On Color Blindness

The cast of the national tour of Hairspray

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?

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2 Responses to On Color Blindness

  1. Julia says:

    Theoretically, I’m inclined to agree with your points. There are very few school, community, or even semi-professional theater groups with the demographic makeup to allow for casting actors that align exactly with their character’s race, gender, geographic origins, physical appearance, age, background, etc etc. Such casting may not be necessary, if we consider that one can act experiences they’ve never been in and portray emotions they’ve never had, and wear wigs and padding and prostheses and costumes and makeup and generally suspend disbelief. I’ve been cast in roles technically written for a black teenage girl, white teenage girl, middle aged white females, and a middle aged white male, but never a young Asian female, dancing on a pole or not, so I have “color-blind” casting flexibility to thank for even getting to be on stage. Add to this the fact that color and race terms can be ambiguous, especially in the world of tanning salons and multiracial actors, and the reaction may be to just let out a universal “meh”.

    But it’s not so simple. While casting against type may not be inherently offensive, it is a one way street.

    On the supply side, there will always be more white actors auditioning for a role than non-white unless the call is extremely strict. From there, it’s a short slide from “we didn’t have any xyzs audition” to “none of the xyzs were of the right vocal part/age/physical appearance/personality so they’re in the chorus and the leads are abcs” to “there was one xyz who was appropriate for the part but I cast my abc friend” to “there are a lot of xyzs who are appropriate but I’m more comfortable working with abcs”. And a short distance from “the ensemble members can be white because we need more actors” to “Marcy Park can be white, her race isn’t a major plot point” to “Anita can be white, you can’t really tell from the stage anyway”. There is a serious possibility that shows would rationalize casting only white actors because there are fewer non-white actors overall, fewer who are locally available, and even fewer who would be right for a particular role. The reverse would never be true. So while color-blind casting may be a necessary evil of some situations, it shouldn’t be the easy default it too often is. Let’s face it- that audience was seriously confused as to why white-looking characters only got to dance on Negro Day.

    On the demand side, there are simply fewer roles for non-whites, both in terms of number and as compared to percent of population. And while color-blind casting very often swings in the direction of casting whites in ethnic roles, it very very rarely results in casting non-whites in white roles (unless there is an overarching “non-traditional” premise as in the Blair Underwood-led Streetcar, and even those are the exception). A casting director would most likely look at the pool of actors and choose to cast from the 95% who match the character’s race. Some have a hard enough time seeing past the physical to cast a zaftig actor as a romantic lead, never mind seeing past skin color. Or they make the argument that it’s historically inaccurate for a character in an 19th century classic to be anything but white, or for white parents to have a black child (which is the same as arguing that it’s factually inaccurate for a black student fighting segregation in the 1960s to be, well, white). So the numerical reality drives white-as-non-white casting and stymies the reverse, and non-whites effectively lose even more opportunities. Since they never get cast, they don’t join the theater groups, and then the theater groups choose to either not do shows with ethnic characters, or to rationalize color-blind casting, and we’re back to the top of the vicious circle.

    Of course, a lot of this has to do with playwrights writing what they know and producers producing what they like etc, with that being mostly the white experience. The theater industry as a whole is blindingly unpigmented. But it’s hard to encourage young actors and writers into the scene when there are no roles for them to identify with or to expect to be cast in. And while a white actor might get cast as a non-white due to being “the best able to perform the role”, a non-white is never found to be “the best able to perform” a white role by sole virtue of their skin color, which is a bizarre double standard.

    And this is all just predicated on the looks of certain races- arguing that cultural experience and awareness is just as important, if not more, than skin color is a whole ‘nother treatise.

    Caveat: I winced anytime I typed “white” or “non-white” above, as that’s overgeneralizing. I’m annoyed too when blacks and Latinos are considered as interchangeably ethnic, or when a size 4 is cast as Tracy Turnblad, and at the arbitrariness of defining skin tone gradations. And I would at the very least raise an eyebrow at casting an Asian actor as Anna Leonowens or Nellie Forbush (outside of international or specifically non-traditional productions). But the most common situation, and thus the only one that’s really relevant, is the casting of white actors as characters written as having a different skin tone.

  2. renae says:

    I really appreciate both of these essays on colorblind casting and it’s effects. I relate to Chris’ thoughts, and the hard questions raised by the issue in such a venue as this TX school production. I feel disheartened by the fact that the 8 African Americans that were cast dropped out, and I have to wonder why they did. Theatre can teach and heal so much. One thought that occurs to me, about the white kids taking on the African American roles, is that – if indeed – they could not people those roles with “non-whites”, there can be immeasurable good that comes from these kids putting themselves into the shoes of an African American, and doing the actor work of trying to understand the mindset and feelings of their character at such an important time in history! This is learning that you can’t get in the classroom! In keeping with Chris’ view, I would never prefer to put a white person in the (too rarely occurring) role of another race, but I also wouldn’t want to deny such schools the opportunity to delve into such enriching pieces of theatre because of the color of the students’ skin.

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