December 2, 2015
Over the past several weeks, we’ve witnessed two troubling examples of university productions disrespecting a playwright’s intent in regard to casting. Clarion University in Pennsylvania had to cancel their production of Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India after neglecting to inform the playwright that they had cast white students in roles written for South Asian actors. This news came on the heels of Katori Hall’s eloquent objection to a production at Kent State of The Mountaintop that featured a white actor playing Martin Luther King, Jr. Diep Tran’s article in American Theatre provides further context to events that have ignited both productive debate and reprehensible personal attacks.
While aspects of these issues are complex, there are a few core principles worthy of unambiguous defense. The first principle is the creative control of the playwright over critical aspects of their work. We stand in solidarity with the Dramatists Guild’s letter in defense of playwrights’ right to approve changes made to their text, which includes but is not limited to changes made to the characters’ race and ethnicity.
The second principle is the importance of ending the harmful practice of white actors playing characters of color—what is often called brownface, yellowface, redface, or blackface. While theatre has always been a place for transformation, we must also acknowledge the past oppressions and ongoing inequities facing people of color, including an uneven playing field where the vast majority of opportunities, onstage and off, are held by whites. In addition, appropriating the identities of communities of color has historically reinforced racial stereotypes and subjugation. For example, some of the most abhorrent, racist policies of our country—the Jim Crow laws—were named for “Jump Jim Crow,” a theatrical caricature of blacks performed by a white actor in blackface. This context helps illuminate not only the protests surrounding productions like The Mikado and Cry, Trojans!, but also the celebration of the racially diverse Founding Fathers of Hamilton.
What’s required now is a color-conscious, not colorblind, casting approach. Color-conscious casting intentionally considers the race and ethnicity of actors and the characters they play in order to oppose racism, honor and respect cultures, foster stronger productions, and contribute to a more equitable world. Without it, we risk perpetuating a system that privileges whiteness with greater access and opportunity, and appropriates the culture of communities of color.
Yes, this can be a complex and nuanced discussion. Yes, we enter into those discussions with different perspectives and familiarity with the issues. Yes, the missions of educational institutions are different than those of professional theatres. It is critical, however, that we don’t let those differences and complexities keep us from acknowledging the systemic racism that afflicts our country, nor our power as story-tellers and community- builders to end it.
The third principle is that no individual, regardless of their stance on these issues, deserves to be singled out for harassment and threats. Unfortunately, we’re seeing an increase in aggressively hostile rhetoric directed toward people of color who take a stand on these issues. There is a place for respectful disagreement and thoughtful debate—we need more conversation that leads to action, not less. But when debate is replaced by a parade of online insults from strangers, it’s clear we’ve crossed the line from debate to hate—and our community should not be willing to tolerate these deliberate attempts to silence and threaten artists of color. We oppose all attempts to silence and diminish these artists who have bravely taken a stand for equity and the rights of playwrights. We stand with Lloyd, Katori, and all advocates for racial justice.
Teresa Eyring, Executive Director, Theatre Communications Group