#OscarsSoWhite and Representation on Broadway in 2016

Recently, one of the biggest topics in the media has been the lack of racial representation in this year’s Academy Awards. This is the second year in the row in which the nominees in the acting categories are all caucasian. Many people think there should be more representation in these awards, while others argue that the reason that there is less representation is because there are fewer quality films being made starring people of color. While Hollywood might have a diversity issue, Broadway has brought diversity to the forefront, especially this current season.

Let’s look at the obvious example: Hamilton. The show utilizes a multiracial cast in order to tell the story of our Founding Fathers. The most important aspect of this casting is that, save for having a white man as King George, the race of the actors has nothing to do with the most literal version of the history. For example, Phillipa Soo was not cast as Eliza Schuyler because Eliza was supposed to be Asian American but rather because of Soo’s talent (and buttery vocals). And by populating Hamilton’s world with the immensely talented actors of color who make up the cast, Hamilton affirms that the story of America belongs to all Americans, not just Americans who happen to look like the historical founding fathers.

And while Hamilton is easily the most high-profile musical since Rent, it’s not the only musical to bring diversity to Broadway. Let’s take a look at some of the other current shows that have great representation of racial and ethnic diversity.

Until Allegiance this season, Asian American actors really only had The King And I, Flower Drum Song, or Miss Saigon. Allegiance tells the story of Japanese Americans’ experiences in internment camps in the 1940s. Inspired by the personal stories of actor George Takei, the cast also features Lea Salonga, Telly Leung, and a host of talented Asian American actors.

Likewise, the upcoming Shuffle Along (starring Audra McDonald) is a musical in which race is an important factor in casting. The original 1921 production of Shuffle Along also featured an all-African American cast, and it was written and produced by African Americans as well – which was incredibly rare for such a high-profile production at the time. The upcoming Shuffle Along not only features the original 1921 show but also tells the story of how it was created. This musical is a great opportunity for African American actors, and it will be great to get a glimpse into theater history, too.

I think it’s important to note that there’s a difference between telling stories that are specifically about members of a particular racial or ethnic group (like Allegiance and Shuffle Along) and telling stories where the characters’ races don’t figure into the plot, giving casting directors the great opportunity to cast the most talented performers of any race. Too often, roles like this are labeled “all ethnicities” but end up going to caucasian performers. Both kinds of representation are crucial, and it’s great to see both kinds of stories in this year’s lineup of Broadway musicals. I personally would especially like to see an increase in color-conscious casting – where actors of all races have an equal shot at any role where the character’s race isn’t specified in the story.

That’s why one of my favorite casting moments this season is Kimiko Glenn in Waitress. Most audiences know Glenn as Brook Soso on Orange Is The New Black on Netflix, but now she’s making her Broadway debut! Adrienne Shelley, a caucasian actress, played Glenn’s character, Dawn, in the Waitress film. However, Dawn’s race is not an aspect of the plot. It’s exciting to see color-conscious casting and that the casting directors and the (all-female! Yas!) creative team of Waitress opted to cast the most talented person for the job rather than limiting themselves based on the movie’s arbitrary casting decision. (Like I need any more reasons to be excited for Waitress, but still.)

And these aren’t the only examples, even from this season. Look at the revival of The Color Purple or the casting of deaf and wheelchair-using performers in Spring Awakening. Broadway has become a proponent of diversity, even going beyond racial diversity. Of course, Broadway still has a long way to go, but even still, Hollywood could take a page from Broadway in terms of promoting diversity through art.

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