How are we? Hanging on by a thread? I’m just going to assume that everyone reading this is in the same boat: counting the seconds until the end of the semester, eating our body weight in Swedish Fish, and giving Jeff Bezos every dollar of our stimulus check (don’t judge me, I’ve decided if Amazon unionizes I can feel less guilty). I’m so excited to be back and equally excited with the success of EXCEL’s virtual symposium last month on Disruption. Action. Change. It’s sure to be an Emmy favorite, and I think has a real shot at ousting Schitt’s Creek from its current spot as the most quality art to consume in a panorama. If you missed it, there’s still time! Click here to listen to Classically Black’s podcast covering the highlights of the series. You can also go back and view the guest panelists’ blog posts, which were truly amazing! But probably not as cringingly humorous as mine? Am I right? I do accept pity laughs. Well, as promised, I’m picking up where I left off with the Marginalized Representation in Casting Series!! Since it has been so long here’s a quick overview of what that is:
In the first installment of this series I advocated for a paradigm shift in the performing arts industry from a focus on authentic casting to a demand for intentional (and nuanced) casting! There’s a popular circulating belief that marginalized characters “should be played only by actors who share those characters’ essential experiences.” The well-meaning attempts to reach this ambiguously defined ideal, have led to concerning practices, and flawed but rarely contested schools of thought. We have to acknowledge that race, disability, sexuality, gender, size are each one of many aspects of a person’s identity, and that characters are a conglomeration of many identities. Thus there will always be ambiguity and room for interpretation as to which identity is the most “essential” to the integrity of a character. When it comes to characters of marginalized identities the stakes in how and who makes these interpretations are raised. I believe that using authenticity as a yardstick for creative teams is reductive and counterproductive and that we should instead use a new metric that evaluates intentional and nuanced representation and casting practices.
So I’ve proposed my own– a framework of protocols that art consumers and creators can implement to evaluate how well-performing art productions have handled the representation of marginalized identities in casting.
- Does it have a diverse production team?
- Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?
- Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
- Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures?
I hope to find ways to explore how responsible art consumers and art creators can hold creative teams accountable for the choices they make in who gets to tell marginalized stories, while also allowing space for differences in opinion and can have conversations about the space between intent and impact. If you’re not ready to drink the kool-aid, or you have more questions read, the first blog post in the series where I talk about this in more depth!
This week I’m tackling how Hamilton handled casting characters of marginalized races in “inauthentic ways.” I’ll be testing out my new protocols to see how these productions fare! Let’s Dive in!
Can we even have a conversation about race in casting without talking about Hamilton? I can’t even bring myself to write a synopsis because I can’t think of a single good explanation for why someone wouldn’t know everything there is to know about this musical. In my personal, humble, and completely humble opinion, Hamilton is the best thing that ever happened to Broadway. I mean this musical:
- Created opportunities for BIPOC Broadway performers to play roles that aren’t simply defined by trauma
- Created Ham4Ham productions
- Was bought by Disney for 75 Million dollars for streaming rights on Disney +
- Won all the Awards. 11 Tony’s, a Grammy, a Kennedy Center Honors, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
BUT will it get a passing grade on the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (pending)? Let’s find out!
1. Does it have a diverse production team?
Lin-Manuel Miranda (Latino), Thomas Kail (Jewish), Alex Lacamoire (Latino), Andy Blankenbuehler (White), and Jeffrey Seller (a Jewish UM alum GO BLUE) made for a production “coalition” of Latino, Jewish, and white male perspectives. The book “Alexander Hamilton,” which inspired Miranda’s libretto was written by Ron Chernow (White).
The casting was handled by Bethany Knox (white) from Telsey and Company (THANK GOD A WOMAN FINALLY). Though Knox affirms that the concept for diverse representation in casting didn’t come from her, “… Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail, the director and Jeffrey Seller, the producer, they were insistent. I mean, ‘this is what I wrote, this is what I want, this is what you and Beth and your office need to find me.’ I love that this show gets so much attention and accolades for its diversity, but it starts with the creators, and they wanted it. And that was the story they wanted to tell. And it’s beautiful.1”
Miranda, Kail, Blankenbuehler, Sellers, and Knox are a Broadway Dream team. They’ve all had their hands in some of Broadway’s biggest successes and are incredibly accomplished in their respective fields. Furthermore, their careers show that they are committed to allyship, DEI, and all that great stuff. They aren’t just posting a black square on Instagram, they’re devoted to a lifetime of promoting equity and inclusion. Let’s be clear they would all be invited to the proverbial cookout. I mean Jeffrey Sellers INVENTED Broadway rush tickets. He’s literally out here enabling starving artists like myself to see great art (did I mention he’s a UM alum some of y’all should reach out for an informational interview, can we spell networking)?
BUT for a show that grapples with questions of “who tells our stories” and “who gets to be in the room where it happens,” it isn’t lost on me that there were no Black identities, no Asian identities, and very few women in the main creative team. And to be completely honest, I struggle with bringing this up. I don’t want to advocate for a quota, or tokenism, or God forbid, any new “Chief diversity officer” positions, but I also want more. With a show like Hamilton where the faces that represent the show are Black, Asian American, Latinx folks and many more, it seems particularly important to try to spread a wide net in terms of who gets to be in the room where it happened.
Intentional creative teams should be self-aware enough to acknowledge their own perspectives and limitations and in situations like this, they should make it a PRIORITY to have the missing perspectives invited to collaborate with the team during the creative process. The line between exploitation and partnership can be ambiguous and I want to know if creative teams are engaged in collaboration with communities other than their own to gain cultural ethos and credibility. Which brings us to question #2.
Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: A Silver Star Sticker
2. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?
When it comes to Hamilton, no one can say they haven’t partnered with the marginalized communities represented in the show. Hamilton has made sweeping efforts to include and uplift the BIPOC cultures their story represents in the show’s success. They’ve done performances as fundraisers for Biden’s campaign, Puerto Rican Hurricane Relief (slight controversy on that), and the March For Our Lives protests. They publicly addressed Mike Pence and their concern with the president’s policies for BIPOC Americans when he came to the show, and implemented Ham4Ham productions and a lottery system to increase accessibility to BIPOC communities. They released the Hamilton Mixtape and the song “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” won the 2017 VMA for Best Fight Against the System. Lin Manual Miranda made a powerful video stating Hamilton’s support for BLM and apologizing for the delay in making an official statement of support.
So it’s clear that Hamilton has used its platform as a Broadway hit to support the communities whose stories it tells, and that is HUGE! This is what partnering with communities looks like, this is what committed allyship looks like, this is what sharing your resources looks like. This makes me want to get happy, give a good Black Baptist shout, and start to dance.
BUTTT, Hamilton still has room for improvement. As stated in my last post, I believe that we should ask creative teams to show us their “works cited page” in the form of sharing the creative and collaborative processes that they feel give them the ethos to portray a story other than their own. The Hamilton creative team addresses this to varying degrees, leaving room for improvement. As stated earlier the creators were largely white, Latino, and Jewish men, a great start towards diverse perspectives that can speak to the American identity, but I want to know what they did to collaborate with the missing perspectives in their creative processes.
Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer, does a great job of talking about his process of collaboration. In this interview with Playbill, he discusses how important these conversations are as the consensus on who should tell which stories is currently changing and that there are some roles that white choreographers should say no to. He goes on to talk about looking forward to moments of mentorship in the future with burgeoning choreographers of color.
It was much harder to find these candid conversations on collaborative creative processes with unrepresented perspectives by Miranda, Kail, Knox, or Seller. That’s not to say that those processes didn’t happen but the team wasn’t as transparent and intentional about centering those as they could have been. Why harp on this, why can’t I just leave well enough alone?
Because I think that if they had, that might have mitigated some of the recent critiques of Hamilton that came up in the Cancel Hamilton campaign in 2020. These critiques center not on Hamilton’s casting choices, but on the story’s fundamental overlooking of slavery, black and brown revolutionaries of the time, and the fact that while the Schuyler Sisters is an absolute bop, Hamilton doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.
Now clearly it’s much easier to be a critic than to create (and I personally feel that until you can recite the entire Hercules Mulligan rap in Guns and Ships, I don’t want to hear your critiques of the artistic genius that is Lin Manuel Miranda). But I do think these critiques are valid, and Miranda, himself agrees.
For his part, Miranda responded to these critiques with humility and accountability which I respect wholeheartedly. As he says in his response he grappled with this project for 6 years and did his best, a valiant and largely successful effort. However, I believe it may have been better addressed if there had been a more targeted coalition of perspectives in the creative team.
Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: ✓
3. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
Clearly, the casting process and rationale for Hamilton have sparked A LOT of questions, controversy, adoration, and intrigue. The blog posts, JSTOR articles, Op-eds, theater reviews, and tweets that discuss the brilliance and/or problems of the Hamilton casting choices are a substantial part of the Hamilton craze. So I thought researching this section would be just a formality, just looking for an official quote on what I already knew, and was surprised to find that the official statements from the creative team are intentionally vague and guarded on this issue.
Ever since the controversy surrounding the Hamilton casting call in 2016, calling for “non-white” actors, the official statements on how race factors into the casting process have become increasingly vague. Tommy Kail describes it as “the story about America then, told by America now.” In an effort to stay above legal crosshairs the creative team has chosen to let the show speak for itself as to what that means. In every tour, West End production, Regional Production, and Broadway Show, all the major roles except for King George are performed by BIPOC actors while King George is played by a white actor. So I’ll leave it up to you to deduce what they’re saying about America now versus America then.
Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: 50 points for Gryffindor (minus 1)
Did they present BIPOC identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures?
Yes! Part of why people love analyzing and talking about Hamilton is that its handling of issues like race and representation is incredibly hard to pin down. By purposefully retelling the founding fathers’ stories with BIPOC bodies, Hamilton inverts the paradigm and allows the BIPOC characters to be dynamic and fully developed while making a caricature out of the one main white character, King George. Every one of the central roles played by a BIPOC actor is a fully developed character (well except for poor Peggy).
As Miranda masterfully said “I believe great art is like bypass surgery. It allows us to go around all of the psychological distancing mechanisms that turn people cold to the most vulnerable among us.” And in this lies some of its power! By freeing black performers by allowing them to inhabit characters of privilege with freedom, mobility, and limitless possibilities, we allow our audience to see these same possibilities for the brown identities embodying them.
Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: JAzz Hands
Overall, after painstakingly tabulating, converting, and calculating my results, it is apparent that Hamilton has passed the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (pending) with flying colors. It handles the representation of BIPOC identities with intentionality and nuance! My biggest desire for Hamilton would simply be for there to have been more collaboration with targeted diverse perspectives in the initial creation process.
That being said, the original creative team didn’t know Hamilton would become the amazing Pulitzer/Grammy/Tony winning success that would have people selling their left kidney to get a ticket. The creative team was juggling countless priorities and goals just to get this completely radical concept off the ground. They sought to make great art, to create opportunities for BIPOC Broadway performers, to create conversation as to the casting practices on Broadway, to reclaim American History and the American Dream as belonging to all Americans, and to do so while representing marginalized identities intentionally. In those respects, it was successful beyond their wildest imaginations. Was it without fault? No. Does it deserve some grace for being the first to realize something that wasn’t seen as possible beforehand? Absolutely. Hamilton set a pretty good bar and now it’s up to future creative teams who are interested in representing BIPOC stories with intentionality and nuance to see how they might raise it.
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