Let me begin by saying that this post represents my (Chris’s) opinion, and my opinion alone. Don’t get pissed at Michael if you think I’m an idiot.
When we go to the theater, we engage in what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the willing suspension of disbelief. As an audience, we enter into an unspoken agreement with the actors, writers, directors, and designers that basically says that, if they do their jobs well, we will accept the world that they present us as reality.
This construct can yield thrilling results. A man becomes a cat. A woman becomes a flying, perpetually adolescent boy. A boy becomes a girl dressed as a boy traipsing around the Forest of Arden.
But, can a white person become black? Or vice versa?
A recent youth production of Hairspray in Plano, Texas, has, perhaps inadvertently, caused quite a stir, by producing the show without any African American cast members. Elaine Liner took the Plano Children’s Theatre to task for the production on her blog at the Dallas Observer. Many, if not most, of the comments I’ve read seem to be in agreement: The decision to produce a musical that, at its very core, is about race relations, without accurately representing the races in question, is, at best, a demonstration of poor judgment, and, at worst, patently offensive.
As I read the headline, I must admit that I felt the same way. The more I think about it, though, the more I am convinced that it is not as simple as that. I think that this amateur production brings up an extremely interesting issue that, if you forgive a terrible pun, is far from merely black and white.
For starters, let’s keep in mind that this was not a Broadway production. It was not a professional production. It was not the premiere production and it will not become the definitive one. It was a production put on by a group of young people, most of whom, I’m assuming, are not planning on pursuing professional careers in the performing arts. Most likely, they were performing simply for the love of performing.
From what I can tell, the production staff did not exclude African Americans from the casting process, the production simply took place in Plano, where the African American population is relatively small (8%). (The article mentions the fact that several African American students were initially cast, but dropped out for various reasons – seems a bit suspicious, but I don’t know enough of the backstory to comment intelligently)
It doesn’t seem as though any changes were made to the script (the unusual casting was approved by the show’s licensing house, MTI, and the program included a disclaimer from the authors), and from the description of the performance, it doesn’t sound as though the characters were portrayed in stereotypical or offensive manners. So, what exactly are we objecting to?
Granted, we live in a world where the subject of race is extraordinarily sensitive, due to factors both historical and sadly contemporary, but it seems to me that the issue people are having here is actually counterintuitive to the argument they’re trying to make, and, in fact, contrary to the central message of Hairspray.
As I see it, this production did not significantly alter the show. Hairspray is a musical about young characters, black and white, overcoming racial barriers in the 1960’s. The key word being characters. Tracy is white. Seaweed is black. That remains true regardless of what the actors playing them look like. They are identified as such in the script and score. Shouldn’t we, as an audience, be able to see them that way?
I understand that this is potentially dangerous thinking, and would be appalled if it were ever used to exclude an actor or group of actors from participating in a production. But, isn’t the inverse even more dangerous? Isn’t the idea that people of different races are so fundamentally different that they cannot portray one another on stage a deplorable thought?
Certainly there are differences in background, culture, and experience, which may prove extremely challenging to an actor trying to play a character whose racial background differs from his or her own. But, can’t the same be said for an actor playing against ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or even physical type? To say that such a portrayal is impossible or inherently offensive is, in my opinion, narrow-minded and potentially limiting, particularly as it applies to the theatrical education of young people.
Can a school with very few Puerto Rican students not produce West Side Story? Can an African American boy not play Huckleberry Finn? Can a Catholic school not do Fiddler? Is an all-boys school limited to annual productions of Forever Plaid? Wouldn’t it be kind of cool to see an all Vietnamese production of Hairspray?
Should students miss out on the opportunity to experience powerful pieces of theatre simply because their school or community lacks the ideal racial, ethnic, or gender makeup for the show? Aren’t these homogenous populations the ones who could benefit most from interacting with works centered on acceptance?
I guess, what I’m essentially asking is this: Are we, as an audience, capable of suspending our disbelief enough to see the color of a character’s skin through the color of the actor’s?
And, if we aren’t, what do you think Tracy Turnblad would think about us?