On Colorblind Casting and Diversity Onstage
Nikki M. James, Keke Palmer, Norm Lewis, and Kyle Scatliffe all have one thing in common: they are people of color who are currently playing traditionally “white” roles on Broadway. Nikki M. James and Kyle Scatliffe play Eponine and Enjolras, respectively, in Les Miserables. Keke Palmer recently acquired the title role in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Norm Lewis frightens audiences 8 times a week as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. While all four performers have received criticism for their race and the roles they’re playing, they have made an even bigger statement and inspired more people than could ever judge them and the casting directors’ decisions.
There are many reasons casting directors should implement colorblind casting, the main one being the importance of representation. Child psychologists have studied the effects of children of color watching white-washed media. These studies reveal that not having people of a similar race and ethnicity to look up to in the media instills insecurity and a general lack of confidence in the children. Also, it leads to the same children believing they cannot pursue a career in the arts.
Aside from the importance of media portrayal, think about all the lost talent because of racial barriers in casting! I’d personally love to see a younger Lea Salonga play Sandy in Grease, for example. A whole new world of performers could become stars if casting directors and audiences didn’t care about race.
The biggest criticism against colorblind casting is realism and historical accuracy. Yes, it may be strange to have a black actress with two white parents in 17th century France. But I have to argue that having people break out in song and dance is also strange, but it’s what makes musical theatre so popular. If we can defy reality and watch characters fly and tap dance on stage, I think we can do the same for race-bent casting.
And what’s even better than colorblind casting? Shows written for people of color! I wouldn’t complain about more Memphises, Miss Saigons, and West Side Stories in this world. That’s why I encourage new musical theatre writers to break boundaries and write for all races and promote colorblind casting. We all saw how amazing Lea Salonga’s Fantine was; let’s bring more of that into the musical theatre world!