Following campus criticism over the casting of a white woman as Mr. Black, a character traditionally played by a black man, in its fall mainstage “Wild Party,” the Yale Dramatic Association Board on Monday held new auditions for the role.
In the wake of the outcry that followed the organization’s Sept. 5 announcement that the role of Mr. Black was to be played by Sarah Chapin ’17 — even though nine people of color auditioned for the production — the Dramat, Yale’s largest undergraduate theater company, decided to recast the role. Production staff also held open auditions Monday for the roles of Madelaine and Oscar, whose original actors chose to leave the production as a result of the controversy. Auditions for Mr. Black were only open to black performers, and results will be announced Tuesday.
The two black students who were cast after the initial auditions remain involved with the show: Nickolas Brooks ’17 as Eddie the Thug and Madi Cupp-Enyard ’20 as Jackie the Dancer.
“For much of its history, the Dramat has provided too few dynamic roles for people of color on stage. Thus, this missed opportunity for a black actor to take on an exciting and challenging role was felt all the more deeply,” the Dramat Board said in a statement published on its website Friday. “We recognize the pain that this situation has caused and that this new decision may come too late for some and may hurt others. Still, we hope that reopening auditions will give the Yale community another opportunity to bring new and varied voices to the stage.”
The recasting decision comes after an open conversation held Sept. 8, when members of the Yale community were invited to provide their input on Chapin’s casting. Undergraduates present at the meeting, which drew about a dozen attendees, brought up concerns regarding the organization’s reputation for casting the same white leads in multiple shows, giving students of color fewer and fewer opportunities. Others also noted the show’s limited initial outreach efforts to students of color; they made up less than an eighth of the initial hopefuls for the production.
“Wild Party” Producer Jill Carrera ’17 said the decision to recast Mr. Black was prompted by feedback both from the theater community and Yale College at large. She added that the decision to hold auditions again was made by the Dramat Board after internal discussion as well as deliberation with the production team.
Critics of the Dramat’s original decision said recasting was the right choice but does not resolve the organization’s longstanding problems with racial diversity. Donald Woodson ’16, who last fall directed “Exception to the Rule,” a show produced and cast entirely by people of color, said simply changing one role in a single mainstage production is not enough. The larger systemic issue is minority communities’ lack of trust in the Dramat because of its history of exclusivity and problematic shows, he said.
Woodson also noted that the Dramat’s statement points to its two fall experimental productions — “Architecture of Rain,” by Stefani Kuo ’17, and “The Colored Museum,” by George Wolfe — as examples of works the group is putting on by people of color, which he said makes it seem that as long as a quota is reached each semester, the mainstage can still exclude those voices.
“I’m happy that [the Dramat] listened to feedback from the Yale community, but I’m not confident that this will lead to any permanent changes,” Woodson said. “The pattern repeats over and over again, with platitudes and empty promises about diversity, and I’m tired of hearing the same line about how they are committed to diversity and inclusion only to cast the same white leads in shows over and over again.”
Carrera said she agrees that recasting a single role is not enough to tackle the issue of racial representation in theater, but said it is a move in the right direction. People of color should not be limited to only playing their stories or races on stage, she said, but getting on stage first is an important initial step. She said the Dramat is also considering hosting workshops in the future in order to provide support for students who may not have had opportunities to perform in theater before college.
Hannah Worscheh ’17 said the organization’s spring mainstage, “We Are Proud to Present,” by Jackie Sibblies Drury, directly addresses issues of race and representation. The Dramat is also coordinating an event with an organization outside of Yale to address issues of representation on an industry-wide level, she said.
The Dramat is looking to have discussions surrounding diversity and outreach not just when problems arise, Carrera said.
“We also know that the circumstances surrounding casting represent a much larger problem, extending beyond this particular production and the Dramat as an organization,” the Dramat statement said. “There are serious, systemic challenges to meaningful progress toward diversity and inclusion.”
In its 116-year history, the Dramat has put on two shows by black playwrights: one in spring 2016, and one in 1995.