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Playwrights on Their Plays

By Aashna Aggarwal

What is the difference between color-blind and color-conscious casting? Though both concepts allow for more diversity on stage, the distinction between them is an important one to make. In using color-blind casting, a director selects an actor for a role, regardless of the actor’s race and ethnicity in relation to the role as written by the playwright. Color-blind casting sees no boundaries.

Let’s consider The Mountaintop by Katori Hall. The protagonist in this show is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A production at Kent State University in Ohio cast a white actor in the role of MLK. The director claimed that it was an exploration of character rather than race in order to deepen the teachings of MLK. Although the director’s intentions were good, we believe that this choice actually detracts from the power of seeing a black man tell a story of black struggle. The playwright openly opposed the choice, claiming that it diminished the role of an entire community behind the civil rights movement. We propose that this is where a choice must be made between color-blind and color-conscious casting. When a play’s subject matter is so deeply tied to ethnicity, we must be aware of the ethnic identity in question.

Another problem arises, however: with actors of color still significantly underrepresented on stages across the world, how can we close the employment gap and still respect both the playwright’s intended vision and the perspectives of our nation’s myriad of cultural identities? Color-conscious casting may be the best answer to this dilemma. Unlike color-blind casting, color-conscious casting takes the race of performers into account when planning a production. This is not to say that parts that have been traditionally played by white actors must continue to be so cast; in fact, it means just the opposite. In color-conscious casting, race is not ignored, but rather embraced; an actor’s race and ethnic background contribute to his or her unique portrayal of a role, and the production benefits from the inclusion of a perspective not traditionally represented onstage.

Take, for instance, the Broadway hip-hop musical Hamilton, the story of white founding father Alexander Hamilton and his white contemporaries, performed almost entirely by actors of color. Lin Manuel-Miranda, the show’s creator and star, emphasizes that his musical is “the story of America then told by America now.” Here, the race of the performers and their cultural musical traditions are integral to the show’s concept. Color-conscious casting seeks to promote and increase the opportunities for performers of color by acknowledging and appreciating the role that race and ethnicity play in an actor’s interpretation and presentation of a role, and understanding that inclusion of different points of view can only enrich the experience of the play for the cast, crew and audience.

It is no easy task to balance the playwright’s vision, the perspectives of the nation and the potential effects of color-blind casting, but that is precisely why it is so important. We endorse color-conscious casting because it centers on the awareness of race and not ignorance. What is the effect of a casting choice on the audience, the content of the play and the playwright’s vision? The more conscious one can be in casting, the more progress we can make toward encouraging the creation of plays with racially flexible characters, which provides greater and fairer acting opportunities. Color-blind casting does not cut it, especially on the collegiate level. Many of the problems directors face in casting with respect to race can be solved by hand-picking shows that are, by nature, more diverse, fluid and flexible in terms of racial representation.

Furthermore, casting consciousness is not solely limited to race; it also includes gender, sexual orientation, age and other such identifiers. While it is important to take all aspects of an actor’s identity into account, we cannot forget that stepping into a theater goes hand in hand with suspending one’s disbelief. Within the College’s theatre department, we strive to engage in critical discussions surrounding race, ethnicity and related issues. Just two years ago, the faculty gave a talk on how race plays into their casting choices. The very fact that this conversation took place is a sign that things are changing, even if the solution is not yet in sight.

1 Comment

One Response to “Playwrights on Their Plays”

  1. Dana Yeaton on March 17th, 2016 12:46 pm

    Want to discuss this further? Come to Coltrane Lounge this Sunday (3/20) at 6:30 for “Casting in the Post-Hamilton Moment,” a Q&A with Dan Pruksarnukul ’05. Dan’s a former casting director at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, where he was active in the movement for inclusivity in casting.