“Stop making your POC friends be your 101 class because we are getting exhausted.”
This was a plea from an artist of color at a recent town hall held to discuss the casting crisis we find ourselves in in Chicago theatre. Recently there have been a number of scandals in the Chicagoland area about white actors being cast in latinx roles. The most recent one being the casting of a white Usnavi in Porchlight Music Theatre company’s production of In the Heights. Many of my brilliant, hardworking, empathetic friends who are artists of color are getting bombarded with requests and demands for clarity on the issues of inclusivity, diversity, erasure, and authentic casting. They are completely worn out and understandably frustrated.
Well, I am of the belief that it isn’t their job to educate us white folk on how all this works. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reach out and learn from and more importantly COLLABORATE with artists of color to gain better understanding. What I’m saying is…do as much research and learn as much on your own before you do so. You wouldn’t jump straight to an advanced class on a topic you know nothing about, right?
Before I get into it, I have to apologize. I am one of the ones who has stayed quiet about the Porchlight controversy. This one hit close to home. Some very close friends and collaborators are involved. I truly thought they had made an unfortunate, unintentional mistake that they couldn’t walk back from by casting a white Usnavi that they thought was Latino. I assumed that everyone had learned their lesson, that this was a wake-up call for the actor, and that it would NEVER happen again with those on the artistic team.
And more than that, POC members of the cast had reached out to me telling me that they were having an authentic experience. Who was I, as a white woman, to tell them that they weren’t? To take that experience that they were excited about away from them? So I stayed quiet watching it escalate and escalate. Every time I thought that it had passed, it reached a boiling point again. It is my privilege that allowed me to sit back and “wait for the storm to pass,” justifying to myself that I had spoken out on many other scandals and many other issues and that I’d just sit this one out. I was silent because I felt like to speak up would betray my friends. But what I’ve realized is, to not speak up is to betray my community. Being woke is a constant job and we can’t be lazy or we’ll fall back asleep. Also, I think I can help. I have a somewhat unique perspective. I’m a white woman who has more experience with authentic and inclusive casting than most.
The first thing I’d like to talk about are the various wake-up calls that I’ve had while casting. The first one happened on my very first casting gig. Bailiwick Chicago was casting Aida and I had my eyes set on the role of Amneris. I emailed the director and the casting director telling them that I would love to audition for Amneris, but that if they didn’t see me in the role I would love to help with casting. Casting had always been a bit of a fascination with me and I cast things in my head all the time.
They told me that they were going in a different direction with the show but that I could help with casting admin. under the tutelage of Lili-Anne Brown. I heard through the grapevine that the “different direction” was that they were going to try to employ a full POC cast. I felt a tiny bitterness raise up, they wouldn’t even let me try for the role because I was white? Wasn’t that taking things a little too literally? We started casting and that sentiment felt foolish. I was dead wrong.
Aida is set in AFRICA. Which I knew of course, but up to that point the show had been traditionally cast with the Nubians played by black actors and the Egyptians cast as white. I never questioned it. It had never dawned on me that it wasn’t appropriate to cast white people as the Egyptians. It slowly became OBVIOUS that this was the way to go. Watching Lil cast the show and watching how the actors fulfilled these lead roles better than any white actors ever could was eye-opening. The story was so much more powerful cast in an authentic way. Bailiwick Chicago also hired Deeply Rooted Dance Theater to choreograph the show. It was beautiful and was a huge success, selling out and extending. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before and I learned that there are some stories that aren’t yours to tell.
My love affair/obsession with authentic, inclusive casting was born. Lil and I worked together casting many shows after that and when she became artistic director of Bailiwick Chicago, I took over casting. My first job was casting Mahal, a play by Danny Bernardo. This was my second wake-up call.
Mahal is about a Filipino family. I had seen the reading of it and I loved it so much. I was honored to cast it and determined to get it right. I called in everyone I could think of that might be of Asian decent. Thank goodness I had Danny on call helping me along the way. There were a couple of close calls where I almost called in someone completely inappropriate. There was a WHITE GIRL that almost fooled me. To be fair she almost fooled Danny too. That headshot was crazy. Anyway, I realized that I was completely uneducated, not only in what our Asian-American Chicago theatre talent and resources were, but in (I’m ashamed to say) being able to differentiate between different types of Asian actors.
I could have hidden behind my ignorance and been afraid to ask questions. But I didn’t do that. I had two Filipinos in the casting room and I leaned on them heavily and they had the patience of saints while I negotiated my way through the casting process. And we put together a beautiful cast, where the entire Filipino family was played by Filipinos. This would not have happened without having Filipino artists in the room.
One thing about me. Trade secrets! When I’m casting, I choose my battles. There’s usually one casting choice that I feel passionately about where I will devote all my energy and advocate strongly for that actor. I was leaning toward a non-Filipino actor that I loved for one of the roles and it was the role I had decided to fight for. So I dug my heels in a bit, trying to make headway in the discussion. Danny turned to me and the director and told us in the nicest way possible that it wouldn’t be authentic and might be borderline offensive to a Filipino audience. And it dawned on me. I hadn’t thought about them. Not once. Not for a second. I hadn’t considered the audience. And the actor we cast instead of my pick was absolutely brilliant AND authentic. I was dead wrong.
After Mahal, Lil and I got into a rhythm. When the show called for authentic casting, we made sure to cast appropriately, even if it took extra effort. When race wasn’t a major part of the plot, we would strive for as inclusive a cast as possible, re-purposing roles that were traditionally cast as white for actors of color. These two practices I have carried with me into every project I work on.
I’ve had many more discoveries and wake-up calls along the way. I am constantly learning and constantly trying to do better the next time. In the end, I am still a white woman advocating for actors of color in the casting room. I try to be a good ally. And I am a big ole fan of our rich embarrassment of riches when it comes to actors of color in Chicago and I try to spread my enthusiasm to those around me in positions of authority. But hear me. I am a great part of the team but… HAVING ME IN THE ROOM IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR HAVING AN ARTIST OF COLOR IN THE PROCESS.
I know this is all really confusing. I know that things are changing really quickly and it’s hard to keep up. I know that you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Hell. I’M afraid of saying the wrong thing most of the time. I know that people are having strong reactions to casting situations that didn’t seem to be a problem a couple years ago. The goal post is moving farther and farther away and getting more and more specific with what is acceptable and what isn’t and you might feel lost.
Start with those two practices. Go back to the text every single time. Pour over the script. Does it call for a certain non-white race in the script? Is that integral to the plot? Cast it that way. It is no longer acceptable not to. Is race ambiguous or not integral to the plot? Find opportunities for inclusivity. Every project is an opportunity to cast in a way that looks like the world around us. Broaden your mind past our preconceived notions to include actors of color, more women, different body types, trans actors, disabled actors, etc. It will enrich your shows. It will enrich the experience. More of the audience will see themselves on stage. It can change the world. We literally have the power to change the world if we just move past the discomfort of having to admit we’re wrong.
That’s what we need to do. I confess, I think I’m right most of the time. But when I’m proven wrong, I will admit it. For the white actor playing Usnavi to respond to the question of whether he’d do this all again with, “one hundred percent. I now stand more firmly in my own beliefs than I did before all this,” is insanely disheartening. Up until that point I thought as a community we were making progress; that we were getting through to people. How this young man could watch the same town hall that I watched and not want to do better next time is beyond frustrating. I REALLY hope that that quote was taken out of context. I’d like to see the paragraph it belongs in. Because if that’s IT, then this experience which could be a serious wake-up moment for this actor has gone to waste.
Up until this point I had chalked it up to youth on his part. I mean… I thought it was appropriate to do a monologue from MEDEA when I was 15. I was always a little dark, kids. Anyway, my point is…we do dumb shit when we’re young before we know any better. I really wanted to give him a pass. How would he know this is inappropriate? In college we are taught to audition for anything and everything and not take no for an answer. He’s straight out of school. This was his mess up. We all get one, right? But you have to LEARN from it. You have to grow. That’s the whole point of making mistakes is that the next time we don’t make the same mistakes. And what is becoming glaringly obvious is there are many that don’t think anything is wrong.
So how do we move forward? As artists? As a community? When so many have put so much work in and still can’t reach someone? We keep trying to change hearts and minds and stay available for those that want to learn and change.
But if that doesn’t work? I have faith in what’s new. I have faith in the changing of the guard. I do hope that the established theaters in town come along for the ride, but in the meantime those of us that can’t let the status quo continue will be making our own art. We are going to be casting in rooms with people who are just as excited about inclusion and authenticity as we are. We won’t have to convince people through shame and threats of poor optics to be on the right side of history. Because there is an army of like-minded people who are coming up right now. Literally none of us are doing this for the money. None of us. But we are passionate and we are loud and we will not be denied. If we can’t change the old guard we’ll create a new one.