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Stories that acknowledge societal implications of race are more relevant and advance our cultural narrative
Artistic expression and global culture go hand in hand, each forever influencing the other and continuously evolving. Stories like Lin Manuel Miranda’s "Hamilton" represent the current United States’ atmosphere more fully and empathetically than narratives which choose to ignore social undercurrents. Without dealing with what is, there is no foundation on which our culture may grow to properly hold the people in it.
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Change is often tumultuous, but according to playwright David Henry Hwang, this is the only way society can ensure its survival. Adaptation, as difficult as it may be to come to a fundamental agreement, “represents a society that is attempting to come to grips and move forward into uncharted territory.” This, says Hwang, is a population which is unafraid of acknowledging its mistakes in order to lift each other up. Lee Anne Bell, author of the 2010 book “Storytelling for Social Justice,” believes stories are humans’ “analytic tools with which we can unpack and dismantle racism.” She explains that “stock stories” are the narratives upheld by society and passed down through generations which hold us back; they enforce racism simply by refusing to acknowledge its existence. Stories, it seems, or the lack thereof, have the power to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Particularly in the case of the United States, color-conscious casting has the unique ability to tell stories that are most relevant to the population. Lin Manuel Miranda’s "Hamilton" took a story of the country’s founding fathers, which history textbooks know well, and paired it with the struggle of both present day immigrants and people of color fighting for their rights in the United States. The result is a story that is at the very least relevant if not representative of the nuanced United States. Perhaps most importantly, "Hamilton" goes so far as to declare that these two stories melded into one cannot really exist without the other, as both the founding of the nation and the (debatable) concept that the U.S. is a land of immigrants, reverberate through the years. Color-conscious casting, rather than color-blind casting, allowed Miranda to deeply consider the symbolism intertwined with each body onstage, each word spoken, each fist in the air. "Hamilton" is a smashing success because it is well-constructed, but it is also a leap into narrative honesty. The artistic director of the theater company East West Players, Snehal Desai, notes that he expects our stories to drastically transform about two or three generations from now, because the United States’ population will be more “racially mixed” and quite literally look different. We will need different kinds of narratives and he hopes we will be ready to tell these stories when the time comes. When actor Omari Newton saw a Broadway revival of “All My Sons” which incorporated an unexplained interracial marriage in a production meant to take place in 1940’s Ohio, he felt both unconvinced and slighted. This production, he explains, is not doing the necessary work to deal with racism in the states that was surely even more blatant in the 40’s; rather, the show asks the audience to erase their memories and awareness of what is and imagine a fantasy United States where racial violence never existed. Newton worries this kind of erasure is exactly what white people are looking for, because they are uncomfortable reckoning with their own hand in racism. Color-conscious casting is refreshing because it is honest. Our culture cannot move forward without telling stories that do the work to have difficult conversations, which according to Hwang, empower us all with a distinct understanding of our own world and equip us with the tools to keep leaping towards a better future.
Color-conscious casting of a pre-existing text will inevitably change its meaning; in fact, that is the whole point. Some believe that a text’s original story should not be easily compromised, because it could lead to stereotyping or the spread of false information. In 2017, playwright Edward Albee’s estate denied director Michael Streeter the ability to cast a black actor in the role of Nick in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In many cases, playwrights still hold the right to “artistic approval,” granting them the ability to chime in on casting choices if they believe the decision will compromise the intentions of their writing. Streeter was outraged and cancelled the production, believing the black actor he’d intended to cast was right for the role. Streeter’s solidarity with his actors was widely celebrated and performers and reporters alike called for Albee’s estate to adapt to the times and recognize the need for relevant and nuanced work. Streeter did explain that he understands Albee’s estate has the right to step in, and in theory, “artistic approval” is supposed to protect marginalized artists whose work is frequently white-washed. There is debate over what qualifies as color-conscious casting, rather than color-blind. According to Edward Albee’s estate, Streeter’s casting was well-intentioned but is arguably not color-conscious (although he was not given a real chance to work with the actors and material at hand to prove he had put thought into the choice.) The character of Nick is written as a blonde-haired blue-eyed man, the estate says, and the script acknowledges his “Aryan” appearance as pertinent to the arc of the role. They also note that an interracial marriage would be a topic of serious discussion in the 1960’s and while that story is possible, the script does not provide the space to properly deal with this kind of material. The problem with this argument, Streeter says, is that actors of color have historically been barred from massive roles like Nick. He worries actors will only be hired to play stereotypical roles if they are not allowed to play these famous American characters just because the story changes. While the Albee estate might argue that Streeter’s casting would have been color-blind rather than color-conscious, The Guardian explains that casting choices are far more nuanced. Actor of color David Oyelowo who plays a police chief in BBC’s Les Misérables, a character who would not have been black at the time, chose the role because it was hearty, exciting, and did not push forward racial stereotypes. His presence in this role prioritizes complex and important story over historical accuracy and Oyelowo takes care to choose roles that will challenge the audience to see the world from another perspective and give him the opportunity to engage with roles he would have been historically barred from both onstage and in practice. While color-conscious casting is important, it is imperative not to place the burden of representing an entire community on a single actor.
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