disclaimer this piece only reflects my opinions and opinions of those willing to share them.
I’ve wanted to write a piece on this for quite a while, but as a sensitive social and political topic, I’ve found myself putting it off. However, now I’m finally diving straight into the deep-end with it. I hope you respect my views and opinions, feel free to share your own opinions, and agree or disagree with me either in the comments or get in touch if you wish to.
Should it matter what race an actor is when playing a character?
In a word: no.
Audiences should not be focused on the race of the actor or character, and instead be focusing on the story. Actors are called actors for a reason – they pretend to be something they’re not, so while also being someone else, why should it matter what race they are?
Theatre is a medium in which we suspend our disbelief for a few hours. We are all very aware that we aren’t in 1950s Memphis, Saigon in the Vietnam war or The Emerald City, so I’m sure we can suspend our disbelief into believing that Eponine is not white, for example. Can’t we?
This is best summed up by a gentleman who shared his opinions with me here:
Leading on from what this contributor shared, the only thing I will say is that casting according to race should be undertaken when the race of the character is integral to the story. For example, the stories of both Hairspray and Memphis are both centred around race and racism between white and black people in America. Characters in the show are divided in the story because of their race, and for this reason, the skin colour of the actor should reflect this. Not only because it tells the story but also helps the audience understand what is going on from a first look. Even when characters are in the ensemble, the audience needs to understand why characters are in certain situations or being treated a certain way. In Miss Saigon, for example, during the “helicopter scene”, some people get on the helicopter and some don’t. There is little speech in this scene, so for the audience to understand why some characters made it onto the helicopter and some didn’t, the racial casting has to be accurate to understand that it was, in fact, the Vietnamese who weren’t allowed on and the Americans were. Not only does this tell the story, it also tells the history and the truth of an important event, so the casting of the characters should reflect that.
If race is not integral to the story, actors should be cast based on who is the most talented and who is best suited to the role.
What about when these characters are related?
In two words: still no. In my opinion, as long as the acting is clear to be able to understand the relationship between characters – who is married to who, who is who’s child and how the characters feel about each other – race should still not come into play.
In the original Broadway casting for Hamilton, sisters Eliza Schuyler, Angelica Schuyler and Peggy Schuyler are all played by actresses of different races so don’t traditionally look related. However, during the performance of “The Schuyler Sisters”, through the lyrics and the acting, it is clear they are sisters and the relationship and bond between them is evident.
Similarly, in Hamilton, Anthony Ramos (who plays Philip Schuyler as the son of Eliza and Alexander Hamilton) is Puerto Rican, when only the actor playing his father is Puerto Rican, his mother is a different race. The acting is clear, the lyrics are clear, who cares if they aren’t the same race?
When opening this question to others, however, some did disagree, saying that if Billy from Billy Elliot was black with white parents, this would be distracting to them.
I personally disagree and would simply accept that these casting decisions were made based on the talent of the performers and enjoy the story regardless of race.
What about when the location or historical accuracy is prominent to the story?
This is one which baffles me slightly and I can’t make up my mind here. In an earlier post, I discussed how musicals are great because they tell us stories of history that we may have not known about and they tell the truth.
However, in order to be historically accurate, sometimes this means discriminating casting. For example, Billy Elliot is set in a miner’s town of County Durham in the 1980’s and this is a time and a place where little people of colour would have been found. Should we then argue that to be as accurate as possible this show should be whitewashed? Or should we suspend our disbelief and allow any actor of any race to be cast?
The issue with keeping shows as accurately cast as possible is that then it limits a huge number of shows for people of colour to be part of. So many musicals are based on true events in traditionally white-dominated times and places.
West End star, Beverly Knight, has recently had to defend her casting as Emmeline Pankhurst in a new musical. The new musical tells the story of the Suffragettes using a mixture of musical styles including R&B and Rap – similar to Hamilton. This article even claims similarly that the casting for this role echoes that of Hamilton, and Knight argues that this is just “the direction of where theatre is going – the diversity, the inclusivity”.
This, therefore, opens the argument up further…do we stay as historically accurate as possible in terms of racial casting or do we suspend disbelief to allow anyone to play any role?
Why is theatre dominated by Caucasian actors?
I, myself, wasn’t sure about the answer to this question, so when I asked around I was curious to see people’s answers.
I was directed to this graph, constructed following a test run by an authoritative source – London Medicine, and while I recognise that this graph was formulated in 2011, the results are likely still similar.
The white population of London takes up over half of the citizens, and this is one reason many gave for musicals being heavily dominated by white actors.
It is definitely true that our media and entertainment reflects society, and if society is dominantly white, this is what we can expect from our theatres. It is also worth mentioning that most West End producers, directors, lyricists and composers are white, potentially correlating to a heavy population of white actors.
What this contributor also did note is that they think there is a very diverse range of casting. While I would disagree by saying that there isn’t a “very” diverse range, I must praise the West End on its increase of diverse actors in leading roles in big productions. This year’s cast of Les Miserables features a black actress playing the role of Cosette, and in its cast last year had a black actress in the role of Eponine.
Similarly, Wicked this year has a cast featuring both a black actor in the part of Doctor Dillamond and a black actress in the role of Madame Morrible. However, when searching through the cast lists online, the number of white actors and actresses is overwhelmingly dominant to people of colour.
Potentially, what this contributor meant is that there are a wide number of shows that calls for people of colour to be in the spotlight: Aladdin, Hairspray, Miss Saigon, Ragtime and Memphis to name a few, are heavily cast with people of colour. However, the sad thing here is that this is because they HAVE to be for the story. It is rare that people of colour are cast in leading roles just because of their talent. The fact that Broadway hired its first non-white Glinda actress just this year is quite simply not good enough, and the fact that it made such news is also not good. Having non-white leading roles in the theatre should be a norm and not something to make big news.
I would still love to congratulate Brittney Johnson in her triumph and urge you to check out her Instagram post about getting the role because it’s really quite lovely.
Which group is least represented and why?
The lack of non-white actors on stage can be put down to the fact that parts are often advertised for Caucasian actors when there is little need for the character to be white. This information was passed on to me by a contributor whose daughter is a dancer in the industry and not something I was previously aware of.
She also mentioned that parts for black or mixed-race are also advertised when there is little need for the character to be of such background. Characters for these backgrounds are often the sidekick, friend, baddie or menial worker, rather than the lead, hero or heroine. Finally, she made the great case that if mixed race actors can apply for black characters, may they not also apply to be white characters?
Following on from this contributor’s comment above, there is very little representation of Indian-Asians on our stages. While changes are being made to incorporate more black and oriental actors into theatre, the population of Indian-Asians in the theatre industry is drastically low.
The only show that I can think of that promotes Indian-Asian culture is Bend It Like Beckham that played at the Phoenix Theatre for 9 months. Why are there not more Indian-Asian based shows or why is there a low number of actors on stage from this background? I have no answer.
Is this changing?
As I have stated, some shows on the West End are increasing their numbers of non-white characters, particularly in leading roles in shows such as Wicked and Les Miserables.
Hamilton, I would argue, has made the most impact by specifically having people of colour in all the leading roles – bar King George. Lin Manuel-Miranda wanted to tell the story of America then told by the America now.
I would continue to argue that not enough is being done to give minority backgrounds their chance on the stage – whether in leading roles or not.
Why does all of this matter?
So, why is all of this important? Well, firstly I would argue that it’s important to have role models in the media from all walks of life, from all backgrounds to relate to and look up to. Theatre is only another medium like film and TV, and it’s important that especially children have people who look like them to be inspired by. Sheila Atim, when winning her award for best-supporting actress in a musical for Girl from the North Country in the 2018 Olivier Awards, makes a beautiful speech about having people who “look like her” on stage – referring to black women.
She says “I want to acknowledge some of the women who have been on this stage before me Noma (Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and Amber Riley (Effie in Dreamgirls)…they’ve been here, accepting awards and they look a bit like me, and that to me is very very important, and I really hope in the future…there will be more women that look like me accepting awards”.
I secondly think it’s important to have people of colour on stage because the media is a drive to social change. Without the influence of powerful mediums, social change would be much harder to come about. We need people of all races and backgrounds on our stages to show and tell to society that this is okay and we are a diverse and accepting nation.
We must firstly suspend our disbelief in theatre, ignoring race of actors and simply just focus on the story they are telling. We must experience theatre and enjoy the show and ignore anything that isn’t related to that. When going to the pantomime and a man plays the hero’s mother – often a “widow Twankie” type character – do we sit there and think “this isn’t realistic, that’s obviously a man”? No. We sit and we laugh and we enjoy. So I’m asking you to simply accept the race of the actors in all theatres without question and instead enjoy their performances.
People of all races and backgrounds should be cast in whatever character role unless it is integral to the story or character.
I would also like to leave one final remark that in order to ensure people of colour are given louder voices in theatre, we need more modern shows written for them. Yes, if you want to argue that shows should be cast to allow for the historical accuracy of the people at the time – such as an all-white cast for Billy Elliot – I can understand why this would be so. However, if more musicals were written reflecting British society today, that would more easily allow for a diverse range of peoples to be represented because that’s what Britain is today. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, for example, is a musical set in 2011 and has a cast of all races and characters of different religions. What a perfect example of how theatre casting and writing should be done.