Oh good, a white guy talking about race. Clearly there's not enough of that on the internet (and cable tv, and ...). What could possibly go wrong?
So I saw Once on This Island last night at RLT. I am not a big musical theatre person but it was nice. The woman who played the Mother Earth goddess was ridiculous good, and over all the songs were catchy and the dancing was pretty tight for a community theater production (with a couple real stand-outs). But... It was white. Very white.
Ok, so if you're not familiar with the story, check out the wikipedia page. The entire show takes place on Haiti, and the central conflict revolves around the racial politics of the island, and the separation between the peasants who are "black as night" and the grande hommes who are mulatto, being mix-race descendants of the former French colonialists (Beauxhomme, the male lead/object of privilege is described as having skin "the color of coffee with cream"). This racial dynamic is not only important to the plot, but it seems kind of important to the message of the play too. That the people of Haiti, after staging the only successful slave rebellion in history, managed to re-create a cast system based primarily on racial lineage which they had just rejected. The grande hommes culturally aspire to be French (sending their children to expensive French schools) while they are still not considered French by the French. They still suffer rejection because they reach out toward their former colonial state for cultural validation rather than embrace the peasant culture (from which they are also descended). This is particularly brought to the fore in the ball scene where Ti-Moune performs a peasant dance at the grand ball which connects with the audience of grande hommes who had previously been dancing in European style. The rejection of peasant culture as "low" and the raising up of European culture as "high" and the parallel dynamic in skin tone are prominent themes in the piece.
In this casting, well, all the grande hommes and a number of the peasants are white, as is the goddess Erzulie (goddess of love). And that's... well it's challenging. When I saw the cast in the opening number I thought "uh oh." I mean, it's tricky right?
Lemme back up. One of my earliest experiences with theatre was playing "Phra-Alack" in the King and I. Now, the King and I is, quite obviously a play set in another specific cultural place, Thailand (Siam in the play). And my character was "Phra-Alack." And if you know me, you know I'm about the whitest white boy around (back then I even had blonde hair to go with the blue eyes). Now the production was in San Rafael, California, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco, but even there, there were very few Asians in our cast (hmm parallels?). That meant... well it meant hair dye and makeup (yep, I'm pretty sure we were in yellow face, at least we had eye makeup) for a bunch of little kids, and ad-lib Thai language (yes, I just made shit up that sounded Asian... hey, I was like, 9 or 10 or something). Looking back, I feel a little embarrassed, but also, it was a lovely show. Really. A lovely script and I was enthralled by the older (what, probably high school aged looking back) performers. And I'm glad that people didn't look at the show and go "well, we'll never get enough Asians to come out for this, let's do My Fair Lady instead."
It's not necessarily a bad choice. On one level, well, you cast who auditions for your show. Shows that tell stories from other perspectives are really important. This is a good story with really fun music, why shouldn't we do it? If casting white people in Once on This Island lets you produce the show, if it gets the story told, well then good! If you have auditions and few performers of color show up, do you cancel the show? That seems worse to me. We shouldn't shy away from telling these stories because we feel uncomfortable playing people of a different race or background. If anything, we need to seek out MORE voices and themes from different perspectives. Heck, that's part of what makes theatre valuable. The ability to relate to other people, to empathize. Putting on the mask of another culture or experience helps us (and hopefully our audience) realize the basic commonality of experience we share as humans. We live in story and hearing someone else's story makes us realize that. Should people in upstate Minnesota never produce this lovely show because of the casting? How much poorer would we be if we felt that way?
But, but but... Well, the flip side of this is that we're not exactly in Minnesota are we? If RLT did the King and I they're gonna have to cast lots of non-Asians, but Raleigh is 29% African American, Durham is 43.8% African American. Why wasn't the talent pool of available people deep enough that you could cast it, well at least somewhat more racially appropriately?
Now there are a couple explanations for this. First of all, it's poor coordination. Justice Theatre Project is about to open Ragtime, another show that calls for a large African American casting. I know there are a number of performers in Ragtime who would have loved to play roles in this show (and would have been great) but you can't be in two places at once. Coordination is a persistent problem in the triangle (IMHO as an audience member). Last season we were treated to two productions of Next to Normal and two productions (one weekend simultaneously running) of The 39 Steps. This season it looks like we'll get two productions of The Tempest plus one more Tempest-themed show. I don't know why but this tends to happen. It would have been nice, as an audience member, if JTP and RLT had found a way to let me see people shine in both productions. And the overlap, well at a certain point maybe you just run up against supply limitations.
I also feel that there's a larger issue. I see it more in some groups than in others, but I will say in general, theatre around here tends to be pretty white. I noticed this especially with the Durham Savoyards, a group that produces an annual Gilbert and Sullivan musical in Durham. Durham is basically half black. There are almost no African Americans in their company. That's just ... well it's odd. Don't mistake me, I think they're great folks, and I honestly think their process is race blind (as much as that is possible for any human). Their auditions are always open calls and I am sure they would happily cast talent no matter what their race in any role. It's not a matter of being racist, or not being welcoming. I think it's more a matter of not reaching outside of your regular channels for talent. It just seems like an annual theatre production with open casting in a community like ours, well if there are very few African Americans in it, there must be a problem somewhere right? It's much easier to post the audition announcement in the Indy and on your website and then just sit back and see who shows up. But ultimately you aren't engaging new audience, and you probably aren't getting the best people on stage. If your population is half black and you have one person in a twenty person cast that is black, well, I'm pretty sure you don't have the best possible actors for your show, just based on math. Finding a way to reach out to new communities would broaden the audience and produce better shows. Outreach also means, if you're serious about it, casting all your shows in a more race blind manner. If your African American performers know that the only character they can audition for in "The Crucible" is Tituba, well, they're not going to come out for that. And maybe the next show too, and by the time you want them, they're not part of your community any longer. You can't do "ok this is our large black cast show" once every two years and call that outreach and inclusiveness. There's nothing wrong with casting white people in Once on This Island as long as you're casting black people (and Asians etc) in Oklahoma.
There probably are larger issues of race and privilege at play here. I'm not going to say a lot about that because, well I don't have a lot of personal knowledge or information, so anything I say is pretty speculative, but theatre means having free time that you can give, and paying for gas to get back and forth, and, especially for musical theater, paying for and attending training like dance classes and voice lessons. And there probably are some cultural issues too: that theatre is seen as culturally "white" because so much of our "classic" theatre is ... well it's written by white men and so from a white male perspective, and is typically performed with white casts. Now that doesn't need to be a barrier (James Earl Jones recently played Big Daddy on Broadway), but it can be, and, especially for people just getting into theatre, I suspect the voice of many plays being one of privilege, is a barrier.
All this being said... the cast does a great job. Maybe RLT could do a better job with outreach, but ultimately that's down to the company management, not the director or his cast. And I wanted to say that they played it correctly. They were admirably clear in who they were, and the script and the song supports that. Admittedly it was odd watching a blond haired, fair skinned Hatian love goddess sing about love conquering a racial divide between two people who were, well, not very racially divided. But once you get into it, it isn't a barrier to enjoyment of the piece, and the cast did an admirable job of just presenting their characters with conviction in movement and voice. As an audience member, the cast did not leave me questioning their choices or the show, but the casting in general, and what it says about the theatre community in the triangle, raises issues that can't (and shouldn't) be ignored.