High school musical. No, I don’t mean the hit tween Disney Channel Original Movie, I am talking about being in a musical during your high school years.
The last couple weeks I have seen multiple articles about whitewashing happening in the high school theater department I spent my younger years participating in. I’ve heard views on both sides, seen what posts on Facebook has produced. Some have been against what the students have said, commenting that their is no issue of racism present in casting.
The issue that is being talked about is, the role of Esmeralda, who is culturally known as a woman of color, was cast to a white female. Above you can read two different viewpoints of the issue at hand incorporating students, faculty and administration’s testimonies. This is not the female who was cast’s fault, this issue is not her fault. It’s the system.
As an alumna to such theater program, I find myself with opinions that I want to voice. I am white, yes, however: being part of a minority, being plus-sized, I understand where this issue roots from. I’ll break the issue at hand as we continue this discussion. Let me reiterate, I do not have the same experiences as those who face race problems, as I am white. But being judged and looked over for who you are holds similar feeling.
I’ve seen a black man portray Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” who is always portrayed as a white man. I have seen a black man portray Frank Abagnale Jr. in “Catch me if you Can,” who is, in real life, a white man. I have seen a black man portray the Pirate King in “The Pirates of Penzance,” who historically, is usually portrayed as a white man, as the term “king” is often associated with someone being white. Hell, the title character of the now 30 year long run of “The Phantom of the Opera” has been portrayed by a black man on Broadway and touring companies.
I’ve seen black women portray white characters in youth theatre: “Annie,” “Catch me if You Can,” “The Wizard of Oz.” One of the articles I read, if I recall correctly, mentions composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda discussing how kids participating in high school theatre should play the characters they want to play now before they hit the real world and are placed into a “type.” Playing the type of characters kids have always wanted to play and portray should be encouraged. Miranda encourages that for his musical, “In the Heights,” if high schools choose to pursue that.
Even though one composer and creator gave a blessing of casting whomever in his show in a high school setting doesn’t mean that is a blessing to all musicals or characters who are traditionally a person of color or different ethnicity.
Putting white people in specific roles made for black people proves the point that we don’t take black people, any person of color, or ethnicity, as seriously as we need to be.
My freshmen year musical was “Aida,” with the title role portrayed by a black woman. Would people understand the concept of racism and privilege if Aida was a white woman falling in love with a white man? Or would we be seeing just another love story?
My junior year musical was “The Wiz,” with half of the prominent principal roles, including Dorothy, being black performers. The only people called back for Dorothy were black women. Would we call a production of “The Wiz,” “The Wiz” if a white woman portrayed Dorothy, or would we call it, “The Wizard of Oz?”
We wouldn’t cast an all-white production of: “The Color Purple,” “Fences,” “Hamilton,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Miss Saigon,” “The King and I,” or “Once on this Island,” would we? It wouldn’t be the same story if we did.
There is work made for people of color and different ethnicities for a reason, because 75% of theatrical material, straight play or musical theatre, is made for white people.
Those who caught the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards might remember Sterling K. Brown earning, as the first black man ever, to win the Golden Globe for Best Performance in a Television Series – Drama. He then said revolutionary words in a revolutionary moment:
Dan Fogelman, throughout the majority of my career, I have benefited from colorblind casting, which means, ‘you know what, hey, let’s throw a brother in this role. Right? It’s always really cool.’ But Dan Fogelman, you wrote a role for a black man that could only be played by a black man. What I appreciate so much about this is that I’m being seen for who I am and being appreciated for who I am. And it makes it that much more difficult to dismiss me, or dismiss anybody who looks like me.
Dismissing black people, any person of color, or different ethnicity is harming. We feed into the notion that white people are on the top while everyone else is underneath. Roles made for people who are not white, whichever ethnicity or race the role calls for, should only be played by those people who are not white.
It’s not “casting the person who’s best for the role,” it’s casting the person who has the best talent. And I learned through my collegiate years that it’s not about who is the best, it’s about who’s right. Someone might not have a strong voice but they bring something to the role that a director wants and that person is going to get cast rather than the person who has a better voice or dance skills. That is revolutionary. Giving a chance on someone who might not otherwise get one is what makes live theatre thrilling.
And I get casting a show take a lot of time. I have sat ten hours straight one time as a stage manger watching audition after audition to then spending almost three out of those ten hours figuring out, with two directors and my one ASM at that moment, who would be called back. Then add another day of callbacks and preliminary casting, so maybe 16-18 hours total. But within those various hours, I don’t think it was hard to realize that we shouldn’t cast a role made for a person of color to someone who is not a person of color.
The woman who directed each show I was in was a white director but she never dismissed the importance of having people of color, various ethnicities portray characters meant for people who aren’t white. The casts of the productions I was cast in were based on who was right for the various roles.
When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
People have stepped down from shows because casting has been unfair.
People haven’t auditioned for shows because they’re only seen as a stereotype based on their race and skin color.
People have called out the problem to challenge the status quo and dismissed.
We can’t change the status quo if we don’t say something is wrong. When we are so used to something being a certain way, we’re scared of change. We sometimes don’t see or acknowledge the problem because it doesn’t affect us directly. That is a notion of privilege.
It’s been 10 years since my first show ever, a show that was produced by Ithaca City School District. If we want to change, we need to listen and not pass over the emotions, experiences and comments the students have. This is not going to change over night; we all know that and can agree upon that. But it’s going on for far to long to let it continue happening.
But what these students are doing, speaking up when so many have told them not to, will make sure that ten years from now, this doesn’t happen to another student who wants to audition for a role made for them. They won’t have to fear they won’t get the role made for them because of their skin color or ethnicity.
We can do better than this. We need to do better than this.