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ACTING IS ACTING (except when it is perpetuating systemic prejudice)

July 31, 2016

 

Brown is brown is tan is black hair dye, yes?  We’re all just playing roles, it’s all costume, it’s just pretend, it’s theater, after all. 

 

Hollywood, Broadway, regional theater, gate keepers with a ton of resources as well as the actors who audition and work for them have been operating under the following casting practices:

 

1.       Hire the “best” person for the job.

2.       If they can pass as this ethnicity, costumes and design will support it.

3.       It’s illegal to ask a person’s ethnicity, anyway.

4.       If we hold general auditions and people don't show up it's not our fault.

 

For those of you who might have been away from social media for the last week/month/decade,  Porchlight Theatre Company recently made a statement regarding their upcoming production of In the Heights that “after an exhaustive audition process” they “made every effort to present a company that reflects the true spirit of this story of community and family as we build an immersive, one-of-a-kind experience that will place our audiences right in the middle of all the excitement, and the music found in the barrio of Washington Heights.”

 

Unbeknownst to the artistic team, they cast an white actor in the role originated by the show’s composer and star, Lin Manuel Miranda.    

 

This, on the heels of Porchlight’s much applauded production of Dreamgirls, on the heels of Marriott Theatre’s major controversy surrounding the white washing of Evita , just 4 months before.  Opportunities don’t just get taken away from Latinx artists, as the Asian American theater community pointed out with La Jolla’s 2012 production of The Nightingale set in Qing Dynasty China.  Not to mention the many examples of actors portraying non-binary or trans characters and characters with disability, occurring constantly, resulting in Oscar bait.  This is sadly not the first time this happened, so let's zoom out a little...

 

WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING?

 

Reason #1: HISTORY -- This is just what's always been done.  Producers, directors and casting people have defaulted to casting white actors, even when the story calls for non-white actors.  Mainstream audiences accept it, the projects make money, and people get away with it.  

 

Japanese? Vietnamese? Native American? Mexican? Chilean? Nope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reason #2: PEOPLE CONFUSE "SKIN COLOR" WITH "ETHNICITY." -- I don't know if you are aware, but there are many different ways a person can look within each culture.  Not every Indian man looks like Dev Patel, not every black woman looks like Viola Davis, not every Mexican man looks like  Gael Garcia Bernal.  The fact that people are saying "but his skin tone made it look like he was Latino," reflects a major part of this problem.  

 

Reason #3: NO ONE IS TAKING RESPONSIBILITY -- The directors point to the actors for submitting themselves for roles outside their ethnicity, the actors point to the theaters for allowing them to audition in the first place and everyone points to certain rules -- namely that Actors' Equity requires auditions be open to anyone, regardless of race or ability.  So this is a cycle that will continue unless new language and new practices are created.  But everyone needs to own the part they play in perpetuating this.

 

Reason #4:  THE MONEY THOUGH. -- Look, I get it.  Actors want the work.  If you are a classically trained actor in a very large city full of lots of people and you want that job and you've passed for this ethnicity before, etc, etc,etc..."It's called acting," after all.  I don't have the energy or magical powers to convince every person on earth to agree with what I think is right and wrong.  But when you were preparing that monologue, heavy with culturally specific dialogue, was there a moment where you got a small stomach ache? A flicker of doubt that this wasn't your story to tell?  An ounce of guilt that maybe you were taking an opportunity away from someone rarely invited into audition rooms to begin with?  There are other jobs.  Listen to your gut.  Lauren Villegas explores this very thing on her website, Am I Right?

 

There are actually probably one hundred more reasons why this keeps happening, but my head will explode if I try to explore each and everyone one of those.  So back to those casting practices and what we can do about it.  

 

 

1.       Hire the “best” person for the job.

          Remember, whether we admit it or not, it is very easy to fall back into "default casting" because a theater might be used to working with white actors who directors might know better than "the unknown."  Remember that the idea of "best" is subjective, so to actually have members of the community that your show is celebrating (not just pandering to, but celebrating, lifting up, reflecting) in your artistic team - directors, casting associates, choreographers, people who have an actual say in making a decision is in your productions' best interest.  Then that "best" will reflect a much more "authentic" and rich chorus of voices.  

 

 

2.       If they can pass as this ethnicity, costumes and design will support it.

          Nope.  Just because people in the past have "gotten away with it," does not mean you have a right to hijack an entire community's story, their roles, their voices.  As Tommy Rivera-Vega, a well respected theater actor put it in his incredible statement on Facebook, "Being Latinx is not just putting on an accent, getting a cool haircut, the prominent beard, lot of hair, shuffling your feet so it looks like you can salsa. It is about who we are as people. It is about growing up and trying to understand the reason why we have to work harder than everyone else." You know what would be better than dying that Caucasian actress's hair black? Actually casting a person of Lebanese descent in that lead role about a woman from Lebanon. There is actually no reason or excuse to participate in Blackface, Yellowface, Brownface, etc. 

 

3.       It’s illegal to ask a person’s ethnicity, anyway  and 4.  If we hold general auditions and people don't show up it's not our fault. 

          OK. Here's what's not illegal:

          - Going to see some shows outside your neighborhood.  There's lots of talent out there.  Go find it yourself.  

          - Contacting the Chicago Minority Actor Database, which is a self identification database put together to help minority actors connect with Chicagoland theatres.  It's not a definitive list, but it is a very good start.  Email chicagoaoc@gmail.com with a breakdown of what you're looking for and they'll send a filtered reply of those who have opted in to that identity.

          - Not just doing generals, but holding specific auditions for certain roles and shows: Don't know all the Latinx actors in the city?  Start with the ones you do know, call them in first, make room for them first, then you can proceed with...

          - Asking around.  Ask people - leaders, teachers, designers in that community. Start this process early enough that you have enough time to be thorough in your asking -- "Who am I missing from this list? Who should I know about?

          - Looking at the actors' resume.  I'm not just talking about staring at their headshot and their last name.  I'm not just talking about peeking at their special skills section to see if they have a Chinese dialect.  I mean actually look at their resume.  Did they have a teacher they worked with in college who you are friends with?  Did they work with a playwright you know?  It's not only okay to do research. It's actually pretty standard practice for hiring.  You would check references, right?  This isn't any different.  

 

There are so many people, so many communities that are made invisible by not being given opportunities to be onstage.  Not only do these minorities not get to be seen in non-specific ethnic roles, they don't even get to represent the culture they actually represent.  I really hoped we were past this.  That we could put on a production for and about a community rarely represented in a positive light with a cast that reflects that.  But production after production, blog post after townhall meeting after disappointing Facebook thread have proven we aren't past this yet.  Stop trying to get away with things. Do better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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