Controversies surrounding the Yale Dramatic Association’s initial cast list for its fall mainstage have launched the undergraduate organization into a broader discussion surrounding diversity in theater, a problem experts across the country say continues to plague the industry.
The Yale Dramatic Association recast Andrew Lippa’s “Wild Party” this week after drawing criticism for casting Sarah Chapin ’17, a white woman, in the role of Mr. Black, which is traditionally played by a black man.
The Dramat announced Tuesday that Kenyon Duncan ’18, a person of color, would fill the role of Mr. Black, replacing Chapin. Delilah Napier ’19 and David Townley ’20 were cast as the characters Madelaine and Oscar, after the roles’ original actors left due to the controversy surrounding the musical. The Dramat held a second round of auditions only open to black students on Monday evening.
The developments have sparked conversations on campus about the practice of colorblind casting — casting a role without considering the actor’s ethnicity. The strategy was originally introduced in order to provide more opportunities for performers of color, but members of theater communities nationwide say white actors are now increasingly taking roles traditionally played by people of color.
“The idea of the actor as a blank slate is still limited too often to white actors who are overwhelmingly cast and paid to play a wide range of roles from which actors of color are precluded by virtue of their specificity,” said Jennifer Brody, Stanford professor and department chair of the school’s theater & performance studies. “We need to pay attention to the larger politics of production and, when appropriate, move away from mimetic realism as exemplified by the cross casting in ‘Hamilton.’”
Mina Morita, artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater — a San Francisco theater company — said colorblind casting is problematic for many reasons, including the fact that people of color do not have enough representation in theatre, as well as the tendency to cast them in roles related to specific stereotypes. People of color in theatre are not yet well-established enough in theater, she said, and colorblind casting takes the opportunity away from a person who has that specific background or ethnicity.
Beyond Yale, other institutions of higher learning have encountered similar situations as well. Last November, Clarion University canceled its production of Lloyd Suh’s “Jesus in India” after the playwright found out that white students were cast in roles written for Indian actors. Similarly, Kent State University drew criticism for its regional premiere of “The Mountaintop” last September in which it cast a white actor as Martin Luther King Jr.
“If I’ve learned anything during my time as a playwright, it’s that when you’re dealing with the color line, it’s easier to make white characters black than it is to make black characters white,” “The Mountaintop” Director Michael Oatman said. “You can get away with the color line one way, but if you go the other way it can be very difficult because there is such a history of exclusion and you are taking away opportunities from people of color.”
Oatman, who is a person of color, said he originally planned to double-cast the role of Martin Luther King Jr., with both a white and a black actor, with the black actor to be involved in more of the performances. He noted this was to experiment with the notion of an actor’s race not affecting the character’s portrayal, though due to personal circumstances the black actor cast ultimately dropped out of the play.
“The Mountaintop” was not Oatman’s first experience casting actors as characters of different races. Oatman said that he also cast black actors in white roles when he adapted “Romeo and Juliet” to be set in Africa, or when he had an all-black cast for Neil Simon’s “Jake’s Women,” which is about marital struggles. It is not socially acceptable for a white performer who grew up during the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. to portray him in a play, he said, whereas it is perfectly fine for a black actor who grew up in the U.S. to portray a white American.
“The only thing I can do is be honest, open and not malicious,” Oatman said. “I don’t always know the endpoint going in, and I’m as interested as anyone in seeing what the answer is to the question I’m posing as an artist.”
Charles Musser, Yale professor of American studies, film and media studies and theater studies, said he believes that the casting process can never truly be colorblind as each decision in casting a specific actor is deliberate. He added that when creating a cast, a role can never be considered alone and has to be determined against the rest of the ensemble, posing limitations based on the pool of people who audition. Beyond issues of race, Brody said an actor’s ethnicity or gender tells very little about the other factors that may influence their interpretation of a role, including sexuality, style, size, skill, age, ability and class.
The number of black actors auditioning for nonwhite roles is also an important factor during the casting process. Morita, who previously was the artistic associate at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, said that students come from different backgrounds and may not have had the resources or financial support to hone their acting skills before college, precluding them from certain audition opportunities. Production leadership also needs to be considered, she said, as does whether there are people of color in head positions who can balance the tendency to cast white actors with conscious efforts to recruit more from those minority communities.
“It is not just about the craft, it is about the types of community support that are present so communities of color feel empowered to push against the status quo,” Morita said. “We’re pushing against something that has been in place for many years and it takes courage to bring it down.”