'Hamilton' asks us to evaluate the principle of 'colorblind' casting
Posted April 18, 2016
The Broadway smash hit musical “Hamilton” recently issued a casting call for “nonwhite” performers that the Actors’ Equity Association, the union for stage actors, denounced as reverse racism. The producers eventually backed down and stated that all are welcome to audition, but this generated a great deal of fresh discussion over the long-standing principle of “colorblind” casting, which posits that people should ignore ethnicity and focus solely on talent when casting actors in productions.
In theory, this is a very good idea. In practice, however, it tends to get tricky.
When I was working toward my bachelor of fine arts degree in acting at the University of Southern California, the theater school had adopted a strict colorblind casting policy. That meant that when we mounted a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which takes place in Puritan New England during the Salem Witch Trials, we did so with an African-American in the lead role of John Proctor and a white actress as his wife, Elizabeth.
Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1692, would not have tolerated an interracial couple, and the fact remains that John and Elizabeth Proctor were both real people and white people. Our version of this true-to-life tale, therefore, was undeniably inaccurate, historically speaking. Fortunately, it was also very good, dramatically speaking. Our John Proctor’s performance was riveting from beginning to end, and his ethnicity didn’t have any bearing whatsoever on the power of the story.
The same year that USC School of Theatre produced “The Crucible,” it also produced Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece “A Raisin in the Sun,” which focuses on a struggling black family during American segregation in the 1950s. For that production, the colorblind policy was waived, which was undeniably the correct decision. I honestly don’t think it would have been possible to be colorblind in casting a show where race is the central thematic element. White actors in these roles could be weirdly interesting in a “Twilight Zone” sort of way — a bizarre role-reversal fantasy instead of a contemporary snapshot of a troubled time — but then the play becomes something other than it was intended to be.
Yet that kind of role-reversal approach is one of “Hamilton’s” unique strengths. Like with USC’s “The Crucible,” the historical figures portrayed in “Hamilton” were all white in real life, but they’re portrayed by black and Latino actors. “We're telling the story of old, dead white men, but we're using actors of color,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote “Hamilton’s” book, music and lyrics. He notes that this was a conscious decision intended to make “the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.” He calls this a way of “allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.”
That’s a valid artistic decision, although it complicates the colorblind casting principle. But casting is already a process fraught with pitfalls for those who think talent should always take precedence over physical appearance. If it’s racism to take an actor’s ethnicity into account, is it ageism if we refuse to cast middle-aged actors as the leads in “Romeo and Juliet”? I was 6-foot-4 by the time I was 14, which meant I didn’t get a lot of romantic leading man roles during my adolescence. I attribute those casting choices to practicality, not bigotry. After all, who wants to see the leading lady have to step on a footstool to smooch with the leading man?
Inclusion is better than exclusion, and I agree that colorblindness should be the rule. But for the theater to be able to tell compelling stories that challenge our racial biases and preconceptions, that rule has to have exceptions. And even with the best of intentions, exceptions can be a tricky thing to pull off.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.