Diversity in theatre has been a hot topic in the theatre community, especially recently. Members of the discussion cite productions that made casting choices without respect to the playwright's intent; a production of Katori Hall's THE MOUNTAINTOP at Kent State in which a white actor portrayed Martin Luther King Jr.; a primarily caucasian cast in "yellow face" for THE MIKADO with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players; white actors as South Asians in the Clarion University production of Lloyd Suh's JESUS IN INDIA. This fuel, combined with positive responses to Lin Manuel Miranda's HAMILTON, has lit a fire about diversity on stage.
First, let me say, this is a controversy that does not have an easy fix. Seemingly every article I read and everyone I talk to about this quandary has a different opinion and a different solution.
Some point to "colorblind" casting (casting roles with disregard to race). The catch here is when "colorblind casting" is used as a justification for racial or societal implications. A great example of this in conversation is the recent buzz about Joseph Fiennes portraying Michael Jackson. In this case, you are viewing a specific role for a specific race cast by an actor not of that race. Indeed, it is easy to see how that may upset the masses and gives colorblind casting a bad reputation.
Yet I also have always viewed the 1997 version of Roger and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA with Brandy and Whoopi Goldberg as a positive argument for colorblind casting in which the race of the actors is completely irrelevant to the story being told. Unfortunately, society doesn't always let those artistic choices go over so easily. When watching and discussing Shakespeare productions approached with colorblind casting, the conversation still comes back to race. I hear people asking, "now what was the directors intent with that casting choice. What is he saying about the relationship between these races?"
Other points of view (and I should emphasize that I do not agree with this mentality) believe that the right thing to do is nothing. To change nothing. That bringing up these issues only reinforces them and makes them more present. I bring this up because, unfortunately, the thoughts are out there in the world. My response to this approach often highlights the lack of recognition for the hardships that minorities have been faced with. While this conversation is a complex and difficult one, denial is not the answer.
I fear that the conversation of diverse casting may be a vicious cycle with many casualties and hurt feelings on the road toward progress. We all must strive to move forward in acceptance, tolerance, and empathy for other groups in society without forgetting the history of oppression and racism.
But perhaps a hopeful step is a push towards "color conscious casting." Teresa Eyring of Theatre Communications Group defines this as casting that "intentionally considers the race and ethnicity of actors and the characters they play in order to oppose racism, honor and respect cultures, foster stronger productions, and contribute to a more equitable world." This approach acknowledges that as a producer or director, what you put on stage has an impact on an audience. That power needs to be handled with care and with an ethically conscious respect for the playwright's intent. Eyring fears that without this change "we risk perpetuating a system that privileges whiteness with greater access and opportunity, and appropriates the cultures of communities of color."
The next step is making your own theatre community more inclusive. This is an area that I have struggled with for some time. I regret to say that I fell into the thought process that my geographic location makes diverse casting nearly impossible. In light of recent conversations, I have realized how limiting that mentality was. At a Casting Conscious Panel at ACTF I asked playwright Idris Goodwin how to escape the trap of thinking that your community lacks the diversity to tell a wide range of diverse stories. His advice? "Look beyond." While I felt a little silly at the obviousness of the answer that I somehow could not reach on my own, I am so very glad I asked. Goodwin expressed his belief that no community is without diversity, it simply is a matter of getting out of your tribe, "out of your nucleus," in order to develop an inclusive theatre community. That being said, if you are reading this and are inspired to do theatre but afraid of taking the risk, please contact me! Relative Theatrics welcomes everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, ability, or background.
Finally, it should be said that different playwrights have differing thoughts on how to approach this challenge with their work. In that case, it is crucial for the director/producer to develop a relationship with the playwright. Allow the correspondence to be a conversation where problem areas can be worked out. Perhaps casting a specific role is proving to be a major challenge. The solution may be to increase your outreach efforts and make sure you have the right people in the room to tell the story truthfully. Have an understanding the culture of your theatre and audience and give them an opportunity for discussion and expansion. As I'm planning the next season for Relative Theatrics, I came up against this question. While I cannot disclose the details at this point in time, I will say that I knew before proceeding I needed to have this conversation with playwright Larissa Fasthorse about Native American roles/actors. Her response: "Personally, I ask theaters to put a little effort into outreach to find Native actors. Many are surprised to find Native actors they were not aware of or discover actors they already know are part Native. That said, I prefer to have the play produced in the strongest way. Sometimes that means using different ethnicities in the roles. I understand that." This standpoint assuaged my worries in producing her work and encouraged me to up my outreach game, but I cannot forget that this is the opinion of one individual playwright and not a generalization about diverse casting. Asking the questions and having the conversation is crucial.
Most importantly, remember that you are in the right for asking. There is trust that both the playwright and the producer or director want what is best for the play and for the people. Doing so doesn't fully solve the problem, but it does pave the way for a move diverse and accepting future in theatre and society.