Do White Playwrights Think About This?

This week on HowlRound, we are exploring Native voices on the American stage. I have deemed this week: "Instead of Redface" (#InsteadOfRedface)—as our voices collectively question why redface is more prevalent on the American stage than our own authentic Native voices. I have asked Larissa FastHorse to add her voice because I believe she is one of the most well known Native playwrights of our time. She has won numerous awards and recognitions, and most recently, her play What Would Crazy Horse Do was selected as one of the top ten plays by the Kilroys. Why isn’t anyone producing this play?! Larissa offers the important perspective that as Native playwrights, we are capable of writing more than just stories about ourselves. As Native Peoples, we are storytellers .—Mary Kathryn Nagle

A few years ago I won a national playwriting award and decided it was time to find a literary agent. I did a round of meetings in New York and was shocked at how they saw me. I saw myself as a published playwright who had received a second commission at a LORT A theatre and had two well-received equity productions. Instead I was told, “As a Native American female playwright…” and “You can’t ___ because you are a Native American female playwright.” Or…

Agent: As a Native American female playwright you’ll never work in LORT. I’d send you to college theatres.

Me: But I’m working on my second LORT commission.

Agent: Native American female playwrights do best in college theatre.

Me: Can’t I do both?

Agent: Not with me.

This was a major agent and my first choice. I was thrown. I started to doubt all of my career decisions. Then I met the guy who became—and is still—my agent. He brought my scripts to the meeting—a lovely touch—and never once mentioned “Native American” or “female.” He talked about my writing and what kind of artistic life I wanted and how he could support me on that journey.

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It turned out well, but on the flight home I asked myself, do white playwrights ever have to think about this? Do they ever have an agent spell out their limitations based on their whiteness? Are they told they are not welcome in a whole segment of theatre because they are white? Are they relieved to have a meeting where no one asks them a hundred questions about their whiteness instead of their work? Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my ethnic identity and honored to share it, but I’ve got more going on.

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Jump forward to this year: I’ve been working on the award-winning play with the LORT company. It began as an autobiographical piece and is the hardest story I’ve ever tried to wrangle. I’ve typed more on this play than all of my other plays combined. Along the way, the main character’s journey became my truth in experiences and obstacles and lessons learned. But that journey no longer matches mine chronologically or geographically. Several real people have combined into one character. Lessons that took years to learn now happen in weeks. Internal battles are externalized. But we finally have something that looks like an engaging play.

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On a notes call the director says very carefully, “I’m not sure how being Native American serves the main character now. It seems to be forced into this world in a way that doesn’t feel honest to the story.” I think about it and have to agree. There is no reason for it to come up in this world. He continues, “If being Native American is important to the character, then there needs to be a better way to bring it into the story. If it’s not, maybe you don’t need that.” I feel like I’ve walked into a wall. But she’s me. She has to be Native American. I’m a Native American female—whoa. He reaches out to me in the silence: “Larissa, you know we don’t hire you because you’re Native American. We hire you because you’re a good writer.”

Tears fill my eyes. Despite my supportive agent, as a Native American female playwright I sometimes suspect that the things the trolls say online are true. That I get jobs I don’t deserve based on my ethnicity. That I am part of forced gender parity and if the numbers ever get equal, I’ll be out. That I can’t stand on my writing alone.

Do white playwrights ever think about this? Do they worry about losing jobs for white actors? Do they question if they are writing about enough white issues? Are they expected to be the voice of all white people even when they are just speaking for themselves? Do they fear their play about a girl who wants to be a ballet dancer is responsible for the genocide of their race?

Then the sincerity of the director’s words cascade through my brain and I am euphoric. It’s a freedom I’ve never allowed myself to have, and the limitless possibilities make me giddy. Maybe she’ll be ethnic, maybe she won’t. I will serve my play and nothing else.

I hang up and instantly panic. I can’t un-Native American a character. Do you know how many LORT contracts were available to Native American specific actors last year? I’m pretty sure it was two and I know who got both of them. (There may have been some lingering productions of August: Osage County, but you get the point.) I can’t waste this chance to give Native actors jobs and to represent my people. This country has spent hundreds of years trying to erase us and the genocide continues to this day. If I don’t write about the Native American experience, am I complicit? Being a Native American female playwright doesn’t feel like enough for one play.

I freak out for a few days until I’ve gone in enough circles that I can see myself from outside myself and finally ask, do white playwrights ever think about this? Do they worry about losing jobs for white actors? Do they question if they are writing about enough white issues? Are they expected to be the voice of all white people even when they are just speaking for themselves? Do they fear their play about a girl who wants to be a ballet dancer is responsible for the genocide of their race?

I see clearly the weird mix of hubris and humility I am living in. Can one play be that important? Should one play be that important? Is my one play really that important? It doesn’t mean we won’t cast a Native American actress; or she could be African American or Asian or Hispanic or white or a mix of colors that would look the most like me. So I take the ethnic specificity out and the play is stronger. It’s a choice I still struggle with, but it’s the right one for this story. Do white playwrights think about this stuff? I don’t know, but maybe they should.

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Photo 1: Production still from Average Family, Children's Theater Company of Minneapolis. Photo by GW Mercier.

Photo 2: Director Edward B. Sharon and Larissa FastHorse in rehearsal for Cherokee Family Reunion, Mountainside Theater. Photo by Edward B. Sharon.

Photo 3: Production still from Landless, AlterTheater. Photo by David Allen.

Photo 4: Cast and creative team of Landless at AlterTheater. 

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Thoughts from the curator

This week on HowlRound, we are exploring Native voices on the American stage. I have deemed this week: "Instead of Redface" (#InsteadOfRedface)—as our voices collectively question why redface is more prevalent on the American stage than our own authentic Native voices. 

Native Voices

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This is an amazing discussion, one that touches my ideas and work in theater, writing, art deeply. Thank you all for your thoughts and sharing, and especially Larissa's original blog. As a mixed race, mixed ancestry person who presents as white I feel strongly that backstory, ethnicity, identification all matter. But as a director I would cast a hispanic actor as a white actor's son with a black father. I would do this because I am casting actors. Sometimes, color matters. Sometimes I want a black actor to have the beautiful high cheekbones that often characterize a Kikuyu to play a Kenyan character in a play set here or in Kenya. But more often, I am looking for an actor to play a part, to bring a character to life and the skin tones, the "type" are less important to me than the skills and the actor's embodiment of the character. I do think about these questions. Daily. I am building my theater company on these questions. If I don't have enough native actors available to me, can I produce a play written by a native playwright written to give parts to native actors? I don't represent white actors, because my skin is pale. I want to give parts to actors who "work" in those parts. I want to produce theater that is both accessible and that challenges our comfortable assumptions. I want to create a stage that offers us deeper understanding of ourselves and our disparate and universal humanness.

So thrilled to hear of your thoughtfulness in building your theater. Every playwright is different of course, but my personal belief has been that we are nearly invisible in American culture and American theater so any aspect is a welcome change from the norm. Meaning, please produce a Native writer with whatever resources you have. We have to create demand then address ways to fill it in the future. Doing nothing will produce nothing. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Larissa, thank you for starting this conversation. Your reflection on keeping a character Native America resonates with me--this idea that if the character's cultural identity isn't somehow a focus in the narrative, then keeping their ethnicity is somehow questioned. I've had to answer related questions lately because I have two characters who are Latino, but the play isn't about cultural identity nor do they speak Spanish. When asked about their cultural lives my response was similar to yours: they're me. They're just like me--third generation Mexican America who grew up speaking English. And I argue that that in itself is important to see on stage--that my cultural community includes a very wide spectrum of cultural experiences and I don't believe that breadth is seen on American stages. But more importantly, my Latina astronomer can just be in a play that's just a love story or about science. That people like her exist. And I want audiences to see that. And I want Latino actors to have those roles.

While that resistance (and it was mild--my own I mean) was expected (by me), I found your conversation with a potential agent to be very troubling. To hear that this potential agent had already put you and your work into a category, that they wouldn't even attempt to help you pursue LORT level gigs--wow. That's like a punch in the gut. When we talk about systems shutting out people--this is a prime example of that. I'm glad you found an agent that believes in you and your work and is willing to hustle.

This is something that has come up for me in a totally different manner. When I write characters, I fully develop them and do backstories. As I do this, I do consider their race, upbringing, schooling, location as part of who they are.

If they were cast differently that would take some of the truth of the character. And change them, which is all right when workshopping with the writer but honestly shouldn't (I think) be done without the writer's consent (on plays where characters are specifically laid out). Like when there was a production of The Odd Couple, Neil Simon was brought in to make the transition BECAUSE women in the same situation most likely would act differently than the men in the show.

However, I feel most plays are written so that the truth of the character is less important by not better defining the cast. Therefore it's changeable based on casting.

I'm interested in everyone's thoughts.

Thank you, Larissa, for a terrific piece of writing. All of us need to keep asking these kinds of questions and this kind of examination, both of our selves and our work. I love that you served the story and the play, and yet are still conflicted. None of this is mathematics - it's people and culture and history and the present and the future. As someone who is the lowest on everyone's key demographic, (a middle-aged straight white guy) I work very hard to help create work that speaks deeply to the human part of me, the part that we all share, but is not overridden by my middle-aged-white-guy-ness, nor is it overridden by any assumptions of what I might think it's like to be someone I'm not - female, queer, of color, an immigrant. Part of that process finding the best playwrights we can find and letting them do their work, starting with trust of their self-ness, vision, and differentness. I could not be more proud that over the past 10 years, of the 40+ works that Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences has produced, fully half of the playwrights (and composers of musicals) have been female and nearly 40% persons of color. At the same time, I can't be smug about that fact, but still find people to work with who will challenge me and my assumptions.

I love the questions you're asking, it reminds me of Adrienne Rich's essay Compulsory Heterosexuaiity. When you ask if white playwrights think about this, the question is do we think about our whiteness with regard to the other things we think about. Our identities are Venn diagrams--with various degrees of oppression and privilege. We are our socioeconomic class, our gender(s), our sexuality, our physical and mental (dis)abilities, our race, our ethnicity, our religious or political beliefs, our demographic, and so on. So many of us cannot be reduced to being one thing and ignoring the rest of our identity. Some people are more marginalized by others, by the mainstream--without a doubt--but I think many writers ask the question how am I representing a race, a gender, etc by the character I put onstage. To your point, because whiteness is most often the norm in our mainstream stories, whiteness doesn't have to represent all white people ipso facto. It is my hope that we are all more and more conscious about how we become more inclusive, yet remain specific in our representation. It's okay to be afraid about writing people who are "other" from our own identity, but that's just a step in the process--the others include an investigation of the the authenticity of that character in x or y circumstance, a querying of what stereotypes we may be duplicating from a place of fear, ignorance or desire to please/not shake something up/who knows. I think about race and gender and sexuality with every character I write. I question if they could be anything, or what they are specifically. I come up short in many ways of my exploration onstage of the human condition--for instance, my characters tend to be able-bodied, they're often well-educated, many of them are articulate. I love the questions you're asking and it's a call for each of us to check in with how are we writing our lived experience, how are we writing others, and what is our intended effect and does that match what we think we're writing or saying? I think we have a responsibility as artists and change makers to wrestle with all the questions you raise and to continue to see ourselves as insiders and outsiders and to be conscious of where that line is in each circumstance/meeting/play/interaction/etc.. And when someone is willing to be vulnerable and say, "this is my experience" as you have done with this essay, then it is our job to recognize, support and validate your strength, your line of questioning and to examine our own blind spots. Most of us don't know what we don't know, or we are unaware of our effect on others, and that is our blind spot. I look forward to getting to know your work, thank you for asking the questions you raise, I can see my own limitations and parameters and it is humbling, necessary and useful.

As a white Jewish female bisexual playwright, I try to write from a place of empathy and love for all of my characters, and recently when I found myself writing a play for three men and only one woman I questioned for a long time whether or not I should write a play with so many male characters and only one woman, and when I finally decided to send it out, it was immediately accepted as part of the ReOrient Festival being produced this fall at Golden Thread in San Francisco, and I love the play, but I do not love the fact that there are so few female roles in it.

All of the characters are Iraqi. I am not Iraqi. So I have worked to find my way into that world. It isn't automatic. But there is a kind of artistic empathy that takes over sometimes, and I had to write the play, and I have to serve the play, and since the play takes place in a public space (a grocery store) there aren't that many women there -- public spaces in Iraq are male spaces. There are women in the story of the play (at home, over the phones) but only one ventures out. I almost always write a counter-play against the one I just wrote, something opposite, so I am now in the middle of a play with three women and one man, a comedy instead of a tragedy. I also often specify that the male roles in some of my plays should be played by women playing men. Why not? It is, after all, a performance. In the end, I will have written many more roles for women than for men. But we must serve the plays we write. I think writers do think about these questions. I try to always consider how to bring in more characters of color. I think it is necessary and important.

As a white person, I do have the privilege to write without regard to color. It is not usually the first thing I think about when creating a play. But that doesn't mean that all of my characters are white by default. If, by the end of the play, a character hasn't told me what color she is, then it is open to casting, and it should be a director's choice -- however, I hope the director will be aware that the character could be any ethnicity, and I put it in the script in the character breakdown. "Any ethnicity" is not hard to type. I don't want directors thinking if they cast the mother white, then the son has to be white -- in my world, that isn't real.

"'Any ethnicity' is not hard to type." I love that statement. Everyone needs to hear it. Your response, among others, makes me wonder where the disconnect is. If so many white people are thinking about and writing plays with people of color (even being critiqued for it) then why do we see primarily white stages? Something is not connecting.

Thanks for the interesting and really thought out responses. I certainly am not meaning to be racist against anyone, I am half white myself. I think in the USA there is a pretty well accepted grouping of all "white people" but I am very aware of the nuances of ethnic specificity and respect that everyone has their own struggles. We all do as artists, and I am simply sharing one of mine in hopes to start some dialog and hear other responses. So thank you all for sharing your struggles. I have learned something today, which is the best of what this crazy internet forum can do for us.

I also believe in all kinds of people telling all kinds of stories, but I think it has to be done with a sense of responsibility that I don't always see. If you happen to want to write Native American characters I wrote a TCG blog with some starting points to think about to make your research and engagement a little smoother: http://www.tcgcircle.org/20...

Emily, FYI, the discrimination against Eastern European immigrants is discussed in terms of 'racism', there was/is a huge issue in the UK involving Romanian and Bulgarian migrant workers, read this article "UKIP buys advert to deny racism after Farage's Romanian slip-up":http://www.euractiv.com/sec...Quotes from the article: "I was asked if a group of Romanian men moved in next door, would you be concerned? And if you lived in London, I think you would be," Farage told the LBC radio station. Farage, who is married to a German, was then asked what the difference would be between having Germans and Romanians as neighbours and said: "You know what the difference is."See, Emily, there is a larger discussion about racism/privilege/discrimination/history... It's a discussion worth having, congrats to Howlround and Larissa FastHorse for creating a platform for such thought-provoking debates.

That's where the US perspective bumps up against that of other countries. In the UK racism is defined more broadly, so someone English being nasty to a Scot can be called "racist." I know that doesn't work in the US view, but these terms have different meanings depending on culture.

Thank you for this terrific essay, Larissa. Fascinating and important discussion.

As a white, somewhat-ethnic writer, I have written roles for people of color - my last play had roles for four African-Americans, one Hispanic, and two white actors. But I must admit that I felt that the authenticity question plagued me in the writing process. Did I have the right to write for actors of colors? Was I going to be excoriated for doing so? Would I be able to create an authentic voice for those characters?

I have usually come down on the side of imaginative empathy - that is, as a playwright you're forced to adopt the characteristics of a whole host of people unlike yourself - I have no problem writing female characters - and I do consider the gender balance of actors in my plays (I try to write more roles for women than men), but racial politics do cause me to hesitate.

Which is a shame, of course, because if white writers feel they are unable to write roles for people of color, then our theatre is going to get even whiter, and we're going to become even more limited. Playwrights of color are going to feel even more pressure to write roles for people of their race, and we risk compartmentalizing everyone into a box.

So I think white writers do think about these questions, but the questions are coming from the opposite direction.

It's a discussion we must continue to have. There aren't easy answers here. Interestingly, in writing for young people, these concerns almost never come up for me. I put a note in every play that any role may be played by any actor of any race or ethnicity. (Proud to say I had three plays produced in Ferguson this year.)

Enjoyed the article, provocative questions. The main thing I'm resonating with after having read it is: 'don't invest much time in thinking about whether your play is important or not, in any way, for any group, for whatever purpose. Just write.'

Olimpia and others,A person of color talking about white people as a whole is not stereotyping. "Reverse racism" does not exist. Racism exists upon the historical oppression of a people by white people (in this case, Colonization). A white European may experience prejudice, but it is not racism in the way I'm reading your framework. You don't carry around your brown or blackness in a highly visible way, or the burden to work against the continued silencing of your people. Which, your comment(s) can do the work of perpetuating.Just something to be aware of.Gracias.

In further support of Emily's statement, look back at the highlighted/called-out questions:"Do white playwrights ever think about this? Do they worry about losing jobs for white actors? Do they question if they are writing about enough white issues? Are they expected to be the voice of all white people even when they are just speaking for themselves? Do they fear their play about a girl who wants to be a ballet dancer is responsible for the genocide of their race?"The short answer is "No."

The longer answer is "Never."

That's not true. I do think about representing my ethnicity/country/region and giving actors with an accent (immigrant actors) a chance to be on stage. But I don't think in terms of 'white actors", "white issues". This whole "white" thing is beyond me. Although I have Roma (Gypsy) roots and probably a responsibility to represent that history on stage too. History, geography, colonialism, holocaust, slavery, super-powers, empires, religion, dead languages etc - yes, those are true. Race? I'm not so sure about that. Race is a social/political construct created by white colonialists and whites in power indeed. In the US, the discussion revolves around the socially constructed dichotomy white-color, in Europe it's more about ethnicity and the West-East dichotomy, I guess. Just to add some nuances and colors to the interesting debate :)

Olimpia: My regrets and thank you for indiciating that I was responding from my U.S.-centric perspective. My brief initial response was simply to express that I've never once heard a White artist or arts professional express concerned-questions like those I re-quoted in my comment. Never. In any play development process. And yet. I've heard them expressed from People of Color (as well as Women, Deaf artists, etc. though that is *not* the focus at this point).

Olimpia: It's true that this is heavily a US-centric viewpoint, and I understand that different parts of the world have their own conflicts around power and status. That said, Europe has more trouble with race than many Europeans are willing to acknowledge.

That aside, white writers in the US don't encounter barriers based on race. Even when the occasional exception crops up, overall a white writer has more options. Sure, whites struggle with representation of gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity, etc., but not their race. You may have to fight for a character to be from your country/region or to have an accent, but not to be white. Ms. FastHorse wasn't wrestling with whether or not to have a character from her own tribal nation, but of any tribe at all -- a particularly tough choice when hardly any roles are written for Native actors and non-Native parts are still often out of reach.

I may be wrong, but it sounds like your Roma roots are ancestral, not the culture you were raised in. That is still important in your personal story and could be a great thing to bring to your work, but it's not the same as having been raised in a culture.

Put another way, whites don't struggle with being invisible because of their race, but Native Americans do.

The short answer is YES, some do; and I guess some don't. You are putting all "white writers" in the same box, that is stereotyping too. As a white Eastern European playwright living in NYC I got those agent "stay in your box" questions many times. And I didn't get the agents :) We all have our long stories of rejection and frustration. However, essays like yours are useful, it's good to get a glimpse into other writers' personal experiences of career growth and see - one more time - that we are all different and the same, we are human beings trying to make sense of this colorful 3-D game called life.

I can answer for myself as a white man who writes... YES

I have thought about this and YES I have had Agents & Managers explain that I cannot write for certain theaters because I am white. Only thing is... I find the reason this convo kicks is off slightly different...

Example I was commissioned to write a play based on true stories and true calls from my 23 years of working as a 9-1-1 Operator. One of the stories was based on my friend of over 12 years, an older, African American woman who would refer to me as her "White Son". She had overheard a Captain refer to her as the "N-word". The man had been her champion and friend for years , so she thought, but the truth came out and this destroyed her, broke her heart, but taught her how to navigate a career in a police department as one of three women of color.

I really thought it was an important monologue in the piece and needed to be there to tell the story. I gave a rep of mine the piece to read before final submission and she said "You can't send this in. You can't use the N-word because you're white, especially since you have it coming out of the mouth of a black character. You cannot send this in."

I explained it's based on a true story and it shows how racism in police stations does exist, but is hidden.

She went on to explain "Because of Ferguson you cannot use this, no white writer can."

I argued "now we're censoring because I'm white and that's just as wrong" and "We need to show a piece like this more now because of Ferguson because it proves why Ferguson happened and wil happen again and if we don't submit this we create a racist atmosphere!" That was the most recent time a rep said this to me.

The first time was over 10 years ago when I wrote another piece based on a time in my youth when I was working with 2 convicted teen murderers and I was their supervisor (Honestly, the jobs we have to do to stay in the arts) this was based on 2 Puerto Rican men working with a white man. It had a Master Harold & The Boys feel to it, but again I was told... "You cannot write this story or submit it because you're white! People will not forgive you! You cannot write about the experience of people of color!"

Then I caved and never did the rewrites or sent the piece out, but this last time I held my ground and submitted the piece. The African-American actress that played the part had one concern about a response in the piece she had to say and I more than willingly re-wrote that line for her comfort. She loved it and the audiences loved the piece. I did hear gasps when the N-word came from her lips, but no one was waiting for me with tar and feathers after the show! Now a large cable network is reviewing the piece for possible film production and I have adapted it to the screen, but film people don't care if white people write for people of color.

So YES is the answer I've been told the same things, but with a spin on it!

NO, I've never feared the ballet dancer question... I'm just afraid of all the normal writer stuff along with never ending note sessions from everyone from the ushers to the actors to the light designer, to the houseman who clean up at the end of the night... lately in theater.... everyone seems to think they're entitled to trash the place as well as your script.

I also learned that I have to smother my East Coast Goodfellas Italian-ess because then I'm writing "too ethnic" and I need to "whiten up your words".... I've never worried about white actors getting fired over any of this... just worried that I'm the one who's getting fired!!! I never worry if I'm writing enough "white issues".... I'm just worried about issues I'm writing about that people won't understand or care about them!

I worry.

Either way I try to write for multy-ethnic casts and the more I do the more people seem to welcome it, but the people that rep me seem convinced I shouldn't be writing for characters of color since I'm white as snow... I had my mouth swabbed and found out we have some Ethiopian in my DNA... does this take me off the white line and put me in the people of color line??? I don't think so.... but I write for my characters and my story first.... what theatre companies think, I don't worry about and have gotten used to rejection letters as well as acceptance letters.

I think we all need to take a page out of Jean Michel Basquiat's book “I am not a black artist, I am an artist.”

PS...my new play is about a woman that comes out of prison a converted Muslim. My rep said "You're just jumping on a band wagon writing this" and then said "Don't waste my time with pieces you cannot submit!" Meanwhile, the theatre company I am in is developing it, loves it and was thinking about producing it before the second act was finished....

"I am not a white writer... I'm a little Ethiopian!"... oh hell... I just write!

Larissa, thank you for this essay as well as for Landless, which I had the pleasure to see recently.

As a pre-emerged playwright, I'm not sure how useful my answers are, and I'm assuming all those questions weren't rhetorical, but here goes:

As a white, gay/queer, Jewish playwright with a disability I do question myself on the fact that so few of my plays are gay/queer-, Jewish- or disability-themed or even have gay/queer/LGBT or Jewish characters or characters with disabilities. But no, I don't question when I write characters of color or female characters whether I'm giving up an opportunity for a white male actor, or most of the other questions you pose of white playwrights (I've never been near an agent, let alone talk to one). Much of my full-length playwriting has been consciously intended to give more opportunities to actors of color, at risk of reducing the number of theatres I can send them to. I've also started writing more female roles. And I do note in my scripts where actors with specific disabilities can play certain roles, with or without minor modifications to the roles.

(As a side issue, not to sidetrack, I get the impression that many non-Native actors list themselves as "can play Native American.")

I know Bachelor Rat by Han Ong made no referrals to race anywhere in the dialog, but the playwright specified that the lead actor could not be white. The production I saw had all actors of color.

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, a Latino playwright, had three characters, one white and two black.

I have a copy of Staging Whiteness by Mary F. Brewer. Your essay reminds me that it's time for me to pick it up and read it.