, given the play.

Specifically in the case of my current production of Our Town, casting the play with black actors in our city creates an echo of the city's past as a Black Wall Street. No text is changed, no one does anything different except perform the show with a black body instead of white one. Granted, having a new play written about Black Wall Street for black actors would be exciting and an fantastic opportunity, but it also, I believe, misses a wonderful chance to uncover a new wrinkle in a old chestnut. Or perhaps to view a very familiar play through a different lens.

ThkU - greatness has no boundaries. I'm 5'3-white & "past" my prime; imagine me cast as Beyonce b/c of correctness-when are we going to rejoice in BEING & giving our best with pride in who we are? Create for blacks-Hispanics -Asians if you so wish&if given otherwise-GROW WHERE U R PLANTED-Show them the best IN SPITE of what is given you-YES YOU CAN😘

As it happens, I saw "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" for the first time last year, performed on stage with an all-white cast except for Brick, who was played by an African American. Since I hadn't read or seen it before, I wasn't entirely sure if that's how the character had been written -- though I eventually deduced that given the time and place, it likely would have been talked about directly in the script. Still, it made me think: How would the story be different if that was the way the character had been intended to be portrayed? How would it be different if Maggie was cast as a black woman? What if the whole cast were African American, or Latino, or Indian or Chinese or any other background? How would any of these change or not change the story? In short, it opened up a lot of interesting questions and avenues for exploration about how people related to one another then (and today).

When I was in high school, we had an incident where the teacher who was to direct the school play told two of the auditioning students that they deserved the roles of one of the two sisters in "Arsenic and Old Lace," but that she couldn't give them the roles because they are black and the rest of the family was going to be white, and the audience wouldn't believe it. (The Internet still remembers: http://www.apnewsarchive.co... It was understandably an emotional event and caused a lot of tension in the school, and in the end, the play was cancelled and the teacher quit. My close friend at the time, who is African American, was supposed to be stage manager for the play and was looking forward to it because she was considering getting into theater professionally, and I remember just how conflicted she was by the whole thing. It seemed so unfair to me then and still does: If they were good for the parts, let them have it. If the audience struggles with it, then that's for the audience to deal with. I'd much rather be challenged and have to think and explore my own prejudice at the theater (and isn't that what it's partly about?) than have someone denied an earned opportunity.

But I think this discussion partly misses the bigger problem: I know there are black playwrights and many black actors and actresses out there (as well as Latino, Asian, etc), and many works that have been written intentionally for a cast that is all- or majority-POC. I hope it's better in the big cities, but out here in the so-called heartland, we hardly ever see any of them. And maybe that's the bigger shame.

This is also my position, thanks for the words, "If they were good for the parts, let them have it. If the audience struggles with it, then that's for the audience to deal with. I'd much rather be challenged and have to think and explore my own prejudice at the theater (and isn't that what it's partly about?) than have someone denied an earned opportunity."

I do agree to a point. My daughter experienced a production where Queen Victoria was played by an African American, she yelled out "historically inaccurate!". However, when casting Romeo and Juliet in the last year our best actor for Benvolio was an African American. Clearly, we have a lot to think about on this subject, thanks for breaching it.

Thank you for this message. I've been arguing this point since the late 70's ! Historical Context? Duh what a concept!! There are two more issues that serve to maintain the status quo: lack of knowledge & a severe lack of imagination. A deadly combination that annually begs the question/comment: Really? There are several brilliant plays out there written by people of color past & present. Has anyone read them? Do we really need another production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? Or even Raisin in the Sun?

At any rate some of us are out here in the trenches trying to make a difference. I teach a class at Brown called Acting Outside The Box that deals with these issues head on. It may sound counterintuitive but in this class students are required to perform roles for which they would "never" be cast. So yes, it is conceivable here that a white male would play Walter Lee. The goal here is not for said white male to become a gross imitation of that character but rather to become more attuned to the difference bet those elements of character that are marked by culture and that which makes us human. It's a distinction that is necessary for any actor/director to comprehend, as well as utilize in crafting a performance. I've been lecturing young directors at the Oneill about this approach as well. It always blows my mind to see the students great shock as they come to terms with their own limitations, which is often followed by an expanded view of what is possible. Consequently, I have some optimism about the future. So Thanks again for going public with this issue. It's about Time.

Re: JW's comment 'While there themes and story may still be worth looking at, there is nothing that speaks or resonates to me as an actor of color to represent my point of view or that of my peers." I do not mean to be insensitive to this perspective, but as a playwright and director, you as the actor or actress are there to represent the CHARACTER'S point of view. This is part of the tricky nature of so called 'diversity casting'. There is indeed a theatrical creative aesthetic that should include intention and purpose as well as historical accuracy and permutations relevant to the present time and culture. I'm NOT saying that if you are an African American actor, or an Asian or Latino actor, and have been cast as Brick in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' with the rest of the cast as white, that there will not be some organic infusion of your racial 'point of view' [however you might define that] into your characterization, but it should NOT be your primary task because it could very well be and probably would be a disservice to the play. However, it is also possible that part of the director's vision might include how someone of color in that role would help to highlight certain psychological aspects of relationship or theme [and in my opinion the rationale for this decision should be strong enough the outweigh any 'historical accuracy' especially with a play like 'Cat' as it's racial cultural dynamics are particularly specific as opposed to other plays the would seem to possess greater 'flexibility' in that area. And of course there could be 100 other directors out there that disagree. Such is the nature as aesthetic creative perspectives. I saw the production of 'Lion in Winter' years ago in New York with Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing. Not being totally up on my historical accuracy, I'm assuming such a racial combination of marriage for the King of England during that time would have been unlikely. But it worked in the production. I think because of the nature, style, time period aesthetic flexibility of the play itself. Several years before this I saw a production of 'The Crucible' with the character of Ann Putnam played by an African American actress. It seemed initially odd to me [in terms of historical accuracy] but after five minutes I just enjoyed the performance. Did the director cast her for the sake of 'diversity' or because they thought she was the best actress for the role. I have no idea. In that same production the role of Tituba [brilliant performance] whom I assumed was an actress of color, toward the end of her emotional falling apart scene accidentally lost her head wrap and VERY long, straight, red hair started flying around revealing a different racial identity. In terms of the flow and dramatic build of the scene that was of course unfortunate, but it also displayed a different kind of lesson in diversity casting. If that were to happen these days you can bet there would probably be a howl of protest.

Hopefully as we move forward in time with this casting issue, we will also develop insight and maturity in how it is implemented. It certainly is of value to have a commons atmosphere to share perspectives and possibilities.

Carla, yous seem to have set off a firestorm of debate. Which for me, is a good thing. Actors need work and will work if given work, no matter what the play. I've seen many actors do good work in bad plays--white, black or other. To integrate "classics" is for an actor, a job--plain and simple. Perhaps one of the few jobs he or she may get in any given season. Which brings me to the discerning point of your ideas. Black plays do not merit the accolade of "classic works" Yes we have August Wilson--Yet, I doubt very seriously, audiences will see white actors diversify Ma Rainey... Which is the underbelly of this discussion. Ed Bullins will not be diversified or any other black playwrights' work. They will remain in the black canon. There are not enough black writers being produced to create a canon of classical works. Actors don't make these decisions. Producers and the industry does.

As usual, we're sucker punched by an immense and clever system built on divide and conquer tactics--fighting among ourselves about the crumbs falling from the master's tables--a seedy meal indeed.

I cannot disagree more. We are at a juncture where ethnic plays are often around the theme of oppression of some kind. And these stories of oppression should be told. But choosing to only tell those stories limits what audiences see when they come to the theatre- to perpetually tell stories that underline what minorities and women don't have is not allowing theatre to have its fullest social impact. And moreover, it lacks imagination. Why does historical accuracy trump all other considerations? It's the theatre- people come in expecting to suspend their disbelief.

As classical stories are sociological markers of their time, they come with the baggage of the racism and sexism of their zeitgeist. To honor their historical accuracy over examining the cultural implications of these issues is, to me, both strange in concept and actually quite dangerous. We are not television- we have the ability to truly upend all conventions in service of creating room for deeper conversation. Why throw that away in the name of historical accuracy?

Throughout history, theatre has been populated by casts of all men telling epic heterosexual love stories, social outcasts and vagrants playing kings and emperors...why start cow-towing to historical accuracy now? I for one am not interested.

carla: around 30 years ago i was cast as Jocasta in OEDIPUS REX. my brother, Creon, was played by the beautiful john hancock, a great black actor who went on to TV fame before a sad, early death. since i am white it was decided that i should wear "texas dirt" -- a wonderful powder that made me look mulatto. in these days i would not be given that role. it would be an african american. don't know how others feel about this; i was proud to play the role and every look in the mirror made me prouder.

Good, bad and indifferent. there are so many ways to look and consider Ms. Stillwell's observations and resulting pleas to refrain from certain practices. I presume that we all are not prescient of the upcoming changes on the landscapes of American Theater. However, the current responses to alleviate the disparities regarding JOB opportunities and training of all actors will be a. uncomfortable to some, b. relieving to those trying to make a living in the industry of regional theater and c. troubling for those who are rightly investing in criticizing these explorations of how to change the game. Of course the knee jerk reaction of casting color blind to Black, Latino, Asian, Native and other culturally specific theater pieces would inflame our colleagues as well. This is an ongoing attempt in the first quarter of the 21st century to address the desires of those artists from the 1970/80's who really wanted to work as artists to the new millenial perspectives that have not been fully explored or evaluated. i hope that we will still unsettle those audiences (and our peers) by challenging their visual and cultural experiences when they do go to the theater by putting fractured images in front of us all. Why is it "bad" to do these things? I appears to be merely a conditional time to try things out. Risk boldly and strike a conversation up to think about how things might be, could be or should be. That is yet another one of the conditions theater creates - controversy. Yes bring it on . Be mad, sad but please don't feel nothing. ( p.s. Too much coffee this morning)

Well Ms. Stillwell I could not disagree with you more. Welcome to 2013. How can you say this is counter intuitive to real inclusion? Really? It is inclusion.The reality is that the landscape for actors of color is still way off balance with a majority of roles going to white actors. Only now is it somewhat starting to get better for African-American artists, but it's still an extreme challenge for Latino and Asian artists to participate and be recognized to their full potential talents in our industry. And in your post here, you fail to take the perspective of the artist who actually may be interested in doing a traditional classical play and/or role without having to jump the hoops and hurdles of the circumstances of which they might be set in. Most of us are after all American Actors in America - why not let us participate in the American play that was written by classical American authors such as Albee, Miller, O'Neill, Williams and on and on? I think you also fail to recognize that plays by their very nature are works that are meant to change or be given new meaning or interpretation to reflect the modern times that they are being produced in. I would actually argue that too many theatres are doing exactly what you propose - stage them in the way the were meant to be staged when a play was written for an audience of the 1930s or 1950s. This kind of traditional representation keeps the classics as nothing but old books living on their shelf collecting dust. While their themes and story may still be worth looking at, there is nothing that speaks or resonates to me as an actor of color to represent my point of view or that of my peers. Diversity is just that - to bring diverse voices to the landscape and diverse minds towards creating art. If we practiced what you preach, it would be a quite a segregated world indeed. A world I have no wish to practice my art in thank you very much.

I think that what Ms. Stillwell is saying is that true inclusion (as it relates to classical drama) would deal with the reality of the cultural diversity of that existed in the classical world, thereby making any attempts and "colorblind casting" mute (This is especially true with Greek Drama.)The imbalance that actors of color experience, as it relates to modern and contemporary drama, has nothing to do with casting and everything to do the play selection. The fact that our idea of what constitutes a classical American author- in 2013- still consists of Albee, Miller, O'Neill and Williams is where the problem lies. If producers, Artistic Directors and Literary Managers actually did a little research and exposed their audience to the diverse numberof dramatists that might not be a part of the official canon then this discussion would cease to be relevant.

Actually, I have an even better idea, maybe we should advocate for the production of new plays that meet all of these requirements. There are hundreds to choose from.