A few months ago I was added to a seemingly innocuous Facebook group for alums of my high school theatre program, but a brief scroll through the feed showed ample brownface and whitewashed casting. Greatest hits included questionably cast productions of Hairspray, Aida, and Once on This Island. Though my time there spanned 2010 to 2014, and the conversations around culturally conscious casting have since turned mainstream, these practices continue, not just in my previous high school, but also in colleges and on the professional stage.
What serves as an evergreen case study is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, which both my high school and college alma maters produced within a couple months of each other, both repeating the same mistake. This musical explores the strife (and joy) of immigrant roots, particularly of the Latinx experience. As a precursor to Miranda’s Hamilton, it set a precedent for expanding roles on Broadway to intentionally include people of color. In producing the musical In the Heights, educational and professional institutions alike should be saying “yes” to this intentionality. They should be affrming artists of color who haven’t had a plethora of opportunities designed with their full selves in mind, as nearly every white performer has had since time immemorial.
And yet the leading protagonist, Usnavi, is often cast with a non-Latino performer. In confidence, peers have shared with me their embarrassment about participating in this kind of whitewashing, to the extent that they no longer list these roles on their résumés. Others, however, go on to repeat the offense on professional stages, collecting a paycheck for roles that aren’t inherently written for them—in essence, eliminating already scarce opportunities for actors of color.
How do we stop such casting malpractice? One place to start is in the classroom.
Acting at the collegiate level is largely viewed as a collection of learning experiences. It’s the time to explore beyond types and expand one’s range. There’s an understanding that the skills one is learning in school are a work in progress, and versatility is the goal. But pedagogy becomes suspect when students are publicly cast in roles they have no business embodying. When students are cast outside of a race-conscious framework, they may learn that whitewashing is acceptable and may go on to perpetuate it. If we agree this practice should not continue on professional stages, why are institutions and their educators enabling it as a part of actor training?
One argument: Many such programs do not have the actors needed to cast authentically. If this is the case, then In the Heights needs to be set aside for another time. In this moment of deep reckoning with the white supremacy embedded in our country and our field, many institutions are working toward “diversifying” their seasons as a nod toward equity. But what needs to happen in parallel to these season overhauls is the intentional recruitment of BIPOC students and faculty. This process is slow and requires resources, but it will ultimately create casting pools equipped to support a wider range of narratives without perpetuating harm.
It would be disingenuous for me to put forth a definitive list of dos and don’ts of casting. The We See You, White American Theater demands around education, which call for “culturally appropriate casting of all student productions,” is an excellent place to start.
What’s tricky is how much nuance exists in the differences among race, ethnicity, culture, and identity more broadly. Even in writing this article, I’ve struggled to name this casting issue with precision, mulling over word choices like color-conscious vs. race-evasive. (On a language justice note, I refrain from using the word “blind,” as in “colorblind casting,” to evoke a deficit because it’s ableist, even apart from all the “I don’t see color” implications of that phrase.)
Regardless, educators must be ready to facilitate an explicit conversation on these issues, especially around perpetuating culturally inappropriate casting. It only contributes to a cycle of harm when educators are unwilling or unable to talk frankly and sensitively about what it means for students to be cast outside of their identity. If a student leaves an educational institution without a critical analysis of how to evaluate which roles are appropriate for them, that is the failure of the institution.
Acting educators can also work to foster this critical self-awareness in their own classroom spaces. There is obvious value in studying and exercising work that examines BIPOC experiences, but pedagogically, what do white students gain from reciting monologues of characters not intended for them? What dropped contexts are we co-signing when we may shed dialects, say, to make the work more “appropriate” for white students? Even if we approach scripts as learning tools, it is still necessary to adhere to the intentionality of the playwright and mandates outlining expectations on character-specific casting. It is a question of dramaturgy and pedagogy, a centering of script analysis and interrogation of learning goals.
Expanding the canon of plays we are teaching should also translate to season planning. Typically, when acting students invest in their education, this manifests as production opportunities. Many students go through an audition process similar to that of a professional one, and accordingly rarely have a say in how they are cast. Since there are a limited number of production slots, pushing back or even questioning casting decisions is a gamble for students anxious about the consequences. The stakes here are immense for students trying to learn their craft at the same time they are learning to navigate the world beyond the stage. Season planning must take into consideration the identities of the actors they have and work with, not against, scripts that serve these students. Otherwise, students maintain a troubling lack of power, lack of consent, and lack of alternatives.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A commitment to expanding the stories we tell and also casting them with dramaturgical rigor should be the bare minimum. In the Heights premiered in 2005, so why do we remain stuck in a loop of controversy over a production with the potential to do so much good? As institutions interrogate how they perpetuate these toxic systems and work to dismantle them, there can also be collective power in educators committing to both teach and use these scripts in the contexts for which they were written. That would constitute principled learning and baseline progress.
Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel (she/they) is a Chicago/Austin-based dramaturg, journalist, and oral historian. @YasminZacaria
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