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.