Problematic Theater? What else is new?
Random Black Girl

There is a long and grueling debate as to whether it is disrespectful to have black bodies tell white stories. As black artist it is already hard to exist and try to find work. So much of theater is “fit” do you sound like the character? do you look like the character? Due to society's expectations of beauty and systems of oppression, it can be assumed that any role that is not given a race or gender, is inherently white. The problem with this is that when black actors and actresses walk into an audition they not only have to convince the Production Staff that they are talented enough but that they should also deviate from the perception of what they think the character looks like and cast them in the role.

Rainbow Johnson on Black-ish

Sucks right? Then imagine you walk into an audition, where the narrative is about your personal experience. And you are thinking to yourself “this is no big, the character is about my experience in society there is no way I won’t get this role.” You do the audition and you even get the callback, you notice that the people around you do not necessarily look like you. And you're thinking wait shouldn't there be more black bodies in this callback for the black character? You don’t give it much thought and just do the callback. When you and check the cast list, you notice that you not only did not get the part but neither did the other black bodies at the callback. At first you are calm and say “you know things like this happen all the time it’s ok.” Then you get angry and confused. And when you ask for some clarification or research the production further you notice the little claim at the bottom of the website. “We do not cast based on the actors race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference”

Shocker!!!

BOOM there it is: every other role in the show is cast traditionally the lead male is a strong Tenor with great masculine dance moves. The female ingenue is a petite cisgender women with long hair. Now the only role that strays from the traditional casting is in fact the role you auditioned for, the best part is that the theater company will be so proud of themselves by not having a black body continue to play the stereotype. They will probably say something along the lines of “This role is usually played by {insert race & gender here} but we felt that we did not want to perpetuate the stereotype so we cast a white {insert gender here} instead.

Thanks for the favor.

August Wilson and many other amazing playwrights have been in discussion about whether colorblind casting is actually something that is beneficial for black bodies or if it is actually something really destructive. Many argue that black bodies should be given the opportunity to play whatever role they set their mind to, and throughout the recent, VERY, recent years more and more directors have deviated from traditional casting practices and have cast People of Color in traditionally white roles. So the big question is which is worse People of Color playing the stereotype or People of Color being used to tell white stories? On the one hand having people of color in these amazing roles brings allows people of color to move the narrative and have a sense of agency on stage. But then you have people of color telling other people’s stories and talking about experiences that they would probably not have in society. August Wilson however says that instead of people of color having to be in white dominated spaces, people of color should be given the opportunity to have the funding and resources to fund their own theater, where they are only playing black characters. Therefore black artist aren't dealing with having to compromise their identity for a job. But at what point does that become segregation and part of what makes theater so incredible is that it is supposed to be extremely inclusive. So should we focus on fixing theater and the way that they handle race and casting or should we be making more spaces for black theater to exist? I am no expert but for me the clear answer is both. People of color absolutely need a space where they can tell their stories but I also think that it is important for theater to be a space where multiple stories can be told. Suzan-Lori Parks writes that her plays are about space and time and how the questions that we were asking ourselves years ago are still questions that we continue to ask. I believe that theater has the opportunity to completely change society, but before they can change society they have to do major change themselves.

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