Diverse casting a sign of progress onstage
Diversity onstage challenges traditional thinking about the classics — and our own shared history
On Broadway, African-American and Latino actors attired in the breeches, boots, and waistcoats of the Revolutionary War period are portraying the Founding Fathers — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton — in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,’’ a critically acclaimed hip-hop musical whose audience last month included President Obama.
In the Berkshires, the role of Josie Hogan, the spirited daughter of a Connecticut tenant farmer — originally written as Irish-American — is being played by African-American actress Audra McDonald in Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.’’
In Boston, the role of elderly Carrie Watts, desperately trying to make it back to her Texas hometown in Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful’’ — largely the province of white actresses since the play’s 1953 premiere — was played by Cicely Tyson last season at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
“Nontraditional’’ or “color-blind’’ casting is not new, of course, and the talents of McDonald and Tyson obviously speak for themselves. But what’s been happening more broadly onstage lately registers more like bold, color-conscious statements designed to make us think differently about classic works of the American theater and about the nation’s past, while also reflecting the changing face of present-day America.
Although the picture is still not inclusive enough, it’s heartening to see the frequency with which African-American, Latino, and Asian-American performers now appear in roles traditionally associated with white actors. One of the things art can do is shape the collective consciousness, and productions like the game-changing “Hamilton’’ force audiences to consider whose lives and contributions have been left out of conventional narratives. By offering a more expansive vision that showcases people of color — who often have not seen themselves reflected onstage or in history books — these productions amount to not just a reimagining or a retelling but a move toward reclaiming the national story.
The opening of “Hamilton’’ coincides with the ramping up of the 2016 presidential election — an election in which African-American and Latino voters are expected to play significant roles. Donald Trump’s divisive remarks about Mexican immigrants angered many Latinos and thrust the issue to the forefront of the presidential campaign.
Against that backdrop, there’s a little extra frisson in the reminder in “Hamilton” that the title figure — primary author of the Federalist Papers, first secretary of the US Treasury, the man whose face is on the $10 bill — was an immigrant from the Caribbean. Hamilton is being portrayed by Miranda, the son of Puerto Rican parents, and it was Miranda who, inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, conceived the idea for “Hamilton’’ and wrote the show’s book, music, and lyrics.
Familiar works like “The Trip to Bountiful’’ and “A Moon for the Misbegotten’’ acquire a new dimension when enacted by performers of color. In Williamstown’s “Moon,’’ a racial subtext augments the class issues that percolate through the play. The ceaseless toil of McDonald’s Josie and the fears of eviction by a wealthy white neighbor that are expressed by her and her father, Phil — also played by a black actor, Glynn Turman — underscore what precarious circumstances African-Americans have faced for much of the nation’s history.
Watching Tyson’s Carrie pine for home in “Bountiful’’ (even though Carrie was in a Houston apartment rather than a northern city) could not help but evoke thoughts of the Great Migration and of the sense of dislocation that must have gripped many hearts as millions of African-Americans relocated from the rural South to urban centers during the 20th century.
On a more basic level, diversity in casting means more opportunities for performers of color, and more potentially meaningful experiences for audiences — a subject that Miranda addressed head-on in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
“In ‘Hamilton,’ we’re telling the stories of old, dead white men but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience,’’ said Miranda. “You don’t distance the audience by putting an actor of color in a role that you would think of as default Caucasian. No, you excite people and you draw them in.’’
That has clearly been the case with “Hamilton’’: One of the hottest tickets in memory, the show grossed $1,459,314 in the week that followed its Aug. 6 opening on Broadway, according to the Broadway League.
Obviously, the American theater still has a long way to go when it comes to redressing its longstanding failure to diversify casting and adequately represent the experience of people of color. Many theater companies remain content to schedule the occasional drama by August Wilson or another playwright of color, often during Black History Month in February, and leave it at that.
But there are signs of progress. Shakespeare productions, for example, today present a much more diverse picture than the playwright ever could have envisioned. To cite just one of numerous examples, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who is black, portrayed the villainous Cornwall this summer on Boston Common in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “King Lear.’’
Twentieth-century classics, too, often wear a more diverse face in the 21st century. At Trinity Repertory Company in Providence earlier this year, a production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie’’ featured an African-American actress, Mia Ellis, as the tragic Laura Wingfield. In Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s “Death of a Salesman’’ last year, an African-American actor, Omar Robinson, portrayed Howard Wagner, the cold-hearted employer who turns his back on Willy Loman.
Wheelock Family Theatre’s 2014 production of “Hairspray’’ starred Jenna Lea Scott, who is Asian-American, as the bubbly Tracy Turnblad. When Leslie Uggams played Mama Rose in “Gypsy’’ last summer at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, theater officials said their research indicated Uggams was the first African-American actress to portray Rose in a professional production of the 1959 musical.
Taken literally, such casting can at times seem incongruous. It’s highly unlikely, for instance, that a white salesman like Willy Loman would have had a black boss in the 1940s. But diverse productions illustrate a larger truth: Namely, that dramas like “Death of a Salesman,’’ “King Lear,’’ and “The Glass Menagerie’’ belong to, and are a reflection of, all of us, of who we are in our best and worst moments. Having performers of color portray characters originally written as (or assumed to be) white helps to underscore the universality of the plays and the playwrights who wrote them.
After all, “A Moon for the Misbegotten’’ is not a play about the Irishness of Josie and Phil Hogan, so the tweaks to O’Neill’s script in Gordon Edelstein’s production at Williamstown don’t harm the play. For instance, landlord Jim Tyrone (played by a white actor, Will Swenson) jocularly addresses Phil not as “the Duke of Donegal,’’ as in the original, but simply as “the Duke.’’ But what the production leaves intact, and indeed captures quite effectively, are O’Neill’s larger themes of guilt, forgiveness, self-destruction, and the complicated equation of love.
On the highly visible surface of commercial theater, the past year has seen racial breakthroughs in some of the biggest blockbuster franchises. Norm Lewis, who portrayed Porgy in the 2011 American Repertory Theater production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’’ last year became the first black actor to play the title role in “Phantom of the Opera’’ on Broadway. Several months later, Keke Palmer became the first African-American actress to step into those fabled glass slippers in the title role of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella’’ on Broadway.
The achievement of “Hamilton,’’ though, is of an entirely different order. Miranda and director Thomas Kail reframe America’s origin story, presenting a commanding, charismatic African-American actor (Christopher Jackson) as George Washington, leading the charge toward a new nation as the events of the American Revolution eddy around him. Even as an act of imagination, envisioning a black man as the “Father of our Country” toys in interesting ways with our historical perceptions and assumptions.
It’s fitting that “Hamilton’’ has emerged during the presidency of the first black president. In fact, President Obama was part of a significant episode in the evolution of “Hamilton.’’
Six years ago Miranda was invited to the White House and asked to perform a number from his previous Broadway hit, “In the Heights.’’ Instead, Miranda opted to rap a new song titled “Alexander Hamilton,’’ because, he told The Hollywood Reporter, “I felt like I was meeting a moment.” That tune, with its lyrics about “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father/ Got a lot farther by working a lot harder/ By being a lot smarter/ By being a self-starter,’’ eventually became the opening number in “Hamilton.’’
“This was a president that I had worked hard to help elect, and I wanted to show something about the American experience and do something new there because I felt like I was part of something,’’ said Miranda. “And now, with the show opening as Obama’s presidency is winding down, it feels very fitting and full circle.’’