The Girls on the Go: You’re Not “White Audra” (and Other Thoughts on Race)
Let me start off by saying I am white. If you think you’re “Colorblind,” that’s a story for another day, but I promise that my whiteness is relevant to this discussion.
When I set out to write The Girls on the Go, I knew I wanted to tackle the ways in which musical theatre needs to change with respect to women. In the case of race, though, this goes far beyond the fact that Muzzy Van Hossmere didn’t have much of a backstory, and that nobody called out Mrs. Meers for yellowface.
Musical theatre is an art form commonly associated with privilege, financial and otherwise. New York City is the mecca of musical theatre, and there’s a reason Roger and Mark adamantly refused to pay the rent. In the states, schools need ample budgets to keep theatre departments alive. Tours frequent expensive cities and charge an arm and a leg for tickets (regardless of how well the company gets paid!).
Musical theatre’s privilege exists outside of money as well. Unfortunately, we live in a world where people who have certain qualities are given more opportunities than others. When it comes to racial privilege, here’s a fact of life that makes people uncomfortable: We don’t live in a post-racial society, because white people have it way easier than people of color. The musical theatre world is not exempt from this.
The performing arts have long been considered a haven for marginalized people. We still have to face the unfortunate truth that even when musicals represent societal outcasts…They are predominantly white societal outcasts. And that’s a problem.
For example, I am a gay woman, and it is definitely a straight man’s world. There are laws and cultural myths that make my life more difficult than that of a heterosexual and/or male counterpart… But, as I mentioned earlier, I am still white, which affords me a great amount of privilege in our society.
I may have soul, struggle, relatively thick vocal folds, and friends who are people of color, but at the end of the day, my life experience still is that of a white person. I will never really know what it is like to be a person of color. For that reason, I have decided to never play roles specifically written for non-white people.
There are people who believe that musical theatre needs more “Strong female roles.” But out of all the “Strong Female Roles” that already exist, how many of them are written for or are inclusive of women of color? Not enough. At all.
As I mentioned before, I am white, and that comes with privilege. It also means that I absolutely am not and should not be the only voice in discussions of race. We all need to listen to people of color in our lives and in this industry. Here are just a few of my thoughts, but I know there is always more to learn and more to improve:
- If you don’t think there are cultural stereotypes in musical theatre, you’re not listening closely enough. Look at audition breakdowns, specifically those for character roles. Are all Latinas “Fiery” in real life? Are black women only capable of singing riffs and gospel? Think about it.
- Speaking of riffing, I don’t care how great you are at melisma – if you’re white, you’re white. White people riffing isn’t necessarily racist in general, but putting on affectations (dialects, makeup, etc.) to “seem black” or any other race is reminiscent of the less-than-proud moments in show-biz history. When white people perform with the intent to mimic black people, it is minstrel-y as hell. Remember the song “White Audra?” It’s catchy as all get-out and may be truthful to some white girls’ experiences, but we can’t “Cross the racial divide” when we don’t have racial equality. It just smacks of cultural appropriation.
- I would be willing to bet that your favorite musical was written by a white person. If it was written by a person of color, give me ten guesses or less and I could probably figure out what your favorite musical is. That’s sad. My point is this: If we want more diverse characters in musical theatre, we need to make room for more diverse writers in musical theatre.
Activism is fun when you’re writing a catchy song to uplift LGBTQ youth. Activism isn’t as fun when you’re re-evaluating the lens with which you view the world. I know this piece wasn’t as laden with theatre references and words like “Gritty” and “Organic” and “Truth,” but this is a discussion artists need to have, despite the discomfort. Here’s where you come in: In the comments, tell me about your experiences with race as it relates to musical theatre. What are the racial stereotypes in musical theatre that you would like to challenge? What can white performers, composers, lyricists, and book-writers do to create works that are inclusive and empowering to people of color?
It’s time for us to start this conversation. Will you join me?
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