ANALYSIS: Race in casting at Yale
The News interviewed eight directors and actors of color about their experiences with casting and outreach for undergraduate productions that center around racial identity.
When planning their productions, student theatermakers are often forced to reckon with the complex dynamics of casting — particularly when it comes to race.
The News spoke with eight theatermakers of color about their current and previous experiences with casting for roles that center around racial identity. This year’s line-up of undergraduate theater productions includes shows like “West Side Story,” “Black N Blue Boys / Broken Men,” and “21 Chump Street,” all of which handle political and racial issues — among them policing, immigration, poverty and socioeconomic mobility.
“As a director, I often work with people whose identities more closely align with the characters they are playing,” Jeffrey Steele ’24, president of Yale Drama Coalition, wrote in an email to the News. “Ultimately, who that actor is as a person and how they walk through life will always affect who they are as an actor. You have to contend with that. You picked that performer because they are bringing a valuable perspective to the table. Whatever you do, you want actors to bring that perspective and work with them to help refine the vision of the story.”
According to state and federal anti-discrimination laws, productions cannot explicitly exclude or bar actors from auditioning for roles on the basis of their race. Thus, directors who are looking to cast actors of a certain identity or face specific casting directions from the script must use language that encourages certain actors to audition.
The Dramat audition guidelines for Care and Respect require that directors “make a statement that all roles are open to all races/ethnicities unless otherwise noted in an individual character description.” When casting for people of particular races and ethnicities, directors must, per the guidelines, use the phrases “this character has xyz identity” and not “this role is open to people of xyz identity.”
Who can play who?
Emma Ventresca ’26 is the director and playwright for the original musical production “Gaucho,” which is set in 19th-century Argentina and incorporates its literary culture and history as central narrative elements. Ventresca is holding a casting call open to all actors, regardless of whether they identify as Latine.
Ventresca and her production team made the decision to maintain an entirely open casting call because it reflects the message of the show, she said. While acknowledging the “merit” behind casting actors who share the identity of their characters, Ventresca explained that Gaucho offered an opportunity to those who did not identify as Latine to learn more about Latin American culture.
“A lot of the show has to do with complex themes of class and gender in a time that was not the best for multiple different minority groups in Latin America,” Ventresca told the News. “The goal would be for the actors to be able to approach the script and the history with humility and empathy, really trying to understand the complexities of the story and asking for help when needed, as well as exploring their own identities on the stage.”
The show, according to Ventresca, is a “celebration” of both musical theater and human life, and Ventresca hopes to spread the message of “universal human dignity and truth” among the actors and the show’s audience.
On the other hand, the upcoming Yale production of “West Side Story,” which also has characters from Latine backgrounds, specifically encouraged Latine-identifying students to audition.
Emiliano Caceres Manzano ’26, the musical’s director, noted that the casting process is about more than finding the right person for the role. He said that casting is also about questioning the historical white “default.”
“A lot of the time, roles that have been cast as white, weren’t explicitly written as white. And that’s a difference,” Caceres Manzano said. “When an identity is central to the role that’s being played, then it is important to cast someone of that identity in that role.”
Caceres Manzano told the News that a person of color playing “a historically white role” is different from a white person playing “a historically person of color role.”
The reasoning, he said, comes down to the ways that all roles have “historically been open to white people.” He used West Side Story as an example, explaining that the roles in the show “weren’t even meant to be white people,” yet, historically, white people could, and did, play them.
“And so, there’s a huge historical power imbalance to the way [roles have been casted],” he told the News.
The “scarcity issue”
Five directors of color interviewed by the News described a so-called “scarcity issue” they faced when hoping to fulfill casting parameters that call for a racially representative cast. Sometimes, the directors told the News, there are not enough actors who fit the racial identities the directors seek during casting.
For Erick Lopez ’24, director of last year’s “In the Heights” production, the “scarcity” of Latine actors was a challenge that the production team had to confront. Written by Lin Manuel Miranda, the musical tells the story of a largely Dominican-American neighborhood in Washington Heights in New York City.
“[Putting on the show] was a heat of the moment decision, like, ‘Let’s just do it, and we’ll see who auditions,’” Lopez said. “We really had no way of anticipating [who would audition] because it’s the first time that we’re really hearing about Latine shows here on campus, and I didn’t realize what the issue would be with casting until later on.”
One concern the production team faced was that the cast did not reflect the specific range of racial demographics reflected in the story nor those of real-life Washington Heights. According to Lopez and Montserrat Rodriguez ’25, the show’s assistant director, the criticism focused on the lack of Black-Latine students and Caribbean-Latine students.
While Lopez and Rodriguez emphasized the validity of these concerns, they also stressed the limitations of the casting process. Specifically, Rodriguez spoke on the need for a difference in expectations placed onto student directors and Broadway professionals.
“I don’t have the same resources that an official person on Broadway has,” Rodriguez said.
“In terms of representation and criticism, I think it is a little frustrating, because I understand where the criticism comes from, but I’m also like, if this is who auditioned, this is who I have to work with. It’s either I work with what I got or I don’t put on the show.”
The severity of the scarcity issue varies from production to production. To three student directors, though, the so-called scarcity issue is not actually the result of a shortage, but rather a failure to challenge the traditional image of an actor and to expand casting calls beyond Yale’s theater circle.
Megan Ruoro ’24, director of last year’s production of “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka,” told the News that the scarcity of actors of color is a notion that she wants to “push back against.”
“I think it just goes to show that maybe the Yale theater community does feel like an intimidating, exclusionary place that historically people of a certain identity don’t feel that inclined to get involved,” Ruoro said. “I think there are so many talented people of so many different identities and backgrounds at Yale … You can find those people if you put the effort to look outside of the traditional Yale theater community.”
For “If Pretty Hurts,” Ruoro cast an actor who had never previously stepped on the theater stage but had experience in the comedy world. The production team, per Ruoro, sought out students new to Yale theater in order to make the show more accessible.
While Sam Ahn ’25, founder of the Asian American Collective of Theatermakers, agreed with Lopez that there is a real scarcity of actors, Ahn also pointed to the existence of the institutional barriers that makes it more difficult for theater newcomers to approach the stage.
“People see theater as this very time consuming, specialized activity that you need to have done for a really long time, or that you need to have some innate ability or talent to participate in,” Ahn said. “So even if we do reach out to them, there are all these doubts that they have that are very hard to overcome.”
Caceres Manzano emphasized the need to be “conscious” of the community in which the casting pool resides and its “limitations,” also noting the importance of outreach.
“I don’t know if it’s worth putting on a story if you can’t cast it properly,” he said.
The show must go on –– or must it?
In addition to divided opinions on the limitations of the casting pool, interviewed theatermakers also touched upon the difficult decision of canceling a show in the case that they could not find actors that represented the characters.
AJ Walker ’26, policy director of the Dramat and one of the producers for “West Side Story,” told the News that directors should reassess the purpose of the story and make the sometimes necessary decision of canceling productions rather than going forward.
“The most important thing that I like to keep in mind in those situations is to never place the responsibility on these communities to show up and show out,” said Walker. “In those cases, if you don’t have the cast that you need, I think it’s important that we get more comfortable canceling those shows or finding alternatives that don’t just include going forward with the show without the right cast.”
For Ahn, this dilemma over casting and other production-related complications led him to eventually cancel a show that he was directing, “Kim’s Convenience.” The initial desire to put on “Kim’s Convenience” was largely motivated, according to Ahn, by the fact that it would have been the first all-Korean production in recent Yale history.
Yet, Ahn told the News, this cancellation was for the best.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Oh, what is the underlying dramaturgy behind this Black character? Like, what exactly is going on here? It was clearly an attempt to talk about Korean-Black relations in Toronto,’” said Ahn. “Just after a lot of discussion, spurred by the casting dilemma, [we decided] that the play probably doesn’t go far enough to grapple with those relations. … Casting can lead to discussions about the greater racial dynamics that underlie a story, which can lead you in different paths that are necessary for you to take as a director or a theatermaker.”
Alongside production-related issues, Ahn stated that he was in a period of burn-out – busy with the April production of “Love Letters,” an all-Asian rendition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and leading the inaugural year of AACT.
The feeling of exhaustion, particularly the emotional labor of creating or revitalizing spaces like Teatro de Yale and AACT, was a common experience that directors detailed in interviews with the News. In addition to the labor of establishing these spaces, creatives of color also spoke on the pressure to be deemed “the Black show on campus” or “set a bad precedent” for Asian American theater, said Ruoro and Ahn, respectively.
“I think the fact that [If Pretty Hurts] explicitly called for an all-Black cast is something that’s exciting and something that we are celebrating by doing the show, especially by doing it as a Dramat production,” Ruoro said. “But I think it also does feel reducing to just focus on that, and it does feel like it overshadows all the other great things about the play and, more importantly, all the great things about the people who are involved in the show.”
However, these spaces, such as Teatro de Yale, provide needed representation in Yale theater, making the question of whether to cancel or not all the more difficult.
For Lopez, the decision to continue or cancel the production strikes a careful balance between the need for the right people but also the need for representation as a whole.
“But if we don’t tell the story, we don’t get Latinos involved with theater in the future, what’s that going to mean for us? No one’s going to be involved with this, nobody’s going to be making these stories,” he said.
Theater moving forward
Even with the challenges that accompany telling stories like these on stage, actors and directors told the News about the meaning and joy that can stem from putting on such productions.
For Lopez and his family, putting on “In The Heights” was an important and emotional experience as it put a Latine-centric story on a Yale stage.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but I would 1000 percent do it again,” Lopez said. “Seeing our stories represented and watching our families see our stories represented on the stage was really such a beautiful, beautiful thing for us. My mom still quotes things from the show, she’ll still be like, ‘Piragua!’ or she’ll still try and sing the song to it, which was so sweet to me.”
Theatre entered early in Ruoro’s life, where she was introduced to an African American theater company through a family friend and learned to perform stories specifically through the lens of the Black experience. When she arrived at Yale, however, Ruoro immediately recognized a “difference in access,” where she encountered peers who hired private coaches and had Broadway experience, she said.
Ruoro describes these experiences as those that reinforced the idea that “theater at Yale [wasn’t] really for [her].” Yet, Ruoro still has hope for Yale’s theater community as an open and accessible space, where any student can make their mark.
“I’m not completely jaded with the theater community because I’ve seen a lot of my friends and a lot of great people just putting on their own show,” Ruoro said. “‘In the Heights’ was amazing and so fun to watch. I remember Erick [Lopez] saying, ‘Yeah, I like this show. I’m not necessarily a theater person, but I’m gonna direct the show.’ And he did, and it was great.”
Ruoro told the News that, while it “can definitely feel hard to do theater here,” she has experienced many examples of students taking action “to create the space that they feel like isn’t already there for them.”
There are approximately 650 undergraduates who participate in activities under the Yale Drama Coalition each year.