On Colorblindness in the Theatre

Today, one of my friends posted this as his status on Facebook:

You know what really grinds my gears? When all white high schools put on black shows like Aida and The Wiz.

I’m not usually that person who goes there with someone’s Facebook status, but I found this to be somewhat offensive and felt the urge to say something.

So I did a little research, and responded, saying something along the lines of:

I don’t think that this is a fair statement. MTI, the company that holds the rights to Aida and is very strict about their rules, suggests that ethnic actors would be good for the show, but does not say that the director must cast actors of color; that would be discriminatory. Plus, if it’s high school, it’s for educational purposes, and some rules may not apply.

By the time I pressed the comment button, several other of his friends, black and white, commented similarly, saying that The Wiz was based on The Wizard of Oz, Quvenzhane Wallis is going to be the next Annie, Broadway had an all-black Hello, Dolly!, that not all schools have black students (or enough interested in the arts to cast the show), etc. I was not alone.

His response to me?

Jacob, when did I say MUST? You’re the only one talking about licensing; I’m just saying that they shouldn’t be putting on shows about my people. White people telling the stories of colored people is wack.

My response?

Maybe directors at these schools choose those shows because they like the beauty of the story, not to mention the music and the message. Aida and The Wiz are just as much part of the American musical theatre canon as My Fair LadySouth Pacific, et cetera. They have all the rights in the world to put on whatever show they like; you don’t have any control over that.

His response?

Seriously?

Over that?

A little background: this friend, whom I’ll call Kevin, is an African-American guy I met at the 2006 APO nationals, and again at the 2008 nationals. When I met him, I thought he was funny and nice. I haven’t seen him for a long time, but we’ve remained friends on Facebook. His posts are, one could say, inconsistent. One day, he’ll post something about how black stereotypes are wrong, and the next day, he’ll post something that is a complete stereotype (one of the hard things about Facebook: detecting sarcasm), something like “Oh honeychile’ there is some fake weaves in this here bar.” I always thought that if you’re a person who hates stereotypes, don’t go slinging them around, and then get offended when someone calls you out on it.

The topic of colorblindness in show selection and casting is something I’ve wanted to write my thoughts on for a long time, and I guess now is as good a time as ever.

Since Kevin started us off with high school, let’s rewind to the early 2000s, aka my high school days, where I was so involved in theatre that I actually got a little plaque about it. 100% of the students in my school were Jewish, and 98% of the school was, you could say, white. That didn’t stop us from putting on shows with nonwhite characters. I mean, what are we supposed to do…Fiddler on the Roof every year? Sure, we did some very white-bread shows (Hello, Dolly! and Bye Bye Birdie come to mind), but we also did West Side Story and South Pacific, despite having very few students of color in the school. We didn’t do Aida or The Wiz, but I don’t think anyone would have stopped us had we done them. The two shows Kevin chose, actually, are particularly bad examples…Dreamgirls and Hairspray would’ve been harder to pull off, owing to the racial nature of the plot, but apart from blackface, I don’t see a problem with a school that is entirely or predominantly white putting on Aida or The Wiz.

Kevin, you are a well-educated and well-spoken person, but this is not the 1990s and you’re not Lauryn Hill (who, by the way, apologized for her remarks about white people). If high school theatre went by your logic, does that mean that high schools that don’t have any Asian students shouldn’t put on Flower Drum Song or The King and I? Or that a predominantly black school shouldn’t do My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music?

Sheesh Louise.

Back to my high school days. In my freshman year, we did both West Side Story and South Pacific. Our West Side Story, in particular is a great example of exactly why casting should be talent based, and not looks-based. Two of the main characters, Maria and Anita, are quite clearly Hispanic. We only had one girl with a Hispanic background in the whole school, and even though she auditioned, she didn’t get either part. The part of Maria went to a white girl, who I think did a pretty good job of playing Maria. She was not wearing any sort of makeup other than stage makeup, and she didn’t speak with a Puerto Rican accent, but she got the job done. Anita, on the other hand, was played by one of the only other non-white girls in school; a girl of East Asian descent who happened to be a very talented dancer. Though the character of Anita does a lot of dancing, she also sings. The girl who got the part did not. In fact, she refused to sing, period. For “America,” another Shark girl took her role, and for “Tonight,” Anita sat onstage while the other Shark girls sang around her, as if she was getting ready for a party. I can’t remember what they did for “I Have A Love,” – that number might have been cut for time – but she didn’t sing a note. It was a shame; even though she is a very talented dancer and looked beautiful in the part, she was not cut out for Anita at all. Several of the other girls could have done that role even better, and would have loved to have Anita’s singing lines all to herself. For South Pacific, the girl who played Anita didn’t get Bloody Mary or Liat, roles she probably wouldn’t have liked anyway, instead, she danced in one number while other non-Asian girls played those parts. In contrast, when we did Bye Bye Birdie, the Hispanic girl I was talking about was a front-runner for the role of Kim McAfee, arguably one of the most white-bread roles in the American theatre, and when I’m talking front-runner, I mean that out of all the girls who auditioned, she got called back and was probably in the top four of the director’s choices for the role.

Moving right along, you also say that ever-so-problematic phrase “my people.” Okay, so you’re saying that these are the stories of “your ancestors,” like the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow? Let’s look at the facts. Part of the beauty of The Wiz is the inventive music, which makes it different from The Wizard of Oz but does not make it exclusively for one race. And funny you should bring up Aida, a story from Africa with music and lyrics by “your people”…Tim Rice and Elton John. The original Aida is about as black as a lightly toasted pizza crust; it was a story created in Italy. Furthermore, the story is about Ancient Egypt, and even though Aida was Ethiopian, the other characters may or may not have been dark-skinned. Traditionally, Cleopatra is thought of as “black” or “African,” but even though she was born in Africa and lived there, she had Macedonian and Greek ancestry through Ptolemy. She was most likely olive-skinned if not white, and possibly had green or blue eyes and blond hair. In all likelihood, she probably looked more like Jennifer Aniston than Cicely Tyson.

Now, I don’t know your actual ethnic background, but I do know that you were born in America, and that were you to go to Jamaica or Ghana or Kenya and proclaim them to be “your people,” they’d probably all either laugh at you, or think that you were weird without saying anything to your face about it. The Wiz is as much your story as The Wizard of Oz is my story; basically, not really. All the people in these shows are fictional characters who have been and will be portrayed by actors of many ethnicities, and even mixed ethnicities. I think that’s as far as I’m willing to go in this post about defining ethnicity/race, so let’s move on to another topic.

Before I left Houston, my friend Monica and I were having lunch and talking about musical theatre. Monica is a singer and actress, and I was working on Fiddler on the Roof in Baytown. She also happens to be African-American. When Fiddler entered the conversation, she said something along the lines of how she wouldn’t fit into that show; if you put her in villager clothes, she’d probably look like a slave, which might be true. I agreed with her, saying that even though she could sing and act Golde, it would be tough for her to pull it off. In hindsight, I think I was wrong. In fact, I think she’d make an awesome Golde, regardless of whether Tevye or anyone else in the cast was black. In fact, we did have a black girl in the chorus; granted, she was very tiny and hardly noticeable onstage, but she was there and dressed like a villager. Furthermore, when The Crucible was done at U of H, there were many black actors among the citizens of Salem, and not just Tituba; in fact, the girl who was initially cast as Elizabeth was not only black but of Caribbean descent, and race is very much an issue in that show. Had she stayed, she would have made a wonderful Elizabeth.

If an actor can do the part well, they should indeed, regardless of color. And if a mostly or all white high school wants to do The Wiz, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

Oh, and Kevin? Good job showing your true colors; defriending someone who disagrees with you on something in a very nice way without getting riled up about it is obviously a sign of maturity.

That was sarcasm.

And I probably didn’t want to be friends with you anyway.

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2 thoughts on “On Colorblindness in the Theatre

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