We've all seen it happen.
You see that the local theatre is putting on a production of "West Side Story," and you hold your breath. You know your community is anything but diverse. Everyone is the same color, generally has the same ethnicity, same religion, same interests, etc. In other words, it's just another bland area full of blah, blah, blah. Let's say, for the sake of this community, a solid 95% of the population is conservative, white, Christian, and middle-class. If this sounds like your community, then you probably live in an area very similar to where I grew up.
So, back to "West Side Story." You're holding your breath because you know that this isn't going to end well. Everyone knows it. The cast will be made up of a bunch of white actors, which for half of the cast, makes perfect sense! For the other half of the cast, the Sharks (who are supposed to be from Puerto Rico and dark-skinned), it doesn't necessarily make any sense whatsoever. But for some reason, the director of this particular production is convinced that no one will notice if they end up "brown-facing" the characters that are supposed to be played by Puerto Ricans. Or even if they don't use brown-face, they are sure no one will notice the horribly offense accents that the actors will use.
I was in a production of "West Side Story" when I was 14. It was my first community theatre production, and I was just so excited to be cast, regardless of my part. Keep in mind, I was 14, so my experience with theatre and its practices were still very slim.
I was cast as a Shark.
I was a white, Polish, German, American, Catholic, chubby 14-year-old playing a Puerto-Rican Shark named Indio.
See where I'm heading?
We had one person of color in the entire cast, and he was playing Bernardo. We had a darker skinned Italian girl playing Anita. Other than that, the entire cast was white-washed. Everyone, including myself, spoke in offensive accents. Looking back, I cannot believe that I was a part of it. Don't get me wrong--we put on a fantastic production. Every single person in the cast was so talented and our director was phenomenal.
Still, looking back, it just feels so morally wrong.
While there are so many problems with performing a show like "West Side Story" in a primarily white community, the problem in a situation like this is that the actors will no doubt attempt to perform with horribly offensive accents. Not okay. Other problems surface when white actors are cast in place of actors that should be playing the role. For example, remember when Sierra Boggess was cast as Maria in a concert version of "West Side Story"? Remember the backlash received and rightfully so? That role could have (and should have gone) to someone of proper ethnicity. Unfortunately, situations like that arise all the time and there is not always people there willing to stand up for what is right.
There are so many shows out there that have specific casting requirements that step outside of the traditional Golden Age casting requirements. Shows like "Once On This Island" and "Hamilton" allow more and more people of color to have their chance in the spotlight.
Of course, race and ethnicity are not the only problems I see with representation in the theatre community. There is a severe lack of representation with every almost minority group: plus-size people, members of the LGBT community, older age, disabilities, etc. So many of these groups are hardly ever represented on stage, and quite honestly, enough is enough.
Shows like "Bare" and "If/Then" showcase characters in the LGBT community. They give actors apart of the LGBT community the opportunity to live their truth onstage, giving their community a voice. Unfortunately, it is all too common for LGBT actors to be overlooked for these parts. Instead, heterosexual actors are cast in these roles. Not to mention, it's hard in general for LGBT actors to get book roles. For example, there is a stigma within the theatre community that "femme" men cannot play "masculine" men and they are constantly passed over for the more "masculine" roles (which, not to mention, are the majority of roles available for men in musical theatre right now).
While shows like "Hairspray" do give an opportunity to plus-sized actresses, it should be mentioned that the role of Tracy Turnblad is all but defined by what she looks like. Her size is played for laughs and while the show does promote body positivity, I long for a day where a show can be written and an actress (or actor) that is plus-sized can be cast without her or his weight having to be a specific part of the casting requirement or integral to the show's storyline.
Let me be clear: representation is not just casting the "right" people in the roles that specifically require them. It is also about giving minority actors the chance to shine in roles that have traditionally never been played by someone like them. For example, the recent casting of Nicolette Robinson as Jenna in "Waitress" is a huge step. The role, for those who may not be familiar with the show, has historically only been played by white female actors.
My high school, despite being right in the middle of red, right-wing country, managed to look past all of this. We were one of the first schools to produce the licensed version of "Mary Poppins." When the callback list came out, there were three girls called back for the role of "Mary Poppins"—two white girls and one Indian girl. While all three could have played the role, the role was given to the Indian girl. She was the best Mary Poppins that we could have ever asked for. She emulated the spirit and character of Mary Poppins in her portrayal. I did not realize it at the time, but I see now just how forward-thinking and progressive my high school was.
You may roll your eyes and call me a delicate snowflake, screw you. You're part of the problem.
You're part of the problem if you don't understand why it matters. To that young African-American girl who never feels represented watching the Tony Awards and getting to see someone like Cynthia Erivo stand on stage and accept her Tony Award, it matters.
To that young gay boy who's afraid to tell the world who he loves, watching the Tony Awards and seeing Gavin Creel accept a Tony Award and thank his boyfriend, it matters.
Gavin Creel, recipient of the 2017 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Musical, accepts his award.Broadway.com
To any minority that is either given the opportunity to portray a character that is like them onstage or the opportunity to breathe new life into a character that has traditionally not been played by someone like them, it matters.
I applaud writers for writing new, fresh material that is inclusive of all people. There are decades worth of musicals written for white, heterosexual, cisgendered actors. Start writing roles that are inclusive of all people of all shapes, sizes, sexualities, gender identities, and colors. I try, with the majority of the shows that I write, to include characters that are a part of a minority community. It is important for me to lift up their voices and give them the representation that they deserve.
I applaud directors for casting shows in a non-traditional sense and with color-blind casting in mind. It is so important to do this. Over the summer, I directed a production of "Mary Poppins Jr.", which, by the time we had narrowed down our cast from the callback list, I ended up with a bi-racial Banks family. Our Mrs. Banks and Michael were both African-American children and our Mr. Banks and Jane were white children. The four of them felt and looked like a real family through their interactions with one another, and believe it or not, no one in my right-leaning community made any such comments about it
That's my soapbox about representation in theatre. The sad thing is that I haven't even scraped the surface in terms of what the issues are with this topic. But I hope that this article manages to start some sort of dialogue. That is what's important. Starting a dialogue about these issues.
That is the only way that we can make a change.