Friday, August 8, 2014

Should Race Be a Selling Point?

Norm Lewis made history as the first black Broadway Phantom when he joined the Broadway company of The Phantom of the Opera in May.  And while that is certainly noteworthy, I can't help but feel that maybe we are making *too* big of a deal about it.

Recently, some singer/talk show host I had never heard of was cast as the latest headliner in the terrible revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.  Her name is Keke Palmer, and she will be Broadway's first black Cinderella.  This news story bothered me greatly.

Now, let's be clear:  I am most certainly NOT upset that an African-American woman will be headlining a Broadway musical about a fairy tale princess.  As a person of color who once dreamed of being an actor, I am all too aware of the difficulties facing ethnic actors today.  While we are slowly seeing more diversity in entertainment, the sad fact remains that a lot of casting directors still won't consider an ethnic actor for a part that doesn't explicitly call for that ethnicity.  Furthermore, the parts that do require an actor of color often make skin tone the role's defining characteristic, as if that is the only thing which could possibly necessitate casting a non-white performer.  And since most subsequent productions have a tendency to mimic the casting of the original, if the original actor wasn't black (or Latino, or Asian-American, etc.), then actors of those ethnicities often aren't seriously considered for the role even if race has zero bearing on the story.  So any instance of a traditionally white role going to an ethnic performer is something I am all for.

No, what bothers me about Ms. Palmer's casting is that the producers and press made such a big deal about her being the "first black Cinderella" on Broadway.  Every story went out of the way to mention Palmer's ethnicity, which makes me believe this is something that was explicitly pointed out in the press release as a way of drumming up extra attention.  Because honestly, the 4th replacement in a revival of a musical with middling box office probably wouldn't even merit mention if not for this one tidbit.  I will choose to believe that the producers of Cinderella didn't cast Palmer solely because of her race, but they sure don't mind using her skin color to get some extra publicity and perhaps stroke their egos in a self-congratulatory, "look-how-progressive-we-are" way.

My problem with this is that it makes skin color the defining characteristic of this actress.  The selling point of Palmer's casting is not her talent or her previous accomplishments; it is her skin color, something she has absolutely no control over.  This is even more baffling considering Cinderella, which won an Actor's Equity award for the diversity of its ensemble, has several other ethnic actors in principal roles without feeling the need to point out their heritage.  No one mentioned that Ann Harada is the first Asian-American Stepsister.  You know why?  Because it is Harada's talent that is her most important asset, not her ancestry, which is only one component of the many qualities and characteristics that make her unique.

A similar thing happened recently when Norm Lewis took over the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, Broadway's longest running musical.  Every news outlet, even those that normally don't cover Broadway, was suddenly talking about Phantom again because Lewis is the first black actor to play the role on Broadway in the show's 26 year run.  And while that is certainly an achievement, and a cool bit of theatrical trivia, why did that have to be the defining piece of news about his casting?  Again, my problem with spinning the story this way is that it places the emphasis on Lewis' skin color, something he has zero control over, and not his talent, something he has honed and sharpened over nearly 3 decades of performing.

Defining anyone primarily by their skin color is reductive (and borderline insulting).  By calling extra attention to race, we continue to train future generations to notice it and use it as a way to define people.  Even if the focus on Palmer and Lewis's heritage is well-intentioned, as a mixed-race American it makes me vaguely uneasy.  It deemphasizes individuality, and encourages people to make assumptions based on someone's outer appearance.

To me, the ideal treatment of race is how the subject was handled in Rent.  That show featured an incredibly diverse cast without making their diversity the central focus.  All of the various characters in Rent are treated as people first, with subtle nods to their ethnic backgrounds that provided extra spice without becoming their defining quality.  Very little is explicitly mentioned about any characters' heritage, meaning the show could theoretically be cast with any combination of actors.  It is generally cast to mirror the ethnic breakdown of the original cast, which goes back to the lack of imagination on casting directors' part, but that is an issue for another blog.  The pertinent point here is that it was diverse without making race its defining characteristic, one of the many ways in which the show was so groundbreaking.

Or to use a currently running example, look at Disney's The Lion King.  It features a largely black cast, which makes sense given the African setting and director Julie Taymor's wholehearted embrace of tribal design aesthetics.  Yet the show doesn't once call attention to the character's blackness (probably because they're all actually lions, but that is beside the point).  As Taymor has said in various interviews, The Lion King is a show that is not about race and yet all about race.  As she astutely points out, to white audiences it is the same story they know and love from the movie, and the ethnicities of the actors are a non-issue.  But to black audiences, it is very much the story of a black king trying to win back his kingdom, and sends a powerful message that people of color can be noble kings and queens too.  The brilliance of the show is that it allows for this reading without doing anything to emphasize it, which makes it even more progressive than the shows that call attention to their inclusiveness.

There is no denying that Broadway could use more diversity.  The country continues to become more ethnically varied, but the principal characters in most Broadway shows remain steadfastly white.  I am all for actors like Palmer and Lewis breaking barriers, but I think when we call too much attention to it we only exacerbate the problem.  I hope directors continue to consider and cast actors of all ethnicities in all roles (provided the show isn't explicitly about race and racism), but cease to call attention to the fact that they are doing so.  Calling attention to it ultimately reinforces the notion that race is something to obsess over and define people by, and that kind of thinking helps no one.  Trying to get brownie points for your affirmative action casting decisions is just tacky, and devalues the talent of the people you do hire.

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