On Tuesday, producers of the hit Broadway show Hamilton put out a casting notice calling for “non-white” rapping actors to audition for the show’s principal roles. Civil rights attorney Randolph McLaughlin of the Newman Ferrara Law Firm attacked the notice, saying it violated the city’s anti-discrimination law which forbids hiring based on race. The Actor’s Equity Association supported McLaughlin, stating that the notice is inconsistent with Equity’s policy of encouraging all actors to apply.
Even though Hamilton’s producers initially defended the casting call, they changed the wording slightly to invite actors of all ethnicities to audition for “non-white” characters. Afterwards, a Hamilton publicist sent the following statement to Fortune:
“The producers of Hamilton regret the confusion that’s arisen from the recent posting of an open call casting notice for the show. It is essential to the storytelling of Hamilton that the principal roles—which were written for non-white characters (excepting King George)—be performed by non-white actors. This adheres to the accepted practice that certain characteristics in certain roles constitute a ‘bona fide occupational qualification’ that is legal. This also follows in the tradition of many shows that call for race, ethnicity or age specific casting, whether it’s The Color Purple or Porgy & Bess, or Matilda. The casting will be amended to also include language we neglected to add, that is, we welcome people of all ethnicities to audition for Hamilton.”
This year on the New York City stage, we have had several large-ensemble Broadway and Off-Broadway shows with all-white casts: Oh hi, Noises Off, She Loves Me, and Bright Star. None of these shows feature a single person of color. Not even in the ensemble. And the creative teams behind these shows are only scarcely more diverse.
All this precludes scandals like this one, in which a white actress was cast in the role of Japanese character “Christmas Eve” in Avenue Q. In this instance, the directors claimed they simply couldn’t find any talented Asian American actresses to play the role.
And then there are vocal and highly-publicized movements like #Oscarssowhite that get adopted by media outlets to seem like they’re racially sensitive, but real efforts to change casting practices are scarcely adopted in return?
These stories and many other unveil an uncomfortable truth: colorblind casting is a fiction. As any actor of color will tell you, when a casting notice does not mention race, it is usually taken for granted that they are looking for a Caucasian/white actor. Caucasian is the default.
The fact that white actors generally win the most coveted roles sometimes has to do with the creative team’s explicit prejudices, but more often, the problem is systemic. White, middle-to-upper class actors tend to receive better training. Which means they might jumpstart into a more prestigious career with a more successful network of connections. We might take white actors more seriously because we are used to them being more widely represented in their craft, in both stage and film. We might be afraid of the disconnect audiences will feel when they see a black actor in a traditionally white role. So the cycle continues.
One of the reasons why Hamilton is so successful is because it upsets this cycle and exposes its folly. It casts people of color as American Founding Fathers to not only make a political statement about the true nature of our country’s roots, but to also show us that whatever fear of non-realism we had, however we might have felt upon seeing a black rapper with an afro in sans-cullottes playing Thomas Jefferson-these feelings were superficial and were easily swept under the show’s fast-moving and rich narrative.
Imagine that I am a white actor, and I can rap very well. I fit the bill for one of the many roles in the show. I work hard. I’ve invested time and money in the best of training. My skills are admirable, perhaps as good as some of the principal actors currently in the show. But now I’m upset that I cannot audition for the show because of the non-white clause.
This is unfortunate for White Actor Me. It’s a setback. But, critically, it is not racism. My personal grievance does not equal a societal ill. To avoid making this a tit-for-tat situation let me phrase it this way: racism is always embedded within a power relationship.
In the industry as it stands, white people make up a good deal of our successful producers, actors, and creatives. Yes, the resentment that comes along with this success has led to some prejudice against whites, but to conflate this prejudice with racism is a mistake. Racism is a systemic issue where the threat against the minority’s livelihood is more than just perceived. As a rejected white actor, I can take my talents to nearly any Broadway theater. As a rejected actor of color, I better hope that a chorus member in On Your Feet! gets fired.
I’ve seen some actors commenting on how Hamilton, unlike The Color Purple or On Your Feet, should be colorblind because its content does not necessarily call for actors of color in the roles. There are two things wrong with this reasoning. First, under that same reasoning, shows like The Crucible (or frankly anything that takes places before the 1960s) have permission to be all-white for the sake of realism. They shouldn’t.
Secondly, we’ve already tried aligning casting with content. This is a very neutralized standpoint that places the power of casting with white privilege, because caucasian, as you remember, is the default. So black actors, don’t worry. Your chance for equal consideration will come the next time Martin Luther King Jr. gets his own Broadway show.
Hamilton has no responsibility to hold colorblind casting. The show itself is not colorblind. If the team were to cast a white actor in any one of the principal roles (excluding King George, of course), it would change a fundamental part of the show’s message. But more importantly, it would show actors of color around the world that white privilege has once again manipulated the industry to feed its own needs.