Getting Specific

One Playwright’s Complicated Casting Choices

We are thrilled to kick off #IdentityWeek with a feature on the very idea that prompted this year's panel event: the discussion around playwrights and their identity. Do they have a responsibility to write for their cultural, ethnic, sexual or religious background? If they do, are playwrights labeled as writers for that particular group? Tonight's (9 /27/16) panel, Playwrights & Their Identity, will focus on the impact and influence of a playwright's perceived identity on their writing and within our theatre community. Larissa FastHorse pens the first piece of our #IdentityWeek series, discussing her experience as a Native American playwright as well the ever-evolving conversation around Native American, Asian American, and Latinx groups in the theatre—and the essential need for their representation on our stages. —Courtney Kochuba, #Identity Week curator, Samuel French

I’ve written and spoken a lot about being a Native American playwright. You can find my talk during the 2011 TCG National Conference about what it means to be “exotic” in theatre here. Or my previous HowlRound post on common issues writers of color face in the business here. Or my TCG Circle blog to non-Indigenous writers that want to tell Indigenous stories here. Unfortunately, an issue that just won’t go away for me is casting. In fact, it is getting worse, but not in ways I expected.

I like writing Indigenous characters. I also like that America is finally interested in seeing those characters’ stories on stage. Through theatre I get to be an educator, activist, and community builder. Eyes are opened, houses sell out, they laugh, they cry, and lives are changed. But all of that good stuff only happens when the theatre produces my play.

native american dancer on stage
Christy Chow in Larissa FastHorse's new play What Would Crazy Horse Do? directed by Courtney Mohler at SCU Presents / Fess Parker Studio Theatre. Photo by Chuck Barry.

I am equally thrilled that Asian American groups and Latinx groups have fought against yellow/brown face this past year, and feel empowered and good about that fight. I’m also proud of you, American theatre, for listening and changing. But I’m getting nervous about the tenor of the talk around these issues when I read social media and attend town halls. All people of color are being put together behind one hard line. I love solidarity, but I also love our differences. And these communities are in very different places right now.

A quick Google search shows that there are about ten times as many Latinx folks in this country as Native Americans and three times as many Asian folks, if we lump them all together, which is problematic in itself. Much of the Native American population is spread over highly isolated areas with very little (if any) access to Western style theatre. Logically, the number of Western trained, experienced Native American actors is small. Don’t start sending me angry comments already. I know many Native American actors do exist and are excellent artists, but in relationship to other minority populations, our numbers are naturally smaller.

When I see productions (even community theatre!) vilified on social media for casting someone other than the specified race of the character, I can hear my scripts dropping into recycle bins in small towns and universities across the country.

two actors at a table on stage
Christy Chow and Chris Denson in Larissa FastHorse's What Would Crazy Horse Do? directed by Courtney Mohler at SCU Presents / Fess Parker Studio Theatre. Photo by Chuck Barry.

I recently had a university workshop production of my play What Would Crazy Horse Do? at Santa Clara University, directed by Courtney Elkin Mohler. The choosing of this play was especially brave on Courtney’s part. She knew when she approached me that there are two Native American roles, and she didn’t have any Native American actors in their theatre program—a common statistic for universities. My choice was to either let them do the play with non-Native actors, or not do the play. Courtney’s plan was to make it clear from the beginning that these actors were not Indigenous, but the message was more important than the casting. I agreed immediately. SCU arranged to have me spend time in residence with the cast and it went very well. Eyes were opened, houses sold out, lives changed, etc. You can hear an extended analysis of the project on the Stinky Lulu Says podcast, Episode 6.  

The current talk around casting is making me nervous because I hear again and again that doing a production like the one we did at Santa Clara University was “wrong.” Under no circumstances should people play outside of their ethnicities. It’s becoming very black and white (pardon the pun), but the reality for me is many shades of grey. When I see productions (even community theatre!) vilified on social media for casting someone other than the specified race of the character, I can hear my scripts dropping into recycle bins in small towns and universities across the country. These are places that, thanks to a history of removal and genocide that I’d love to tell you about on stage, no longer have Indigenous populations and certainly no Indigenous actors. These are exactly the places that need to hear those stories, but I completely understand their fear. I was nervous through the entire Santa Clara production that someone would call them out and close the door on the next Indigenous playwright they were thinking of producing. Fortunately, that did not happen. 

two actors on stage
Christy Chow and Chris Denson in Larissa FastHorse's What Would Crazy Horse Do? directed by Courtney Mohler at SCU Presents / Fess Parker Studio Theatre. Photo by Chuck Barry.

Let me be clear for those of you that didn’t click on all of my previous talks, I am one hundred percent behind casting the proper ethnicity when possible. I push theatres hard to bring in Indigenous actors when they can afford it, or identify and give a chance to Indigenous actors in their communities. But when that is not a possibility, I would rather get the stories out there to give non-Indigenous people the chance to learn about us, and to show Indigenous people that there is a place for them in theatre. As the playwright, that is my right. My choice. Other playwrights make different choices. I know we all mean well with the push for color consciousness in casting, but let’s be specific when we talk about it. Discuss each production, each city, each role, and then respect the choice that each playwright makes.

Eric Rosen of Kansas City Rep recently said, “The seasons we program in our theatres have the power to show audiences what they should care about.” I’ll get specific here; I want every person in the United States of America to care about Native American stories. We are a small part of the population, but we have survived a massive military and policy effort to eradicate us. If our stories aren’t heard here on our land, who will hear them? 

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Exploring the role of different gender, racial, sexual, and ethnic identities in theatre.

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Larissa, after seeing your work at Alter Theatre, I'm glad to learn that you're getting continued work. Cis white queer male here. What you say, ask the playwright, makes sense to me when - as in the case of your play, - the playwright is of (or significantly of) the minority race in question. I don't think I have the right as a white playwright to write a Native American lead character (as I have) then turn around and say it's okay to have a non-Native play them. My imperfect solution is to provide two versions, one for a Native American actor and one for an actor of another color. But I wish the ecosystem supported more Native American actors.

One thing that is left out in this article is the movement by Disabled theatre artists to write, produce and perform their own stories - and certainly have a say in their representation. Hopefully "cripping up" will be a thing of the past sooner rather than later.

This particular topic has been brought to the forefront in my city recently due to both a contracted production of “In The Heights” and a high school production of the same play. The contracted production took actors who were not latinx and cast them in roles representing latinx characters. One of which was the lead who is Iranian-born and has a background in immigration. The high school simply does not have the student base to cast an all latinx cast but is going through with the production regardless.

I feel I must agree with both the article and what most comments are saying. The most important thing is getting the story out. If circumstances allow absolutely cast correctly but it would be both problematic and unfair to bar these stories from being shared with more audiences due to an actor not sharing the same background as the character 100%.

Kudos, Larissa, on your very articulate opinion - very important to know that a) there are possible options, but b) more importantly, involving the playwright in the best way to tell the particular stories. Speaking only for myself, but as a theater for young audiences advocate, we want and need our children to hear the stories of what we may call 'the underinvited', and we need to find ways to make it happen in appropriate ways. http://www.tcgcircle.org/20... - the link is to an op-ed I wrote. not about casting per se, but about diversity in all its forms, about recognizing the biases we all have to a greater or lesser degree, and to all work for a brighter mosaic of our world.

I love this, and I love Larissa's viewpoint. I'm a privileged cisgendered white male who wants to shut up and listen, but someone has to tell her story for me to hear, even in areas where there might not be the perfect choices available. Very courageous and very giving of her.

I agree - it's important to cast as accurately as possible, and not be lazy about it. But most important is to tell the story. And when there are no ancient Greek or Native American actors available, go the extra mile with your cast so they can represent their characters as faithfully as possible.

Let me start off by saying I greatly respect the playwright’s stance on the issue of casting. I have seen many productions stop dead in their tracks because they could not find an actor who looked perfectly like a character in the play. It’s sad that people worry more about that then the message of the play. I’m a strong believer that the best person should always get the job. So, while in situations like the one you put forward, the people producing the play should try their best to get an actor of the correct ethnicity. If they cannot find one, they should still continue with the play. I just wanted to say I find it refreshing to see a playwright advocating this side of the argument.