“If it is the craft that allows me to transform into any character, then I should be honored for my craft! I can become anything through my acting!”
This ideal is so wrong and frankly, so eurocentric. It is this ideal that has allowed white performers to justify playing other racial identities in the past. It is this ideal that has allowed white supremacy to seep its way into our theatre culture and institutions in the form of entitlement. Most importantly, it is this ideal that lets theatre companies off the hook for misrepresentation in casting.
It is now starting to bug me when I see casting calls that encourage “All Persons of Color” to audition for such culturally specific shows or characters. For months now I have heard concerns from my community members regarding the way specific shows have been cast and auditioned. This has caused me to do some deep reflection and contemplative thought around my own artistry.
A while ago I found myself in the most complex and self reflective audition moment I have ever been in. I was called in to read for a role that nobody in the waiting room identified with except for exactly one actress. In casual conversation it was brought to our attention that no one really identified with said role, a few actors (with admiral integrity) chose not to read for the role. Others, myself included, continued on with the audition. For myself, I was completely caught off guard; I never thought I could be perpetuating a problem within our theatre community, but as I realize now, I was. What was the problem? It is the fact that theatre institutions still continue to uphold white standards without them even knowing.
You see, when theatre companies decide that any brown face can fulfill any role of color, they are actively erasing identities by enabling viewers to establish “whiteness” as one thing and “non-whiteness” as another. These institutions thus homogenize Native and POC experiences, basically it’s the whole “I don’t see color” argument or rather “ brown black it’s all the same right?” It is hurtful to artists who are perfectly capable and talented enough to take those roles and it is divisive when it comes to artists of color being sought out for the same opportunities.
This argument is not new. We see it all the time in Hollywood or in theatre communities not our own. It is happening as you read and as I type. I also feel that it is not entirely the fault of the artist but the art institutions. Should these institutions choose repertoire when they are unsure of if it can be cast authentically?
As an individual performer and full time artist I hope to do better. I hope to filter through my casting notices and go for roles I can to some extent, authentically play (without the fear that I will never be cast again or the FOMO of not having consistent acting work). I also hope to hold theatre institutions accountable when they season plan and hold casting calls that are non synonymous with the plays they hope to produce.
As times are changing, companies need to start realizing that identity is sacred and important. When casting specific identity roles or doing specific identity plays, a company must think about the artists who can authentically fulfill those roles or who have a right to be considered for the roles in the first place.
I’m not saying that a Nigerian actress can’t play a Liberian person in a play or that a Korean actress can’t play a Japanese person. (We all have a right to our ancestral diasporas and must recognize the internal complexities) What I am saying is that it may be counterintuitive to cast Hairspray as half white and half “everybody else” or to take such a culturally specific show like In the Heights and ask for “Anybody of Color” to audition. As I stated earlier, it just upholds whiteness and diminishes the complexities of other identities. I think it is perfectly okay to cast West Side Story half white and half LatinX and LatinX only. In this way we don’t need to “try on” sacred parts of someone’s identity.
It is supremacy that also enables an actor to think that they have the right to perform any role because they indeed are an “actor”. This sense of entitlement is similar to the entitlement found in colonialism. To think one has the right to something simply because they feel they are “better”or “trained”.
This problem in our community brings to light what is needed in order to advance our theatrical practices and uphold integrity; that is new plays that reflect our current society; playwrights of color who write for their specific communities and the willingness of theatre companies to understand how they uphold supremacy and to actively discover ways they can go against the theatre status quo. My dream for this community is that artists of color aren’t competing for all the brown roles and that theatre companies start to realize the importance of authenticity in casting. Maybe even assessing their artist community before they choose what shows to produce. Our companies should serve us better, and we as artists should not be afraid to let them know when they are failing us.