This past season on Broadway has been perhaps one of the best seasons for diversity. Between Hamilton, The Color Purple and Shuffle Along, not to mention four out of four Tony award winning performers were people of color, the face of Broadway is looking a lot less white and it is glorious. But before we celebrate, as Leslie Odom Jr. has warned us, let’s see what the next few years look like.
As it happens, we didn’t even have to wait that long before a diversity issue reared its head once again in the form of The Prince of Egypt. It should have been great news that this animated film was heading to the stage—and it makes sense, since the music is by Broadway great Stephen Schwartz. However, any excitement over the new adaptation soon gave way to outcry over the predominantly white cast.
See, the thing about Egypt is it’s an African country. Ergo, ancient Egyptians were not white, however much we like to revise their history. What should have been a good opportunity to continue Broadway’s streak of diversity has instead become yet another instance of whitewashing.
Now, to be fair, the entire cast is not white; one third of the performers are people of color. But for a story about Africans that takes place in Africa, that is in no way enough. By portraying a story like this with mostly white performers, we are taking a story that does not belong to us and making it about us. This is not what we should be striving for in our storytelling. We need to uplift voices we have failed to hear.
Some people have been saying that concerns about this casting are illegitimate; that the performers cast were simply best for their respective parts, and that furthermore, because it is okay for people who were actually white to be portrayed by people of color in Hamilton, it should be okay for white people to play people who were actually black. White people have been silencing or stealing the narratives of people of color even since biblical times. Jesus was not white. Moses was not white. But we still depict them as white. To deify and idolize in our world is to make white. We read books and picture the characters as white until proven black. In Hollywood, on TV, and yes, on Broadway, we have white actors telling “white” stories. What Hamilton teaches us is that many of the stories we cast as “white” need not be told by white people. Such stories belong to humanity, not just to white people. When non-white performers take on these stories, they put themselves into the narrative they have so long been written out of. We don’t need to take other people’s stories; what we need to do is elevate them and listen to them. There is no shortage of people of color who are capable of playing these roles. Rather, there is a shortage of roles for them to play.
In all of this, there is a glimmer of hope for The Prince of Egypt. The show is early in production and director Scott Schwartz thus far seems receptive to criticisms of the casting choices. The planned concert reading that would have featured this cast has been cancelled in light of the controversy. One way or another, when it comes to diversity on Broadway, this is a production to continue to watch for.