2015 will be known as the year that echoes in a newfound tradition for diversity on Broadway. We have reached a turning point where we are no longer surprised at non-traditional casting and where more minority artists (and creatives) than ever before are taking to the stage in new musicals and plays. Yes, there is still some confusion as to the rules of this new propriety, and yet, diversity has found an embrace where it is celebrated and honored, and we are all the better for it.
The Game Changing Faces of Diversity on Broadway:
The 2015 Tony Award winning Best Musical category went to Fun Home, with the first lesbian protagonist in a Broadway musical, and the story of Alison Bechdel coming to terms with the loss of her gay father and the mysteries that surrounded his life.
While they were at it Fun Home swept up a total of 5 Tony awards including Best Original Score, awarded to Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, the first woman writing duo to nab the award.
Norm Lewis ended his run in Phantom as the first ever African-American to play the leading role adding to the ever growing case for non-traditional casting thanks to his much lauded performance.
NBC celebrated 11.5 million viewers for its all-black cast of the Wiz starring Uzo Aduba and Shanice Williams. There were many that called the production out for being racist without knowledge of the original production and the part it has played in the longevity of the non-traditional casting debate when it was created as an answer to the all white production of the Wizard of Oz; a thoroughly American story that should belong to all demographics of America. Read more on the controversy here.
George Takei takes to the Broadway stage for the first time with a musical based on his own experiences as a Japanese American in the internment camps of the 1940’s with co-stars Lea Salonga and Telly Leung. Allegiance joins the Tony Winning revival of The King and I giving Asian-Americans yet another home on Broadway, but this time one where they are to be seen and celebrated as Americans.
Last, but not least, Broadway saw its first ever African-American George Washington and founding fathers with the Broadway transfer of Hamilton to the Richard Rodgers theater, written by Lin Manuel Miranda. We’ll need a separate post to talk about just how significant this musical is for the future of Broadway.
Where We Went Wrong:
There still seems to be a lot of confusion around color-blind casting in American theater. Non-traditional casting is simply casting a role without the consideration of a performer’s ethnicity. The rules of color-blind casting however, not so clear.
We don’t always get it right! The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players erred with public outcry and had to cancel their winter performances of the 1885 comic opera The Mikado after releasing press images that showed white actors appearing in yellow face. With the help of social media #sayNOtoMikado became the cry of the Asian theater community creating a very embarrassing situation for the NY G&S Players. Although expressing by press release that it was their intention to stage the Mikado ‘without caricaturing [Japanese culture] in any demeaning or stereotypical way’ the show was quickly called off and replaced with the less controversial Pirates of Penzance. Read more about the social media retaliation.
It is easy to understand why yellow face is offensive in 2015. It is the practice of embracing, unapologetically, ethnic stereotypes on the stage. It wasn’t so clear however why Actors Equity and the theater community stepped into a discussion in February when the National Asian Arts Project wanted to stage Showboat using the talent of their company. This production was also cancelled due to public outcry, however the reasoning is a little vague. While obviously a delicate discussion, there needs to be ‘safe spaces’ in the theater community where works like this national treasure are allowed to be reinvented and given new perspective.
We’ve recently been reminded by Allegiance of how Asian-American families alike have suffered as victims of racial discrimination, to say those experiences depicted in the fable Showboat are beyond the understanding or interpretation of an Asian theater company in 2015 is wanting logic. We may not be ready for it right now, but as Broadway continues to reinvent itself this will always be part of the conversation: the purpose of theater is how it can relate the shared experience of humanity to any audience, and when achieved with class and when used to dignify a community should be a safe place to celebrate the diversity of America. Read some more of the argument here.
While headlines like this 1994 piece, ‘Correctness and Carousel‘, on Audra McDonald’s groundbreaking appearance in a certain R&H musical are become more a thing of the past there is still a need for Actor’s Equity to develop sensible guidelines for the purposes of color-blind casting and the reworking of historic musicals. Where is the line between creating new opportunities for minority performers, preserving the integrity and purposes of the Broadway musical, and in creating new experiences relevant to audiences of 2015?
How Do We Talk About This?
The founder and CEO of Broadway for All Osh Ghanimah spoke this year at Tedx Broadway 2015 on what he is coining ‘his Tevye moment’. He speaks to the life changing opportunity he received as a young student to play Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. While almost unfathomable that an openly Muslim student might be cast to play the lead in this very Jewish musical, the depth of understanding and respect that Osh now possesses for his community and our youngest generation as a direct result of color-blind casting is now helping make the world a better place. In overcoming a racial divide, this theater teacher helped this one person set aside their differences and embrace this, America, united. In light of recent global events, where theater has the power to create equals rather than enemies it will always have my support.
In the capable hands of Osh Ghanimah I will leave you.
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