Musical theater is a huge and well-loved medium, and in recent years has given us some cutting-edge hits (Legally Blonde, Wicked, Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, etc.) Yet there are some accepted "rules" of theater culture that still feel like stereotypes or "boxing in" actors. For instance: sopranos get the leads; mezzos and altos play "witches and britches." Tenors play romantic leads; basses play villains. Actresses past the age of 30 can expect to play mothers and grandmothers, but not love interests for their own sake. If you are a white male, you cannot convincingly play a male or female of any color (although I have conversely seen white women tapped to play WOCs). Actors with disabilities can only really expect casting in disabled roles.
Most theater aficionados will tell you there are solid reasons behind this thinking, even truth. Then again, in 2019, should conventional theater change more to suit the needs and desires of actors? Could or should a musical be written to give an ingenue role to an alto or a hero role to a bass? Is it pushing the envelope to allow actors of certain orientations to play outside of them, or for a white actor to play a POC (outside of a historical context)? In short, what would and should truly "diverse," "inclusive" theater look like?
I think that, in some respects, it's easier for theatre to accommodate diversity than other media because, moreso than in any other medium, any actor who's qualified can take a particular role regardless of race, gender, or background. This is especially true of school performances, which have to work with the available students. I've seen a rendition of one of Shakespeare's history plays that featured Black actors, for example; and on YouTube I've found versions of Little Shop of Horrors where Seymour was biracial and the dentist was Asian. I've even found a theatrical version of the Screwtape Letters where Screwtape was played (really expertly, I might add) by a woman. – Debs2 years ago
Hi, Debs, That sounds really cool. I'm glad your theater experience was more inclusive than mine. My schools (high and college) had GREAT theater programs I so wanted to be a part of. But, esp. in the case of my high school director, I was not given that chance and I think it was because of cerebral palsy (couldn't prove it, and if I'd said something it would've been, "Oh, you just think everybody's picking on you.") But the truth was, even after calling my acting phenomenal on more than one occasion, that director in particular would only assign me chorus or walk-on roles. The justification was, "Well, the leads have to dance," but chorus lines are basically there to *dance*, at least in my productions. There were other examples of non-diversity there too, such as the lead *always* went to a first soprano--and the year it went to a mezzo, of course, I wasn't in the running. But, this director was *also* willing to cast a white girl as a Hispanic lead (but not a girl of color as a white lead) ?????? Anyway, it's only been recently that I realized the full lack of inclusivity and diversity in the world at large and the theater world, so...there you go. Again, we need more stories like yours. – Stephanie M.2 years ago
Interesting question Stephanie, and I find it an important one. Yet I would consider white actors playing non-white roles in the name of diversity or inclusion a farce. Whiteness is a hegemonic power structure imposed upon non-whites. Whiteness allows for participation within the hegemonic group as long as the said behavior of conditional demographics furthers white supremacy. This is why fair skinned groups such as the Irish were not considered white, and then allowed conditional acceptance into whiteness only after they proved useful to white supremacy. This example highlights that you can have fair skin and not be considered white, and that whiteness is a very real, but social construct. Considering the above, it would be dishonest to allow the oppressor to play the role of the oppressed in the name of diversity or inclusion if we are to think of these efforts as some form of progressive emancipation of the oppressed. – kurtz6 months ago