Casting, Equity and Where to Go from Here

Responding to “Boo Yellowface!” Protests During St. Louis Conference

By: - Jul 09, 2018

Casting can be tricky. Balancing the intent of the playwright, the vision of the director, the core values of the theatre, and the talent available—on the best day, the responsibility of whoever makes a final casting choice isn’t light.

At a recent Theatre Communications Group conference in my hometown of St. Louis, casting became a hotly debated issue once again. One of the nation’s theatrical crown jewels — the Municipal Opera Theatre (The Muny) – was celebrating 100 years of producing world-class work. The kick-off of their special anniversary season was the rarely produced Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, an attraction to the nearly 800 TCG conference attendees nearby. But as Diep Tran pointed out in her recent article, the second act featured a white actress as Tuptim, dressed in a traditional Thai costume and performing a scene from The King and I in a manufactured “Asian” accent, which led a group of conference attendees to disrupt the performance by yelling “Boo yellowface!” five times, then leave.

I was not at the performance, but in discussions at the conference the following day, artists of color noted that a majority of regional theatres are led by white people and that we have a troubling pattern of remaining quiet while people of color address systems of injustice. The conclusion — if issues of systemic racism are to change given the current landscape, white leaders need to take a more active role. As a white, gay, Midwestern male leader of a regional theatre, I’ve freely admitted that I enter discussions about equity, diversity and inclusion with a mix of apprehension, admitted ignorance—and an earnest desire to create a theatre that is welcoming and inspirational to all. That said, this seemed to me like a fair criticism of the field and its leadership as well as a reasonable request.

Upon my return, several other similar instances seemed to emerge within a matter of weeks highlighting how widespread and pervasive these practices are, leading a group of nearly 800 theatre leaders, including myself, to call upon our colleagues to examine our casting procedures, particularly in light of a recent Actor’s Equity Association study that noted stark barriers to employment in our industry for people of color across all Equity contracts. From 2013 to 2015, 71% of principal contracts went to Caucasians, 7% to African Americans, and barely 2% to Asian Americans. Complicit silence only allows these practices to continue to harm people, whether they are intentionally malicious or not. Therefore, we must hold each other accountable if we want to see systemic improvement in the field.

Seemingly, a common argument on social media asks why it is acceptable for actors of color to play characters that are historically white, with many pointing to the success of Hamilton on Broadway. Personally, I think there is a difference between casting an actor of color in a role that is historically and/or realistically performed by a Caucasian actor and instances of white actors being cast in roles to portray characters of color. In the former, the actor of color comes from a group of people that have been significantly underemployed on the largest equity stages in the country. In the latter, historically under-represented and systemically oppressed characters are being portrayed by people with significantly more privilege. When actors of color are fighting for work and the data shows that opportunities for them are already severely less than others, in terms of equity and justice, is it fair to cast those roles with anyone other than people of color?

In defense of these practices, I’ve read several arguments:

  1. It is an artistic choice. If you are offended, you haven’t done your homework, don’t know the play and just don’t get it.
  2. We were trying to recreate the original production and/or this role has historically been cast in this manner.
  3. We had the permission of the author.
  4. We couldn’t find diverse talent, so we had to go with the actors available to us.

The great thing about theatre is that it’s a live medium, with live actors playing in front of a live audience. That also means that we have to be constantly aware and cognizant of the present world our plays are inhabiting. The context of 2018 America is very different than many others. Universal themes carry through, but how they are received and interpreted in the landscape of our ever-changing environment helps explain why the classics remain relevant while speaking to us differently throughout our lives. To say that a significant number of people who are offended by a production are somehow just uneducated or ignorant, seems rather dismissive. In my experience, theatrical audiences are very curious, smart and engaged. Further, if the author gives a theater permission to cast a role in a questionable manner, it doesn’t absolve a theater from making its own producing decisions. I argued that Edward Albee had the absolute right to restrict casting for his works, as he and his estate is well-known for doing, but ultimately it is the theater’s decision to produce the work under those restraints. With that in mind, it is also the theater’s choice to produce the play if for some reason they cannot secure diverse talent, although I find this excuse highly questionable.

Regardless of the reasoning, can we all agree that casting a white actor to portray a character of color at minimum leads to exacerbating the already abysmal employment statistics for actors of color?

As we examine our policies and procedures, I think we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. Does your theatre have procedures in place to thoroughly discuss the opportunities and risks associated with casting?
  2. Are casting conversations limited to artists and staff members in the employ of the theatre and therefore beholden to support the decisions of leadership? Or do they involve outside counsel and experts beyond people that need the employment of the theatre?
  3. Is there adequate diversity of people at the table for these discussions?
  4. Who makes the final decision and why? If it is a white Artistic Director, is the decision to equitably cast an actor capable of portraying the role being taken away from a director who identifies as a person of color?

In an email exchange with Claudia Alick, formerly of Oregon Shakespeare Festival and now consultant with Calling Up, she advised that theatres also ask some of the following questions:

  • Is the performer’s lived experience of identity necessary for authentic portrayal and storytelling?
  • Is the performer’s presenting identity important for storytelling?
  • How does the actual identity of the performer affect the storytelling?
  • Will casting result in misrepresentation of a marginalized community?
  • Will casting reproduce negative patterns of exclusion for a marginalized community?
  • How are we responsibly framing our representation choices for the audience?

One of the wonderful things about working in the theater is our daily opportunities to continually improve. Perhaps my favorite quote is from physicist Niels Bohr: “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” In an article about The Muny, Artistic Director Christina Rios, who is Mexican-American, stated “It leaves me completely and utterly devoid of hope that anyone has any desire to just go: Hey, I was wrong, I’m sorry, how can I do better?” In a line of work where we have to embrace mistakes constantly while failing forward, why is it so hard to admit when we make mistakes and then share with the field what we’ve learned? These are excellent opportunities to help educate a field that is struggling with these issues. If supported by robust community engagement and educational programming for audiences, they can also ignite critical conversations beyond the theater at dinner tables and beyond. This is the true blessing and opportunity of our art form.

Chad Bauman is the Managing Director of Milwaukee Repertory Theater. His blog Managing Creatively explores arts management topics. Opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent official positions of his employers. This piece is reposted with his permission.