Last weekend my friends and I held a presentation party. For any of you who aren’t familiar with them, presentation parties are arguably the worst thing to come out of the pandemic, after Covid-19 of course. Presentation parties are marketed as cool, fun, hip, social events where creative and clever millennials gather over zoom and each present a PowerPoint on a topic that they find interesting. If this sounds suspiciously like an additional homework assignment to you, then you are in good company. And anyone who disagrees with us is unfortunately in the sunken place. As someone whose bullet journal was telling them in color-coded bubble letters “do not pass go, do not collect $200, sit down and write for the rest of your foreseeable future,” it was the last thing I had time for. So why was I there you might ask? Because I’d realized that this was the perfect opportunity to have a
captive audience, sorry, engaged focus group to help me flesh out my latest blog post.
My last blog post was all about the current practices and conversations about casting race in productions. The more I researched the pros and cons of color-blind casting, color-conscious casting, and as written/ for us by us casting the more I became concerned about a cultural obsession with “authenticity” in casting that is rife with contradiction. I came across one particularly compelling Los Angeles Times Article Authenticity in casting: from ‘colorblind’ to ‘color conscious’ new rules are anything but black and white, that I used as the basis for my presentation. After my friends gave well researched presentations on the true zodiac signs of all the characters in Avatar, whether Cardi B, Megan the Stallion, or Rico Nasty would be the best addition to our friend group, and why Star Wars The Last Jedi was objectively the best of the new trilogy, I presented “I Swear I’m not Advocating for Blackface: A Plea for Intentional Rather Than Authentic Casting.”
I explained how current casting scandals from a Jewish voice actress portraying a biracial cartoon character in Netflix’s Big Mouth to Scarlet Johansen portraying a Japanese cyber-enhanced woman in Ghost in the Shell, to the Hamilton casting notice public outrage shows that our society is trying to hold creative teams responsible for the choices they make in who gets to tell certain stories. And this, as a concept, is amazing! I mean it took us long enough…
There is a robust history of excluding BIPOC actors, writers, producers, and directors from opportunities in theater, film, and dance.
There is a ROBUST history of the appropriation of BIPOC stories and cultures in theater, film, and dance.
And America CONTINUES to perpetrate harmful caricatures and representations of BIPOC individuals.
So it’s AMAZING that people in our society are now using public opinion to pressure creative teams to address a lack of diversity in stories and performances! But using the “authenticity” of the actors cast, as the yardstick to measure their success is problematic and antithetical to the foundation of acting itself. This belief that “certain types of characters should be played only by actors who share those characters’ essential experiences,1” is a noble idea. But, as it has spread in the public consciousness, the intent has been warped into an indiscriminate crusade for authentic casting. These well-meaning attempts to reach this ambiguously defined ideal, have led to concerning practices, and flawed but rarely contested schools of thought.
Campaigns for all BIPOC characters to be played by an actor of the aligning race, campaigns for all disabled characters to be portrayed by disabled actors, campaigns for all trans characters to be played by trans actors in the name of authenticity boil people of marginalized identities down to that one factor. It’s essentialist and reductive. It assumes that race, or disability, or gender is the most defining characteristic of one’s identity when that is not universally true. Intersectionality (check out my post on that), social identity salience theory, and my own life experience as a woman of color show that that’s a simplistic perspective. Race, disability, sexuality, gender, size are each one of many aspects of a person’s identity.
Who’s to say which identity is the most “essential” to the integrity of a character who is a conglomeration of many different identities? Should the last word on that go to the creative teams (writers, directors, actors) who supposedly know these characters intimately?
We can call for an increase in diverse stories in theater, film, and dance, as well as more nuanced representation without all joining the cult of authenticity. Particularly when we are inconsistently applying authenticity as a paradigm. What about identities that aren’t visible? There are no campaigns for authenticity in casting socio-economic class status, mental illness, or age? Sexuality is another invisible identity that doesn’t fit into the current authenticity paradigm as it is illegal to ask actors about their sexuality in regards to hiring (here’s a really interesting article on this). These are all aspects of identity that have the potential to be ‘essential experiences’ in the portrayal of a character and yet, they aren’t included in the sweeping “authenticity in casting” movement. Which begs the question: is authenticity really what we’re searching for or are we looking for nuanced and intentional representation?
Furthermore, “isn’t the point of acting: to suspend audience disbelief to the point of personal reinvention?2” These are fictitious works of art, not documentaries; they are interpretations, not facts. I am a 26 year old black female performer and I don’t want to be pigeonholed into roles that were expressly written for 26 year old black women. Not only would that be frustrating and limiting for my own artistic development, but I probably wouldn’t be able to have much of a career.
So how can conversations around handling representation in casting change to encompass that too? How can we create more room for creative teams to acknowledge that race is simply one aspect of a person’s identity without contributing to the inevitable next wave of Hollywood whitewashed movie productions? Cause a white-washed version of the live-action Mulan is NOT IT.
After pitching that to my friends, I asked them to help me come up with a more nuanced set of protocols to evaluate how well a performance handled marginalized representation in performance. After lots of hilarious and heated discussion I condensed our concerns into this list. Henceforth and forever after, all productions that want our (and hopefully your) stamp of approval in handling marginalized representation in the performing arts should:
1. Have a diverse production team.
Putting bodies of color on stage and on screen is a political act, and thus requires a deep level of intentionality and sensitivity in casting choices. Diverse production teams: writers, directors, and producers, are better equipped to create responsible and nuanced portrayals of marginalized characters.
2. Engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question.
SHOW US YOUR WORKS CITED PAGE! We expect writers, scholars, and any other type of authority on a topic to make their sources freely available, why should we expect any less from creative teams? The question of who has the right to tell certain stories is increasingly important as our society becomes increasingly diverse. The line between exploitation and partnership can be ambiguous, particularly when the process of creating and casting a show is often kept behind closed doors. But responsible audiences have a right to know if creative teams did their research? I want to know what ethos and credibility this creative team has to tell this story about a marginalized community. And since no marginalized community is a monolith, establishing ethos requires more than interviewing one person or reading one book and feeling qualified to portray that experience.
Engaged collaboration with a community is the best way to gain cultural ethos and a nuanced perspective of a story that is not your own. Thus I think it is important for creative teams to “show us their works cited page” in the form of sharing their creative and collaborative processes that they feel give them the ethos to portray this story. Not only will this make the breadth of an intentional creative team’s engagement transparent, but it also will serve to bring attention to the community that they are in partnership with!
If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, if you value your social responsibility as a storyteller of historically marginalized perspectives, and if you feel confident in your creative choices then this shouldn’t be a problem… And if you aren’t comfortable doing that, then maybe this practice could serve as a reminder that you need to do a little more work behind the scenes.
3. Have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices.
When there’s tension around the aspects of an actors identity and that of the character they’re portraying, was the creative team prepared to handle it? How did they handle it? Did they lean in or did they run away? If there’s a huge controversy is there any proof that they had thought about it prior to the public scrutiny? There are examples of very engaging shows that intentionally and responsibly made highly controversial casting choices. Having transparency around the reasoning is critical. Cause if the reasoning is that you simply couldn’t find a marginalized actor to play the part… then odds are high you shouldn’t be doing that production.
4. Present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures.
Not all performance of an identity other than one’s own is inherently mocking. That being said, performances of BIPOC characters that are based on mocking caricatures are often harmful to those communities in real life. The impacts of minstrelsy, yellow face, and portrayals of the “noble savage” in performances have had lasting impacts on BIPOC communities in the real world. Thus irresponsible caricatures of marginalized identities is gonna be a no from me dawg.
Times are changing. The Office is no longer on Netflix, Brandy’s Cinderella is streaming on Disney +, and we need a paradigm shift for casting marginalized identities in the performing arts industry. Just as color-blind casting gave way to color-conscious casting, authentic casting needs to give way to intentional casting. Our world is only getting more diverse, more intersectional, and more connected, and thus questions as to how and who gets to tell which stories will become increasingly prominent. It is my hope art creators and art consumers alike who read this post will begin to have more nuanced expectations for marginalized representation in the art they inhabit, which will eventually lead to a shift in the type of representation we see!
What are your thoughts on my new protocols? Do you still believe authenticity is king? Whether you think I’m full of it or that I stumbled upon greatness, please drop any comments or critiques in the comments below because….. Drum roll please… I will be launching a new mini-series on Marginalized Representation in Casting!!! Using these protocols as a guide I will evaluate how various productions have dealt with race in casting, disability in casting, and gender in casting. So if you think I’ve completely overlooked something, speak now or forever hold your peace.
Stay tuned for the next installment of the series where I’ll apply our new set of protocols to some pertinent examples of race in casting such as Hamilton, Miss Saigon, Birth of a Nation, and more to see how well they fare! If you have other suggestions for plays, films, or dances that attempt to handle the representation of race and casting that you’d like me to evaluate, drop them in the comments below!