“A not so fair My Fair Lady.” That was the title of the review that I most remember from my first experience in professional theater. As a sophomore in college, I had been tapped to star in my first professional theater gig and I was a bundle of nerves. At 20 I was beyond thrilled to be given the role of Eliza Doolittle in a real regional theater’s production of My Fair Lady. In the same breath, I was filled with imposter syndrome as I was the youngest in the cast, had no experience with accent work, and had to juggle all these rehearsals on top of a busy course load. Queue the Disney movie montage of HOURS spent practicing ballroom dance choreo in a corset, biking 5 miles daily for extra accent coachings, and pulling all nighters to finish stats psets. So when I read my first review, to see what the world thought of my hard work I didn’t know how to process this first review which seemed solely concerned with my race rather than my performance. “A not so fair My Fair Lady.” The reviewer went on to write how my casting as a black female in the lead role was distracting to the cohesion of the show because the issue of race wasn’t properly addressed in our production, because the show had never been meant to address a black female transformation story. My director and mentor at the time, an amazingly gifted POC artist told me that I would have to get used to this, that anytime you put a body of color on a stage you were making a political statement.
As a black artist I’ve spent much of my career wrestling with what it means to put a body of color on stage. What does it mean to say that bodies of color on stage are inherently political statements? Is that something we should accept? What if I don’t want to be a political statement? Sometimes I might simply want to be the shallowly developed ingenue character whose arc is to be pretty, find love, and live happily ever after. Sometimes I don’t want to be a source of controversy just for existing. Do I get any say in that? Is that even possible? I’ve spent much of my early career looking for opportunities where I had the freedom to simply perform; to be seen as an artist first and a political statement second. I’ve explored the differences in opera, theater, music, and dance’s approaches to race and casting and it has become clear to me that everyone is stuck on the first question.
How SHOULD we deal with race?
In the performing arts, how race should factor into casting is a controversial, complicated, and contradictory debate. The main approaches can be divided into three schools of thought.
Colorblind casting or “non-traditional casting” is when directors cast a performance without regard to race, gender, etc. Springing to prominence in the 1980’s, color-blind casting is an idealistic attempt to create more opportunities for performers of color.
We DON’T live in a post-racial society. It can be problematic because it assumes that because a casting director has decided to ignore race, that an audience will also ignore the race of the characters. Some critics have gone as to call it erasure wrapped up as benevolence. If you cast a show where just by happenstance all of the black artists portray villains that is sending a message to the audience whether you intentionally meant that or not. Regardless of how it happens creative teams often aren’t prepared to address the racial implications created by colorblind casting.
Additional critiques of colorblind casting include that it can be used as an excuse for directors refusing to look for diverse artists of color to work with and excuse casting white actors as BIPOC characters and that it doesn’t pressure the arts industry to tell stories centered on BIPOC lives.
Color conscious casting
Color conscious casting is open to casting people in roles that they may not have traditionally been written for, but also understand and think about the way that their race, now affect this role and affects the story. It asks creative teams to be willing to engage with the racial stereotypes and the deepness that comes with putting POC actors into these traditionally white spaces.
Color conscious casting seems to put a lot of pressure, stress, and responsibility on directors who choose to work with actors of color. When putting BIPOC artists in roles that weren’t originally written for them, even the most imaginative creative team has some limitations in what they can do to make space for inclusivity in a pre-written work. In our current culture of calling out and canceling this puts an unfair burden on actors of color and directors who want to do this work when they’re going to be critiqued based off of things that are sometimes outside of their control.
“For us by us”/ as written casting
The third school of thought is “for us by us” or as written casting. As written casting practices advocate for casting performers in roles that are written for their specified race, and advocate for the creation of new art portraying more diverse stories and more identities. August Wilson, a hugely influential black playwright in the 80’s and 90’s, was an early advocate for a “for us by us” approach. He felt that putting black actors in any play that was “conceived for white people” was an assault on black history and an insult to black artists worldwide. He very strongly advocated for an end to color-blind casting and more resources towards black theatres and the creation of new black drama. Even Hamilton has been critiqued for the ways in which placing people of color in the roles of America’s founding fathers perpetuates erasure of black culture (I almost didn’t include this because I’m half convinced critiquing Hamilton is heretical but apparently objectivity is important…).
So while creating a bunch of new BIPOC centered plays sounds AMAZING (hint hint wink wink BIPOC playwrights/ composers slide in my dms please) is it that practical a solution? Right now the canon, the set of commonly performed shows by arts organizations, consists mainly of pieces that were written for white bodies. If “for us by us” casting calls for BIPOC artists being placed in works written for them, then that essentially forces all artists of color to find sustainable careers solely in new work outside of the standard canon.
An additional critique with “as written” casting is that it assumes that race is the most defining characteristic of one’s identity when that is far from a universal truth. Every single person is a conglomeration of a bunch of different identities. Stryker’s theory of social identity salience says that we have multiple identities and which aspects of our identity we feel most strongly shift depending on our environments. Who’s to say which identity is the most salient to the integrity of a character when we’re all a combination of many different identities.
A perfect example of this is the recent controversy over the voice actor for the biracial character Missy in the Netflix show Big Mouth. In the show the cartoon character of Missy is half Jewish and half Black. The original voice actress, Jenny Slate, was Jewish and left the show stating that characters of color should be played by actors of color, but genetically she shared just as much of Missy’s identity as Ayo Edebiri, the black voice actress who replaced her. Who’s to say that the black part of Missy’s personality is more salient than her Jewish identity?
What about identities that aren’t visible? Does that mean we can never have an actor play a sexuality that they are not, a gender that they are not (mezzos can kiss half of their rep goodbye), a body type, an age? At that point what is the measure of a good performance? The word performance implies that one is putting on a form other than of their natural state and the art of casting reflects the limits or the extents of our imagination. Should race be a deciding factor just because it’s visible, while other marginalized identifiers may have more bearing but are less easy to see?
Even when we aren’t acting, identity is complex and sometimes nebulous. How do we allow artists enough room to wrestle with their own interpretations? Stay Tuned!