All posts by Samantha Williams

An arts activist by day and a crazy cat mom by night, Samantha is thrilled to serve as the Research Fellow for Excel and write for the EXCEL Log. A trained classical singer, Samantha is currently earning her Specialists in Music at UM with a Graduate Certificates in Arts Entrepreneurship and Leadership and World Performance Studies!

How to Have More Than 10 People at Your Performance*

Hello, my pretties!!! It’s January 17, 2022, aka MLK day, aka day 2 of Mary Sue Coleman’s presidency, aka day 362 of waiting for my student loans to be forgiven, aka day 58,052 of waiting for my 40 acres and a mule. But who’s counting?

Speaking of counting, or pretending not to… Let’s have some real talk about student turnout during recital season. There’s nothing worse than stressing about your performance for months, pulling all-nighters, driving yourself to the brink of insanity in the name of art, getting to the opening night and there are 10 people there, 8 of which are from your studio and are required to be there.

Let’s leave poorly attended performances in 2021. Here is the student guide on how to have more than 10 people at your performance/recital/play/musical/installation/weird performance art thing that even you can’t explain.  

1. Give The People What They Want

I know, I know darling, you’re an artist. Your genius is constantly misunderstood, and you’re trying to give the masses culture, BUT sometimes your audience is asking for hot dogs, and you’re trying to sell caviar. It is important to make sure that the content of your performance is something that your audience is interested in. 

2. Screw Convention and Focus on Innovation

Break out of the mold! Don’t be afraid to push the expectations of your art form as far as you can get away with. Who says classical recitals have to be traditional and high brow? Sarah Best, a Michigan DMA student, just gave an INCREDIBLE recital that was less a recital and more a one-woman cooking show from the fifties. She had commercials, she had costume changes, she had fights with the pianist on stage, she baked a hilariously terrible chocolate cake right in front of our eyes, and her singing was impeccable. An icon. Let’s all be like Sarah! 

3. Talk to Your Audience

Do you really need program notes? What would it look like if you didn’t, and instead you talked to your audience in between pieces? It’s a great way to increase audience engagement and add your own personal touch.

If you HAVE to have a program, get creative with it. I mean, If we’re going to kill a tree, let’s make it worth it, am I right? Make it interactive, add QR codes. Instead of performer bios, try two truths and a lie. Pressed for space? Cut performer bios and link to their social media handles.

Whatever you decide, think about the program from your audience’s perspective rather than your own. Use that space to tell us why the piece matters to you, not just when the composer lived and died (short of your teacher, no one cares). We aren’t coming for a music history lesson; we’re coming to be entertained.

4. Market to Your Desired Audience

Posters are nice… but I’ll be honest, I don’t know that I’ve ever decided to go to something because I saw a poster for it. If you’re a crusty millennial like myself, talk to one of the youths, TikTok is where it’s at. If you need inspiration, check out UM Social, particularly @cdiamzon, for some quality TikTok ads.

5. Plan Ahead (I Know It Sounds Crazy)

Do not schedule your recital in the last possible weeks. I repeat, DO NOT schedule your recital in the last possible weeks. Perform at the beginning of the semester. You will be exhausted; your friends will be exhausted; your collaborators will be exhausted. Don’t do it to yourself. Schedule your performance at the beginning of the semester when everyone’s well-rested from break and before they’ve had time to realize that they overcommitted yet again.

6. Have Multiple Performances

Your degree may only require one performance, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop there. Find a second location and offer two days for your performance. Scheduling is a nightmare, and more options makes it more likely that people will be available to come (plus, all your opening night nerves will be gone). Performances should be like pringles — you can’t have just one.

7. And if All Else Fails….

Bribe them. Just kidding, just kidding…….

Disability in Casting

Friends, for today’s blog post, I need you to think back to a year ago today. We were 8 months into the pandemic and couldn’t tell Monday from Friday. I, for, one was crawling, and I mean crawling to the Thanksgiving break, which to be honest is not that different from where I am now. But Nov 20th, 2020 stands out from the rest of the pandemic haze as that was the day I stumbled across an infamous Twitter thread from the pop singer Sia. Yes, folks, today’s post is talking about Sia’s movie Music which is definitely problematic, but not for the reason you think.

To catch up any of the boomers reading this today (or genx I aspire to be inclusive here). What had happened was…Sia made her directorial debut with Music a movie about a non-verbal autistic girl, Music, who loses her primary caregiver and is then raised by her estranged sister, Zu, struggling with drug addiction. Zu, played by Kate Hudson, has to learn to grow up and be a responsible adult so that she can be there for her sister Music. Throughout the movie, Music conveys her thoughts and perspectives on the world through… wait for it… music. Sia decided to cast Maddie-Ziegler, a neurotypical (non-autistic) actress to portray Music, and the internet was not having it! We’re canceling you, your mama, your whole family.

Sia’s Music is problematic for fifteyleven reasons, which I’ll get into shortly. But while the majority of the cancel Sia headlines focused on the casting of a non-autistic actress as the autistic main character, I believe the bigger issue… the real issue… was Sia’s lack of credibility to tell a story other than her own. And her ignorance to the fact that that was important.

Series Overview

​​Welcome back to the EXCEL Log’s series on Marginalized Representation and Casting, where I advocate for a paradigm shift in the performing arts industry from a focus on authentic casting to a demand for intentional (and nuanced) casting! If you’re new to the series, check out the first post, where I explain why using authenticity as a yardstick for creative teams is reductive and counterproductive. I’ve written about how Hamilton, Birth of a Nation, and Fires in the Mirror handled casting characters of marginalized races in “inauthentic ways.” And graded them based off on the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test ™(Pending):

  1. Does it have a diverse production team?
  2. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?
  3. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
  4. Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures?

This week I’ll be testing out my new protocols to see how Music fares! Let’s dive in!

  1. Does it have a diverse production team?
Judge Judy GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY


The production team consisted of co-writers Sia (white able-bodied female) and Dallas Clayton (white able-bodied male), director Ryan Heffington (white able-bodied male), and allegedly two alleged advisors on the spectrum (more on this later I suspect these advisors are fake news). 

Verdict: Honor code violation plagiarism suspected!

  1. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?

Sia says yes but…..

Where are the receipts?? Sia didn’t discuss having any partnerships or collaborations with the autistic community BEFORE she started getting criticism over Twitter. Once she started receiving negative feedback Sia responded in an immature and defensive tweetstorm [link] where she made a bunch of highly suspicious claims.

First, she claimed that “I had two had two people on the spectrum advising me at all times.” Who, what, where, when? Literally, give me a drop more proof and I’ll consider it.

Then Sia proudly stated that she partnered with Autism Speaks….

While Autism Speaks is the largest autism lobbying group in the US it is WIDELY condemned by members of the autistic community as being ableist and problematic at best, and a eugenicist hate group at worst (read more about how Autism Speaks spent years promoting ideas and information that furthered stigma and misunderstanding about the condition in this Washington Post article). So Sia touting her partnership with Autism Speaks in an attempt to show her credibility to represent the autistic experience makes me incredibly suspicious that she’d done much (and by much I mean any) research. I don’t understand how she genuinely thought that would win over her critics.

Then there was the time Sia tweeted…. “I’ve never referred to (the primary character) as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said.” I’m sorry WHO ASKED FOR THIS???? No one. Not a single person. “Special” is an outdated term that “has come to be seen as patronizing and derogatory in these contexts, while “disabled” has been widely embraced.”

“Sia being ableist AF while claiming she meant well is some serious abled savior bullshit,” tweeted Kristen Parisi, the founder of @MediaDisabled. “I can’t believe so many people green-lit this project & the press team approved the ‘special abilities’ language. Disabled people clearly weren’t part of this production team.”

I’m HIGHLY skeptical that Sia would have made the following claims, been blindsided by the concern and criticism from members of the autistic community, and responded as pettily and defensively as she did to valid and predictable concerns if she really had two advisors on the spectrum with her at all times. BUT I try to give people the benefit of the doubt whenever I have the emotional capacity to do so. So I was curious, is it possible that Sia found two autistic advisors who raised no concerns with all of the elements above?

It is possible. No group or identity is a monolith. It’s possible that Sia found the disabled equivalent to Ben Carson, whose views represent a minority of the groups they represent, which is why asking two unnamed “representatives” isn’t enough! You couldn’t write a book about an entire subject after reading two articles. If you’re gonna attempt to represent a whole community, then you need to show some good faith that you’ve worked hard to get immersed in that community.

Did she do some reading, some good old-fashioned research? Is it possible that she could have done that and still made the same gaffes? Could she have found sources saying that special abilities was acceptable terminology?

I did a few quick google searches myself. I googled “special abilities”, “special ability terminology”, “disability”, “disability terminology”, and “politically correct terminology for disabilities.” While there was some disagreement over whether the term disabled or person with a disability is the best language (person first or identity first language), I found nowhere that said that special abilities was a good choice of language… not a single place… The National Center on Disability in Journalism has a disability language style guide, Ability Magazine has a guideline to terminology, The National Disability Authority has a list of Appropriate Terms to Use none of which support Sia’s language choices. So I’m going to call BS as to the effort she supposedly put into it…

Verdict: Inconceivable! Shame on you!

  1. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?



Sia provided an incredibly sus “rationale” for her non-traditional casting choice of Maddie Ziegler as Music. It’s unclear if she would have provided any of this information without the twitter drama, so she’s not getting many points for accessible or transparent reasoning.

In response to tweets asking why she didn’t use an autistic actress, Sia responded that: “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non-verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie.” Elsewhere, she said, “Casting someone at (the character’s) level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community. … I did try. It felt more compassionate to use Maddie. That was my call.”

And as this amazing individual summed it up 

That’s the problem. She’s missing the point. Saying that she chose not to use an autistic actor because she chose not to adjust the work environment to make it more accessible is just blatantly able-ist and unacceptable. A half-baked and untested casting excuse like this is a clear sign that Sia wasn’t qualified to make this movie. This is patently unacceptable.

Verdict: Please pay the aggrieved party all your coins.

  1. Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures?

Absolutely not!

Judge Judy Do Not Want GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

While I am a firm believer that portraying an identity other than your own isn’t inherently mocking or a caricature, the reality is that even with the best intentions, the impact of portraying an identity other than ones own can be offensive, harmful, or upsetting to the group in question. It’s important to be very intentional and thoughtful in what one is portraying, being mindful of stereotypes and communal sensitivities, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the line between a respectful or offensive portrayal is not fixed. As seen in my Fires in the Mirror post,  even with an intentional and accomplished actor, sometimes the final word on whether a performance was genuine or a caricature can come down to an audience’s assessment of a performer’s skill. If the audience finds you believable, they’re more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to your intentions in the portrayal. Unfortunately for her, Maddie wasn’t a believable actress in this role.


At the end of the day, I can understand how Sia may have gotten here. I can understand the desire to help, the desire to make an impact. I’m a freaking ENFJ for chrissakes I get the burning feeling that you aren’t doing enough and you’re already behind. BUT this whole movie reeks of moving too quickly, lacking awareness, not taking the moment to edit and collaborate outside of yourself. Sia filmed this in 2017 and then spent three years editing it… what if she’d spent three years collaborating… I mean, truly, just imagine. I think there’s a world in which Sia could have made a compelling movie on autism and expression through music that would have passed the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test even if the main character wasn’t played by someone autistic. But I think it would have been co-created with autistic artists. Or more simply nothing about us without us.


Thanks for following my series on Marginalized Representation in Casting! This is the last post in the series for now, as I’m itching to talk about other things but I’d like to be sappy for a moment and end this series with my hopes for the future of marginalized representation in casting. 

 I hope that we can create a world in which creatives don’t feel empowered to bulldoze their way through marginalized communities and cause harm without a second thought. I hope we as art consumers continue to hold creative teams accountable for their choices and I hope we as audiences can hold space for differences of opinions on provocative art when artists can show their receipts. I hope to be a part of an artistic world that values the intent, process, and credibility of a creative team as well as their impact. I hope that we as art consumers can hold space for others to view provocative and controversial art and be differently impacted than ourselves. I hope to come across more art that I don’t “agree” with but where I respect the creative team’s process and credibility enough to acknowledge/ value their intent. I hope we can begin to expect nuanced and intentional representation of marginalized communities in the art we consume. And lastly, I hope we as art consumers and creators will keep questioning, musing, and thinking critically about the ways in which we tell stories other than our own. 

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” —African Proverb 

9 Ways to Deal with the Existential Dread of Returning “Back to Normal”

Hello friends! I’ve missed you, well I haven’t met many of you, but that still counts. Welcome back! In the midst of the utter despair, loss, and fear of the past year we’ve survived (go us!), and some of us have even thrived! We have taken naps during the day, we’ve stopped buying $6 Grande MochaChocolatta ya ya’s from Starbucks, we’ve finally united as a country around the shared belief that yoga pants are high fashion, and we’ve learned that some meetings really could have been emails. And now, after a year of pandemic, masks, uncertainty, and social distancing, we’re finally back to normal another year of pandemic, masks, uncertainty, and social distancing. As my inbox begins to flood with virtual orientations and class permission codes, I know I’m not the only one fighting off the Sunday Scaries about the first day of school and the “Return Back to Normal” that seems anything but normal. Luckily for you, the EXCEL team is here to offer you 9 Ways to Deal with the Existential Dread of “Returning Back to Normal.”

  1. First and foremost watch season 13 of Rupaul’s Drag Race (if you haven’t already watched this you are in for a treat!) and then schedule an appointment to discuss with Caitlin, EXCEL’s illustrious Career Services Coordinator, here.(Not gonna lie; this may be the single thing that got me through the pandemic). Or of course if you want to schedule an appointment with Caitlin to talk about any and all things related to arts entrepreneurship or fundraising she’s happy to talk about that as well!
  2. Begin a daily meditation practice! Follow Music & Mindset, a podcast series to get weekly tips on how to incorporate more mindfulness into your life made by Gala Flagello, AMAZING composer extraordinaire and EXCEL’s Program Assistant.
  3. If you have all the feels and just need to make some art to process this past year…get some coins to fund your vision!! Apply to the EXCEL enterprise fund, the EXCEL Prize, or if your project has a mental health focus apply for a Mental Health Awareness Microgrant. There are SOO many resources at your disposal. 
  4. Enroll in Marc Arthur’s Art Activism course and prepare to take over the world but for good!
  5. Enjoy live performances again, and some healthy escapism, with Musket’s upcoming performance of “Funny Girl.” AND if you’re interested in producing, see if you can liaise with EXCEL’s Dean’s Liaison, Kaitlyn Tom, the producer of Funny Girl. Shoot her a message over insta!
  6. Depressed about losing agency over your day to day routine with this return to in person semester? Enroll in Professor Dworkin’s Arts Entrepreneurship class and learn how to take back some level of control over your life and career as an Arts Entrepreneur (It doesn’t have to end just because the world is opening back up).
  7. Do not walk– RUN– to Handshake to schedule a coaching session with Jonathan Kuuskoski. This miracle worker may not be able to turn water into wine, but he’s the next best thing. Truly, no exaggeration, if you have thoughts, questions, hopes about what you’re trying to do with your life and career; if you aren’t sure how to spell entrepreneurship; if you are about to graduate and are staring into the abyss; or if sending emails gives you anxiety, schedule an appointment here. Worth your time or your money back guarantee!*
  8. Rock out to let off all that extra anxiety with and hear Karen, EXCEL’s intrepid Social Media Intern and Program Assistant, belt for her life.
  9. MOST importantly. If you’re a dweeb and do nothing else on this list— Subscribe and follow the EXCEL Log for objectively amazing content, which 9/10 dentists agree will keep existential dread at bay.

*Please note that all career service coachings are free of charge but I’m happy to discuss a return of your $0 payment in the inconceivable event of your dissatisfaction.

**Yes, here at the EXCEL Lab we have been known to participate in shameless plugs from time to time. But we’re pretty awesome so it’s totally worth it! Really really come check us out!

Birth of a Nation: Marginalized Representation in Casting (Pt 4)

Today we’re going to talk about the Birth of a Nation, not the 2016 version about Nat Turner, the 1915 OG in all of its black and white. For those who aren’t familiar, Birth of a Nation, originally called The Clansman, is a silent film from 1915 that is seen as the first example of a feature motion picture.1 Prior to this film, movies were 15-30 minutes long and much closer to what we would consider “shorts.” This 3-hour long epic forever changed the world of American Cinema and used countless innovative film techniques that we take for granted today. 

As someone who is obsessed with shades of gray, who thinks that things rarely fit into absolutes, who is a massive proponent for radical empathy (unless, of course, someone ate the last of my Swedish Fish), I can unequivocally say that Birth of a Nation is the most harmful and the most racist movie ever made.2 It is a picture-perfect example of what should be avoided at all costs. A small production team of three racist white men told a racist story filled with propaganda and fear tactics and helped to usher in a new era of hatred and violence against Black Americans.

It tells the history* of the American South from the Civil War through Reconstruction from a southern sympathetic perspective and is largely credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan (I think I’ve been saying this wrong my whole life, I could have SWORN it was klu). It uses white actors and actresses in blackface to portray black characters in the story who are all immoral, criminals, sexual deviants, animalistic, and power-hungry.

*Please note that the word history is used here VERY loosely.

Why am I talking about Birth of a Nation in this series on nuanced representation of marginalized identities? Because it’s an epic example of the power of representation in a horrifying way. This is an example of why this conversation matters and a basic guide in what NOT to do. Spoiler alert Birth of a Nation fails the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™(pending) (I know, I know, you’re shocked). While there are countless examples of problematic marginalized representation in the arts throughout history, the treatment of marginalized identities in this movie and its long-term effects on our society today sets the stakes. It sets the stakes for how important it is for all of us, art creators and art consumers alike, to be EXTRA vigilant for nuanced and intentional representation of marginalized identities in film. And also it gives me a perfect opportunity to wax poetically about Bertolt Brecht and Art as propaganda, so there’s that. Let’s dive in.

  1. Does it have a diverse production team

Umm no. The writer, director, and producer were all southern white men. Thomas Dixon Jr, the author of the book and play, “The Clansmen,” the text Birth of A Nation is based on, wrote this story with the intent to “set the record straight” when it came to the portrayal of Reconstruction.3 And by “set the record straight,” he meant to deliberately use propaganda as history to “win sympathy to the southern cause.4” Cool, cool, cool, cool, we love to see it.

A disgruntled white man, born in 1864, Dixon was committed to finding a historical backing to support his own prejudices and social attitudes (A healthy dose of “righteous” indignation is the catalyst for the best and worst parts of humanity). To create social change, Dixon sought to use the power of story to write a narrative moving enough to shape public opinion on a national scale. Frustrated by the limitations in reaching a national audience through books and plays, he decided to turn his epic story into a motion picture. Dixon teamed up with D.W. Griffith’s startup movie company, and H.E. Aitken served as the producer.5

Williams Intentionality Rating: Unacceptable
  1. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?

No…. In fact, there was an incredible amount of outrage and feedback from the Black community at the time. Other than the Mammy and faithful servant character, all other Black characters in the movie are depicted as “impudent, vengeful, or malicious in their conduct toward whites.6” Furthermore, Black Americans were NEVER in control of state government in South Carolina, though that’s the driving plot of the movie’s second half and the reasoning for the need for the Ku Klux Klan.7 Countless Black cultural leaders pointed out how harmful the fictitious and malicious portrayals of Black people in this story were. My favorite quote came from Kelly Miller, the Negro Dean of Howard University, who wrote to Dixon, “Your teachings subvert the foundations of law and established order. You are the high priest of lawlessness, the prophet of anarchy.8” (tell ’em sis).

But just like a colonizer, Dixon’s response was,” My books are hard reading for a Negro, and yet the Negroes, in denouncing them, are unwittingly denouncing one of their greatest friends…9” Essentially I know you and the needs of your community better than you do… Yikes.

Rating:  Go directly to Jail. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars.
  1. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
Pop Tv Truth GIF by Schitt's Creek - Find & Share on GIPHY

Birth of a Nation chose to use white actors in blackface to portray the roles of each Black character with a major role (some Black people were used as extras in certain scenes). To be fair, Griffith did have a public statement on the issue. Griffith “defended” his decision to use black face by saying, “on careful weighing of every detail concerned, the decision was to have no black blood among the principles…10” I guess technically, this is an intentional, transparent, and accessible explanation. Though, to be fair, I just assumed that morality and a baseline desire to not be racist was a give in… I won’t do that again.

Williams Intentionality Rating: Steaming pile of trash
  1. Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance, not as irresponsible caricatures?

Absolutely NOT. Every representation of a black person is done in terms of a racist and harmful stereotype that portrays Black people as animalistic and evil.11 We see the Mandingo in Gus– the renegade negro, the Jezebel in Lydia Brown– Stoneman’s lascivious mulatto housekeeper and mistress, the Mammy in the character of the Mammy (’nuff said that’s literally what they named her), the Uncle Tom in the unnamed male faithful servant to the Cameron’s; and the Black Brute in Silas Lynch– the conniving politician.12

The very first representation of black people in the movie portrays the caricature of the pickaninny. Two Black children fall off the back of a wagon and lay there in the ground until they are picked up comically like sacks of potatoes and thrown back onto the wagon. The pickaninny caricature, like all of the others, was used to dehumanize Black people and make their lives and safety seem inconsequential.

Rating:  F with a note to see the professor after class

But Wait There’s More:

I have to make one more point before I give the final rating for Birth of a Nation. Film, and its ability to impact culture, is fundamentally different from other performing art mediums. Music videos, visual art, live theater, musicals, concerts are all mediums that lend themselves to critical analysis. They have aspects built into their very structure that serve to remind the audience that this is not reality; this is an artist’s interpretation of reality. It’s fantasy, it’s creation. Whether that comes in the form of a curtain opening and closing around a performance, an intermission, a set being moved, or performers bursting into song (I realize this is a normal facet of life for my roommates, but from what I’ve heard from others people randomly singing their inner thoughts is not a normal occurrence in day to day life), all other forms of performing arts remind us that we are entering into a space of suspended disbelief to experience art. 

Bertolt Brecht talked about the importance of these reminders, these invitations, to think critically in his writings about the “alienation effect.” As someone who was uber concerned with art as propaganda and how it could subconsciously influence masses, he was particularly critical of film as a medium. Film’s more realistic immersion increases the potential for influence on public opinion without the normal level of critical analysis. Dixon used all of this to his advantage as he purposefully told a fictitious narrative through film that he hoped would be viewed and shared as fact.

While Dixon may not have invented the Southern sympathist view of Reconstruction, he perfected it and accelerated its spread. Birth of a Nation tells a story where Blacks and Whites in the South were content with their lot before the war. It claims that Southern white women were left at the mercy of rogue bands of Black Northern regiments during the war, who invaded cities and pillaged and raped the southern belle’s left behind. It paints Reconstruction as a time of lawlessness where Black Americans vengefully repressed their White Southern neighbors. This fictitious retelling of American History began displacing the truth. And while this version of events is about as real as Kylie Jenner’s lips, the film’s use of “facsimile’s” like the one below was used to blur the line of truth and propaganda.

President Woodrow Wilson, a friend of Dixon and a supporter of the KKK, was quoted sharing his Southern Sympathetic views throughout the film.

Many people who saw this film, the first feature motion picture, thought of it as a documentary. “… using a new and increasingly influential medium of communication, and as an instrument that deliberately and successfully undertook to use propaganda as history, the influence of Birth of a Nation on the current view of Reconstruction has been greater than any other single force..13

Because of film’s unique ability to portray fiction as truth and the far-reaching effects of such, harmful and untrue representations of marginalized identities in film should receive even more scrutiny than in other art forms.

Bonus Rating for Film: Minus 50 additional points


No. No. No. Birth of a Nation does NOT pass the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (pending). But, if you’re ever super bored and looking to learn about your country at it’s worst… if you like to lightly trigger yourself… and if you want another reason to feel deeply uncomfortable whenever you listen to Wagner… by all means check it out.

If you’re new to the series, make sure to check out my previous posts on Fires in the Mirror and Hamilton as well! Stay tuned for new content this Fall!

Fires in The Mirror: Marginalized Representation in Casting (Pt 3)

When I was 8, I spent two months trying to convince my mother I was allergic to water. That has nothing to do with anything, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to open today’s blog post. Welcome back! I hope everyone is having a great summer! I know I, for one, have spent my summer pondering deep existential questions like how many cats can I get before I’m officially labeled a crazy cat lady, and why are the Backyardigans TikToks so darn catchy??? If you have answers to either of these questions, please feel free to drop them in the comments section. Or of course, if you read this post and want to tell me your thoughts, you can comment as well! Today I’m looking at Anna Deavere Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror. We’ll have to start with a brief history lesson before jumping–

In the summer of 1991, long-simmering racial tensions between the Hasidic Jewish Chabad community and the Black community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, came to a head and resulted in a 3-day race riot that decimated the community. When a car driven by an Orthodox Jewish driver ran a red light and hit two Black children on the sidewalk– killing one and seriously injuring the other– many Black residents of Crown Heights were infuriated to find that the police at the scene seemed more concerned with the safety of the Jewish driver than the lives of the two Black children.1 Communal frustrations with a perceived system of preferential treatment afforded to the Jews in Crown Heights through double standards in law enforcement, government funding, and housing opportunities exploded into a particularly violent riot that left 152 police officers injured, numerous homes and stores looted, 122 Black Americans arrested, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Jewish graduate student, stabbed to death by a group of Black rioters.2 

In turn, many Hasidic Jewish residents of Crown Heights were enraged at law enforcement’s response to alarming anti-semitism in response to the accident. Signs saying “Death to Jews” were carried at protests, Jewish stores and homes were targeted for looting, an Israeli flag was burned, and the suspect in the Yankel Rosenbaum killing was acquitted at trial.3 They perceived the murder and the riots as anti-semitic hate crimes and felt that the government didn’t go far enough to protect them simply because the perpetrators of this anti-semitism were Black.4 

Enter Anna Deavere Smith. My new role model (Sorry Audra McDonald, we had a great run, but you’ve been replaced). Smith saw everything on the news and, like any of us, immediately wondered how she could turn this crisis into great art. Healing the world through art and making a literal difference, metaphorically.

Bo Burnham’s Inside Netflix Special is an entire mood if you haven’t peeped it yet.

Smith traveled to Crown Heights right after the riots and spent 8 days interviewing over 100 community members and civil rights leaders on both sides, from Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother to Angela Davis. Smith then created the play Fires in the Mirror, about the incident, in which she curated monologues out of the transcripts of 20 interviews. In each monologue, Smith “becomes” the interviewee speaking to an invisible interviewer.

Fires in the Mirror is hands down the most profound and inspirational piece of art that I’ve ever seen. Smith is masterfully gifted at embodying each character and staying true to each unique perspective in a way that feels more vulnerable/intimate than a documentary. The dialectical curation of diverse perspectives creates a patchwork storytelling of the event and the community’s feelings about it. But it is rife with complex questions about marginalized representation and casting. The play is performed as a one-woman show, meaning Smith portrays every person she interviewed, man and woman, Jewish and Black. Anna Deavere Smith is a Black woman (did I forget to mention that?).

This is Anna Deavere Smith. Extremely light-skinned and racially ambiguous to my eye, I assumed she must be half Jewish and half Black when I first watched the play. I was able to simply focus on her storytelling and didn’t initially grapple with any existential questions about her credibility to tell these stories. 

Luckily, these were precisely the questions that Smith was interested in tackling in her work. Smith implemented a rather groundbreaking approach to verbatim theater that had rippling effects on the genre for long after. In each monologue, Smith chose a section from the original interview transcript where she felt that a person “revealed” their character. She made no alterations to the transcript outside of choosing which segment to use.5 She kept every umm, like, and err, no cutting, no pasting, no paraphrasing, no omissions, as she felt that that was integral to the integrity of each person’s perspective.

Character, or identity, lies not in a pre-existing essence but in the process of self-authorship: …everyone, in a given amount of time, will say something that is like poetry. The process of getting to that poetic moment is where “character” lives…. The pursuit is frequently filled with uhs and ums and, in fact, the wrong words.6

-Anna Deavere Smith

A version of Fires in the Mirror was produced for Television and aired on PBS. This version is accessible on Youtube in 4 parts, feel free to watch the play. There are significant changes to the way this production was staged and produced from the original screenplay but it is a good way to get the essence of Smith’s work. Watch the clip below and see Anna “become” the “Anonymous Lubavitch Woman” interviewee by masterfully mimicking the unique speech pattern, gait, bodily posture, and accent.

All four parts of the PBS special of Fires in The Mirror are on Youtube. Check it out for yourself!!

“With my own work, I’m just trying to create possibilities for dialogue, to decentralize the race discussion, to try to bring more voices to it that don’t get heard. I believe we haven’t found the language for discussing difference yet, and the only way we find that language is by talking in it–not about it–and talking in it in these moments of crisis, when our anxieties are so big that we can barely speak.7

-Anna Deavere Smith

This show was a wild success! She was nominated for a Pulitzer and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. She expanded her methodology for Fires in the Mirror and went on to cover the Rodney King Riots in her play Twilight, which was also an award-winning success. She is kind of a big deal. But will she pass the Samantha Williams Marginalized Representation in Casting Test (™ pending)? Let’s find out! 

Series Overview

Welcome back to the EXCEL Log’s series on Marginalized Representation and Casting, where I advocate for a paradigm shift in the performing arts industry from a focus on authentic casting to a demand for intentional (and nuanced) casting! If you’re new to the series, check out the first post [link] where I explain why using authenticity as a yardstick for creative teams is reductive and counterproductive. Last time I wrote about  how Hamilton handled casting characters of marginalized races in “inauthentic ways.” 

This week I’ll be testing out my new protocols to see how Fires in the Mirror Fares! Let’s Dive in!

  1. Does it have a diverse production(Creative) team?

Ultimately no. As a one-woman show, there’s a singular lens in terms of whose vision is realized. In its premiere with the New York Public Theater, Anna Deavere Smith was the producer, director, interviewer, transcriber, curator, actor, and costume designer for Fires in the Mirror.  And while the libretto is “authored” by a diverse group of individuals from various marginalized identities, Smith served as the arranger, curator, interviewer, and editor, giving her the power to frame, guide, and contextualize each character’s story. Anyone who’s taken a stats course knows interviews are RIFE with opportunities to bias and shape results. Furthermore, while the words within sections are kept verbatim, the act of curation in selecting which interviews and which segment of interviews to use in the production creates space for bias. 

Her focus on allowing each character to “reveal themself,” to not judge any character, to represent but not criticize the perspectives she shares is a noble one. It’s inarguable that Smith worked hard to center an equitable representation of the perspectives of both sides in her work, but is that enough to mitigate her own biases? I don’t know! This is a hard one. I’m open to everyone’s suggestions.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: 🧐😕🤷🏿‍♀️

  1. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized communities in question?

 “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.”-Marginalized Representation in Casting Pt 1

Yes Ma’am!  Anna literally sat down with hundreds of Crown Heights community members, asked them for their thoughts, perspectives, and stories, and then shared them as truthfully as she could. I asked for creators to show me their works cited pages, and Anna delivered.

 Her commitment to dialogue and collaboration also came through in her practice of post-show talkbacks that she often paired with her performances. Talkbacks are a theater practice in which the creators and performers of a show have an open discussion with the audience who just watched it. This is an incredible way to show a commitment to continued collaboration and feedback. This practice gives audiences more agency in the art-making process and allows for an even deeper level of communal engagement. This is particularly noteworthy in the current climate of DEI and community outreach in arts administration that often views the community as a group to be “cultured” instead of as an influential part of the art-making and season curation process.

In one such post-show talkback, Smith was asked by an audience member whether a white male could do what she was doing?

“That’s a fabulous question!” Smith enthuses. “I would like to see somebody else do my show, somebody from a different race, maybe a Jewish woman or Jewish man. Would it be considered a stereotype? A caricature? Which one of us could get away with more? Is there in fact a kind of license that I have, a kind of permission that I have, because I’m black? This question about who can say what, who can enact which culture, is like ‘The Question.8’”

-Anna Deavere Smith

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: Exceeds Expectations

  1. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?

YES! Anna Deavere Smith gets a Shiny Golden Star for having many accessible, transparent, and intentional explanations for her choice to cast herself as every character in the show across gender and racial discrepancies. This non-traditional casting choice was integral to the project’s vision; this was not an example of a casting director not wanting to deal with any extra work to find actors from marginalized identities. 

From the get go Smith described her intention to “capture the personality of a place by attempting to embody its varied population and varied points of view in one person-myself.9“In an interview with the New York Times, she described her disappointment when a Black man came up to her and said that he wished a male actor had been cast.

“I thought, ‘Oh, for him, if he doesn’t see the black male body, he’s not seeing himself.’ And so I don’t count either. There is this feeling that only a black man could be a black man. That’s not philosophically where I live.10

-Anna Deavere Smith

Excuse me while I fangirl for a moment, but part of why I’m so obsessed with this work is that Smith is flirting with the very question of authentic representation in her work. What is the yardstick for authentic representation? Smith’s performance uses her individual black female body to show the human connectedness between us all while portraying that boundaries of difference such as race and ethnicity are “active negotiations,” not static immutable characteristics. Just as race is more of a social construct than a phenotype, Anna wants to bring attention to how our differences are socially constructed and performed.11 And that’s so flipping cool!  

Furthermore, Smith goes on to press against the assumption that simply putting a body of color onstage is a political statement. She was criticized by a white reviewer who wrote that shewas doing a critique of white women. She said that the presence of my blackness, my black body, was evidence of my criticism. I thought if I was fully dutiful to speech rhythms, the color of my skin wouldn’t matter. I was wrong… It was very hurtful, and I feel I’m living it out to this day.12

It seems reductive and short-sighted to say that the “presence of her blackness” makes her performance a criticism of an alternate identity. Smith’s work embodies the line in the sand that mimicking/representing an identity other than one’s own is not inherently mocking or disrespectful. That being said, performances of BIPOC characters that are based on mocking caricatures are often harmful to those communities in real life.” This brings us to our next question.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: The Shiniest Golden Star

  1. Does it present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance, not as irresponsible caricatures?

There is undoubtedly great intentionality and nuance put into the performance and text of each character who speaks in Fires in the Mirror. Anna’s process for learning each monologue involved listening to the recording of the interview repeatedly, for hours, memorizing the unique speech patterns, effects, and characteristics, and then doing her best to present them accurately. That being said, the most common critique of her work that I came across was a concern that some of her representations bordered on caricature. 

“At certain moments your portrayal was close enough to caricature to make spectators uncomfortable- close to but not really caricature. In displaying ethnicity in a slightly magnified way you underscored the humanity of the people you interviewed. Instead of trying to make a cohesive picture, you revealed different landscapes of emotions and histories. I connect this approach to feminist ideas about open-ended narratives, about the refusal of ultimate authority- even though there’s an authority operating.13

– Debby Thompson “Is Race a Trope” an interview with Anna Deavere Smith defines caricature as a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect. Due to Anna’s Verbatim theater methodology, it seems that any exaggeration to comic or grotesque effect would be a question of a viewer’s individual interpretation of her intent and/or acting skills. I personally am willing to believe Anna had the best of intentions because she revolutionized an entire art form to be as accurate in her representations as possible (and as high maintenance as I am, that’s enough for me). I mean she put her time, energy, and resources where her mouth was. But even with the best of intentions, who can say the effect that art will have on someone? 

We all know that intention and impact don’t always align. But I personally think that this is an example where the amount of effort that accompanied the good intent deserves acknowledgement even from the most staunch critic.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: Snaps


When delving into this type of art, it seems inevitable that there will be moments where the line between caricature and realistic representation(intent vs. impact) is thinner and thornier than others. What does it mean to represent a real person with aspects of their personality that overlap with harmful stereotypes made about their ethnicity? What does it mean to assume an accent, a race, a history other than our own? 

I think that this method of verbatim theater, paired with sustained input from the marginalized identities whose stories are being told, is a compelling formula/rubric for artists interested in marginalized representation. Ask the people whose stories you’d like to tell, have a good reason as to why you want to tell this story, make sure you have a clear answer as to why you feel that you need to tell it instead of supporting someone in telling their own story, and then be as transparent, intentional, and committed to seeking feedback as possible. 

For me, this is a prime example of an intentional art creator who seeks accountability for the choices they make in telling marginalized stories and also has earned the space to acknowledge differences in opinion and intent vs. impact. After careful conversions and tabulations, it appears that Fires in the Mirror does pass the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (Pending).

Hamilton: Marginalized Representation in Casting (Part Two)

We’re BACK! 

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.

  1. Does it have a diverse production team?
  2. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?
  3. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
  4. 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!

Hamilton Synopsis

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?

YES… ish

Schitts Creek Comedy GIF by CBC - Find & Share on GIPHY

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. 

Lin Manuel Miranda (Left Composer), Thomas Kail (2nd from left Director), Andy Blankenbuehler (Choreographer 2nd from right), and Alex Lacamoire (Music Director right)

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. 

Session 3: Disrupting Performance Practice Traditions

This month the EXCEL Lab is THRILLED to be partnering with the Eastman School of Music’s Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research on a three-part online symposium entitled Disruption Action Change! This week our featured guest, Dr. Antonio Cuyler (Florida State University/ University of Michigan), discusses the role of disruption as an essential force in pursuit of a more just and equitable arts ecosystem! Register below to see their live Q&A this Thursday, March 25th at 4:30pm EDT!

Register Here

Meet Dr. Cuyler

Dr. Antonio C. Cuyler is the author of Access, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Insights from the Careers of Executive Opera Managers of Color in the U. S. He serves as Director of the MA Program & Associate Professor of Arts Administration at Florida State University (FSU) where he teaches doctoral and master’s students. He also serves as Visiting Associate Professor in the Theatre & Drama Department in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance at the University of Michigan.

From Dr. Cuyler- Stereotypes: Disruption and Reflection

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defined stereotype as something conforming to a fixed or general pattern especially a standardized mental picture that members of a group hold in common and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment. Most historically discriminated against, marginalized, oppressed, and subjugated peoples know personally of the harms stereotypes can cause. In the U. S. cultural sector, one finds examples and discussions of the harms stereotypes have caused in dance (Black Ballerina), film & tv (Disclosure and They’ve Gotta Have Us), visual art (How to U. S. Museums Excluded Black Artists), and music, specifically opera (Discrimination in Casting Black Singers at the Metropolitan Opera, Operas by Black Composers Have Long Been Ignored. Explore 8, and Russell Thomas is much more than a Black tenor). 

The operatic art form, too, faces enduring stereotypes that have undermined its ability to develop new audiences (Opera Is for the 99%). Yet, opera remains incapable of and/or resistant to letting go of enduring negative stereotypes. As Katherine Hu pointed out in 2019 in the NY Times, classical opera has a racism problem. I strongly agree with Hu. Opera must retire blackface, brownface, and yellowface now! In addition, I envision an antiracist and decolonized version of the art form in which managers and companies use opera as an intervention and educational tool to facilitate meaningful community-wide conversations about the role of stereotypical images in perpetuating and reinforcing oppression. A truly disruptive practice that the industry could institutionalize to ensure its sustainability. But how does one incentivize such a change? Opera and the cultural sector at large must grapple with the question of who benefits most from and who do negative stereotypes harm the most? One thing remains clear to me, however. In a society that lost $16 trillion over the last 20 years due to discrimination against Black people, opera, an industry consistently challenged to earn revenue, can no longer afford to peddle racist ideas. It is simply untenable in a society that prides itself for ruthless and unregulated capitalism.

Want to hear more?

Join us this Thursday, March 25th from 4:30-6:00pm EDT via Zoom for a Q&A with Dr. Cuyler. He will delve into his post in greater depth and explore questions like, “What is creative justice, and what might it look like on the stage?” We hope to see you there as we expand this conversation around the challenges facing opera companies–including development, recruitment, and community engagement– in the age of Black Lives Matter. Participation is free, but registration is required via the link below.

Session 2: Spreading Art That Advocates for Change

This month the EXCEL Lab is THRILLED to be partnering with the Eastman School of Music’s Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research on a three-part online symposium entitled Disruption Action Change! This week our featured guests, Joel Thompson (Composer) and Garrett McQueen (Trilloquy), discuss their experiences disrupting traditional organizational practice! Register below to see their live Q&A this Thursday, March 18th at 4:30pm EDT!

Register Here

Meet Garrett McQueen

Garrett spent the first decade of his career as a professional bassoonist. Determined to impact a bigger change in the arts, Garrett later transitioned into the field of broadcast media, and since 2016, he’s been the host and producer behind nationally syndicated public media content at the intersection of race, contemporary culture, and “classical” music. Garrett also works as Executive Producer of the TRILLOQUY podcast, and as a member of the leadership teams of the American Composers Forum, the International Society for Black Musicians, and the Black Opera Alliance. 

From Garrett

What if one day, someone told you that everything you knew to be true was a lie? How would you react to understanding that the things you believe in most, the things that you’d do anything to uphold, were false, incomplete, or even oppressive? I didn’t always want to believe that there was something “wrong” with the art form that I’d fallen in love with at such an early age, but after years of experience on and off the “classical” stage, I’ve dedicated my career to helping people understand the conditioning that is a music education in America, the ways in which people can overcome that conditioning, and the responsibility all artists (and all people) have in creating an anti-racist society. 

Some musicians have the benefit of learning to sing or play according to their culture, but this is extremely rare among “classical” musicians. I can’t quite remember the very first tune I learned to play on the bassoon, but I’m sure it wasn’t something that spoke to being a Black kid in Memphis, TN. Works like “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” aren’t intrinsically violent, but the propagation of Eurocentric culture as the primary entry point toward becoming an instrumentalist must be called what it is: white supremacy. I didn’t always understand that conditioning or music “training” started from those very early stages, but it’s clear when you look at what schools continue to teach. From Orff Schulwerk, all the way to the musical “canon” that serves as the foundation of most American conservatories, the Eurocentricity that has built the status quo surrounding “classical” music must be fully understood and completely disrupted for a more equitable arts ecosystem to be built. 

It’s not easy coming to terms with one’s own conditioning, but it’s completely possible! After leaving my hometown to pursue a bassoon career, I made a point to be as Black as I could in all spaces. I refused to codeswitch, and even foregrounded music by Black composers when I had the opportunity to impact my or anyone else’s programming for the stage. My love for music by Black and living composers eventually earned me a spot on the radio airwaves, where I continued to take action in exposing listeners to the overlooked genius of composers other than Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. From there, I developed a love for being behind the microphone, and expanded my work into a weekly podcast called TRILLOQUY. Since its inception, I have worked to center conversations that not only shed light on some of “classical” music’s overlooked stories, but ones that also can inspire everyone to take action in their communities and institutions.

For generations, words like “racism” and “prejudice” have been pushed into a category that most people don’t think involves them. In reality, every person has a responsibility to take a look at themselves and to determine what they can do to inspire change. Through my work as a content creator, I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many people with such a wide array of experiences, identities, and stories. Being exposed to so much helped me understand my own prejudices, and the things I needed to do to change. When everyone takes the time to learn from and listen to people with whom they may not normally, a new arts ecosystem will be born. I am proud to help facilitate that in my work. 

Meet Joel Thompson

Joel is an Atlanta-based composer, conductor, and educator, best known for the choral work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which won the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition. Currently a doctoral student at the Yale School of Music, Thompson was also a 2017 post-graduate fellow in Arizona State University’s Projecting All Voices Initiative and a composition fellow at the 2017 Aspen Music Festival and School, where he studied with composers Stephen Hartke and Christopher Theofanidis and won the 2017 Hermitage Prize. His opera, The Snowy Day, based on the book by Ezra Jack Keats, will premiere December 2021 at the Houston Grand Opera. 

From Joel

The exterior of the building looked unassuming – brick, one-story, yet still huge, like everything in Texas – but the inside was a resplendent treasure trove…like a secret dragon-guarded cave in a Tolkien novel. My old library in the Bahamas kept all the children’s books at the top of a mostly windowless non-airconditioned tower, which was coated in a benevolent Pepto-Bismol pink to hide the fact that it used to be a jail in colonial times. Still, it served as my time machine to centuries past and my Scotty-less transporter to foreign lands and magical wonders…like the Hennington-Alief Library, in which I now stood.

She must have seen the awe on my face in response to the expansive YA section. Or maybe she saw the undisguisable glee inspired by the new knowledge that I could check out more than two books at a time. In fact, they had those little baskets that you saw at the grocery store! I had already purposed to fill mine to the brim when she approached with that endearing Texas lilt. “Hey there! What’s your name, darlin’?” Bashfully, I said my name as I’ve always said it and as my parents said it. “Oh, you mean, Johl.” She smiled. “Can I help you with anything, Johl?”

When I came to the U.S., I possessed a distinct amalgam of the Bahamian and Jamaican accents. My name-changing encounter with Smaug the librarian was one of many steps in the attempted erasure of the natural rhythms and inflections of my speech. Also, sixth-grade Joel didn’t want to stand out as a target for ridicule, so the voice with which I currently speak was born. In the 20-plus years since then, I’ve been told that my accent is not “American,” but not able to be placed anywhere else really. Many times, I’ve also registered surprise on the faces of people who assumed I wasn’t Black after only interacting on the phone. I’d like to think the Texan librarian didn’t intend to do any damage. I guess she simply said my name the way she thought it was supposed to be said, but her choice has continually reminded me how fervently I must protect my voice. The ease and audacity with which she attempted to change my name, the avatar of my identity, to fit within a box for her comfort has always baffled me. I’d like to think that if she and her hypothetical son, Joel, went to Jamaica or even to the pink library tower in the Bahamas, that no one would tell her son his name was actually JO-ell when he introduced himself as “Johl.” However, when I take a step back, I realize that this country was founded with that same audacity – to steal the land, massacre its indigenous inhabitants, and name it the United States of America.

Today, as a composer in dialogue with the legacy of Western European art music, I have found that holding true to my name, to my voice, to my identity is a most disruptive act. Striving towards honesty in my music, centering Blackness, and holding the door open for Black and other marginalized voices in this space are disruptive acts. These acts of disruption are rooted in an unquenchable love for this music and the joy of making it. However, I continue to ask, “Why is this disruptive?” and “What am I disrupting?” The potential answers, as they relate to the genre of classical music, are downright depressing. They show me that disruption is not enough – disruption must be the catalyst for transformation. 

I look forward to conversing with the amazing Garrett McQueen during the Disruption Action Change Symposium, and I hope to learn more about how we can continue to invest in the transformation of this artistic field and how we can continue to our artistic practices with the hope that we can be models for fundamental social change in the real world – a world in which my future children and grandchildren will be able to borrow books without casual threats to their identity, a world in which they’ll be able to create in any field without fear of being pigeonholed or dismissed, a world where they don’t have to change or hide their voices to remain safe, a world where they don’t have to worry about being killed extrajudicially because of their exterior, ignoring the treasure trove contained within. Until then…

Want to hear more?

Join us this Thursday, March 18th from 4:30-6:00pm EDT via Zoom for a Q&A with Joel and Garrett. They will delve into their posts in greater depth and explore questions like, “How must the definition of classical music change to become more inclusive, and what might that mean for the industry?” We hope to see you there as we expand this conversation around experiences making and spreading art that advocates for change. Participation is free, but registration is required via the link below.

Session 1: Disrupting Traditional Organizational Practice

This month the EXCEL Lab is THRILLED to be partnering with the Eastman School of Music’s Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research on a three-part online symposium entitled Disruption Action Change! This week our featured guests, Ashleigh Gordon (Castle of Our Skins) and Margaret Lioi (Chamber Music America), discuss their experiences disrupting traditional organizational practice! Register below to see their live Q&A this Thursday, March 11th at 4:30pm EDT.

Register Here

Meet Ashleigh Gordon

​Ashleigh is co-founder, Artistic/Executive Director and violist of Castle of our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series devoted to celebrating Black Artistry through music. In recognition of her work, she has presented at IDEAS UMass Boston Conference and 180 Degrees Festival in Bulgaria; has been featured in the International Musician and Improper Bostonian magazines as well as the Boston Globe; and was awarded the 2016 Charles Walton Diversity Advocate Award from the American Federation of Musicians. Described as a “charismatic and captivating performer,” Ashleigh Gordon has recorded with Switzerland’s Ensemble Proton and Germany’s Ensemble Modern; performed with Grammy-award winning BMOP and Grammy-nominated A Far Cry string ensemble; and appeared at the prestigious BBC Proms Festival with the Chineke! Orchestra. 

From Ashleigh

As a classically-trained musician, I fought for years against the external pressure to pursue an orchestral career when I knew the intimacy of chamber music spoke deeper to my heart. As an educator, I wrestled with how I could effectively reach a child in a classroom setting when I found one-on-one, mentor-mentee relationships more natural and impactful. I knew I was creative and found excitement bringing a daydream into a tangible reality. I enjoyed research, history, storytelling, having autonomy in my work, and connecting with my cultural roots. I grew to love my identity as a Black woman violist.

I share these as realizations about myself that took years to fully own and whole-heartedly embrace. These understandings – which now serve as the bedrock for how I authentically engage with the world – shape my work as Artistic and Executive Director of Castle of our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music. 

For the past eight years (and counting), I have presented the works of African diasporic composers alongside spoken word, dance, visual arts and other mediums, flooding classrooms and concert stages with centuries worth of artistic excellence. Through performances, residencies, commissions, workshops, and more, I have made it a common mission for both myself and the organization to showcase a wide breadth of Black artistry that spans genres, generations, genders, and geographies. I have done – and continue to do – this from a place of authenticity, genuine passion, and deep-seeded purpose. Representation continues to be foundational in my work. Black voices continue to be centered on stage and off. Cultural exploration remains a constant reason to both celebrate and normalize diversity and is not conditional to an anniversary, date on a calendar, response to yet another example of injustice, or matter of convenience.

To encourage artists/arts organizations to join in this continual and intentional centering of the underrepresented, I would like to offer three simple thoughts:

  1. Know your motivations; name your intentions: As this is not the work of a 100-meter dash but a marathon spanning generations, it is crucial to know what is driving your work and why. Keep those answers top of mind all the time as honesty and authenticity are the fuel that will drive your well-meaning efforts beyond the limits of pure passion and a reaction to the times. 
  2. Strength is in community: Collaboration not competition will make for more sustainable efforts as strength lies in numbers. Collectively, we have the ability to challenge, push, support, and inspire a movement that lasts beyond a headline or topical trend.
  3. Share resources: Knowledge is power as we know and have heard countless times. Sharing what you know, have learned, have tried and failed, and tried and succeeded is essential to our collective understanding in how we can build a healthy arts ecosystem devoid of the inequities that continue to plague it (and us).

As said by writer, choreographer, activist and author Andrew Simonet in his Making Your Life as an Artist: “Culture needs you to do it (your art) and do it well.” We each, as cultural influencers, have an awesome and unique responsibility to fulfill. At the same time, it is imperative that we each remain steadfast and truly elevate the marginalized in all of our work if we are to disrupt a centuries old system of inequity. Our collective and creative future quite literally depends on it.

Meet Margaret Lioi

Margaret M. Lioi has been Chamber Music America’s Chief Executive Officer since 2000, serving as the longest-tenured executive in CMA’s 43-year history. During this time, CMA incorporated jazz into its small ensemble portfolio, increased its grant-making to more than $1.3 million annually, established May as National Chamber Music Month, and ratified the organization’s Commitment to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, solidifying its dedication to equitable practices in every area of its operations.

She holds a Masters in Piano Performance from New England Conservatory and an MBA in Arts Management from Binghamton University/SUNY. Prior to CMA, Lioi was the Director of Development at Spoleto U.S.A., Executive Director of The Eleanor Naylor Dana Charitable Trust, and Senior Director of External Affairs at The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. She serves on the Advisory Board of The Sphinx Organization, is a member of the Board of The Performing Arts Alliance, and is an adjunct faculty member in the MA in Arts Management Entrepreneurship program at The New School.

From Margaret: A Reflection on Disruption

I do not think of myself as a disrupter. For women of my background and generation, disrupting anything does not carry with it a positive connotation. Women are selfless peacemakers who bring people together, not break things apart—or so say the influential voices of my past. 

When I arrived at Chamber Music America in 2000, CMA had accepted an initial grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to fund new works for composer-led jazz ensembles. This made complete sense to me; it fit perfectly into CMA’s definition of chamber music: music for small ensembles between two and ten musicians, one musician per part, generally without a conductor. But I wasn’t prepared for the pushback, negative emails, and overall controversy the program created.

To an already marginalized field that was perennially under-resourced, it was a signal that funding would be siphoned from our classical grant programs and redirected to what was perceived as an interloping discipline. It didn’t matter that Doris Duke’s Will mandated that the Foundation’s funding in music be dedicated to jazz. None of CMA’s funding for its classical programs was in jeopardy because of the jazz grants, and further, the Duke Foundation would not fund classical music as it was not one of Doris Duke’s interests.

Unbelievably, this debate continued for nearly a decade. I often reflect on these early years in my tenure and wonder what I could have/should have done to make the inclusion of jazz into CMA’s portfolio easier for everyone to accept. Some CMA members were so outraged at the idea that jazz was becoming a permanent part of CMA that they signed a petition against its inclusion. I remember that it arrived in my In Box the evening before our national conference and took center stage as we attempted to finalize our strategic plan in 2007. 

The organization, the Board, and I came under fire for “abandoning CMA’s core constituency,” “forcing jazz down presenters’ throats,” and “disregarding CMA’s founding mission”—all untrue. Despite the negative reactions, we persevered. Our jazz funding and number of programs continued to grow. Jazz artists began to see Chamber Music America as a home, and most rewarding of all, jazz and classical musicians began to learn from each other and collaborate on artistic projects. Was this disruption or bringing people together? One of my colleagues often reminds me that more than one thing can be true at the same time. 

In my first ten years at CMA I learned to listen. The jazz musicians were happy to have a new funding source but wanted to make sure that CMA was not inviting them into the classical construct and expecting them to conform. And it was equally important to recognize and understand the anxieties and misgivings of our classical constituents, who felt that resources were being taken away from them.

This journey, arduous and exhausting, will never come to a complete conclusion, but the resulting jazz programs and participation continue to contribute to CMA’s success as a vibrant and relevant 21st-Century organization.

It was with the successes and missteps of this experience that we approached our racial equity work. We continue to disrupt and bring people together.

Want to hear more?

Join us this Thursday, March 11th from 4:30-6:00pm EDT via Zoom for a Q&A with Ashleigh and Margaret. They will delve into their posts in greater depth and explore questions like, “How do we design and support organizations that connect genuinely with their communities, enabling audiences to be ‘co-creators’?” We hope to see you there as we expand this conversation around disrupting traditional organizational practice and taking risks to advance ADEI/anti-racism policies in the arts. Participation is free, but registration is required via the link below.

Marginalized Representation in Casting (Part One)

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…

AAPAC charts representing the 2016-2017 season Broadway and non-profit actors, playwrights and directors, broken out by ethnicity.

There is a robust history of excluding BIPOC actors, writers, producers, and directors from opportunities in theater, film, and dance.

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby is one of the Uncle Remus books. Uncle Remus books are a series of books written in 1881 by, Joel Chandler Harris, a white man who collected the stories of black slaves and published them as his own, to great commercial success.

There is a ROBUST history of the appropriation of BIPOC stories and cultures in theater, film, and dance.

Mickey Rooney portraying Mr. Yunioshi, a caricature of an Asian American, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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!