The Yale Dramatic Association has cast a white woman in a role traditionally been played by a black man for the organization’s flagship fall show, “Wild Party,” drawing widespread criticism from the theater community.
The role of Mr. Black, who falls for the main character Queenie at a party, will be played by Sarah Chapin ’17. Two black students were cast in the show: Nickolas Brooks ’17 as Eddie the Thug, a boxer, and Madi Cupp-Enyard ’20 as Jackie the Dancer.
About 75 people — including only nine students of color — auditioned for the show, which has 14 cast members. The Dramat, which has drawn criticism for the decisions since posting the cast list Monday, held an open conversation Thursday night, inviting students to voice their concerns.
Producer Jill Carrera ’17 said the casting decision was prompted by the low number of black actors who auditioned, but acknowledged that outreach efforts to students of color fell short.
“Ultimately it came down to our original vision for the show and the outreach that I did,” Carrera told the News after Thursday night’s meeting. “We didn’t get the people we needed to make that vision a reality, so my director went back and he re-visioned the entire show with the people we had in the room, and that was ultimately where the casting decision came from.”
Dianne Lake ’16, who attended Thursday’s forum and has acted in Dramat performances in the past, said the organization has a reputation for casting shows with white leads, and that the shows that do feature actors of color tend to be given less weight and attention. “Wild Party” could have been the group’s chance to break from that mold, she said.
“The problem has multiple prongs. It has to do with recruiting and making an effort to reach out to people of color on campus, but also has to do with selecting what plays [the Dramat] chooses and what roles are available to people of color,” Lake said. “The problem is one of systematic persistence, with the same type of plays being put on, with the same type of people being cast.”
Students interviewed noted that discrimination within the theater community reaches far beyond just the show’s casting decision and includes the Dramat’s limited outreach to students of color. Brooks said undergraduate programs to develop theater skills among communities of color would help students overcome socioeconomic barriers, which may have prevented those with raw talent from honing their skills earlier on. Playing roles like “Eddie the Thug” puts actors of color in difficult positions of portraying stereotypes about their race and gender on stage, he said.
Donald Woodson ’16, who last fall directed “Exception to the Rule,” a show produced and cast entirely by people of color, said the short casting cycle for freshmen at the beginning of the year provides an unfair advantage to students from performing arts high schools. Many students of color do not go into theater until later on in their careers, he said, and workshops would help to level the uneven playing field.
Dramat members released a statement saying that as a board and as individuals, they were grateful for the feedback from the Yale community over the past few days. The statement said the board will meet to discuss Thursday night’s conversation and determine the “next steps regarding ‘Wild Party’ and our organization as a whole.”
This week was not the first time students have voiced such concerns about the Dramat. Woodson said that the same white actors are recast repeatedly in lead roles while people of color are relegated to supporting roles as maids and servants. He added that until last semester, the Dramat had only put up one show written by a black playwright — in 1995. Woodson said the group also decided in the past to put on a show with all Latinx characters with an almost exclusively white cast.
Lake told the News that in soliciting actors for this show, the Dramat reached out to a capella groups, which tend to be predominantly white. A capella groups are among the first talent pools contacted because they have more people who have done musicals before, she said, thus creating an “insular world.”
“It’s up to not only theater-makers at Yale, but also non-theater-makers, to call the Dramat out and hold them accountable for the decisions that they make, because they really do reflect Yale as a whole,” Woodson said. “The race issues going on are symptomatic and emblematic of the issues all around campus.”
The Yale Dramatic Association was founded in 1900.