Theatre Department Addresses Race on Stage

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Theatre Department Addresses Race on Stage

By Cate Heiner

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It started with a play.

Last spring, the theatre department announced “Bring It On” would open the season. While some students expressed excitement at the choice–after all, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote it, and his other play “Hamilton” was making waves–others were more concerned. The primary question revolved around a question of how to respectfully cast roles originally played by actors of color.

“Bring It On,” which originally opened on Broadway in 2012, was based on a popular movie series about competitive cheerleading. The musical has a similar plot, following head cheerleader Campbell on her transfer to Jackson High, a school with no cheerleading squad. However, Campbell makes friends with Danielle, Nautica, and La Cienega, and they morph Jackson’s dance squad into a cheerleading team. The films and the musical also incorporate a discussion of how race and privilege are expressed, playing off of the bright, blonde cheerleader’s discomfort with being in a school where no one looks like her.

The story is lighthearted, the music has elements of pop and hip-hop, but there was still that question of casting. In a department not known for a diverse casting pool, how would roles with non-white characters be filled?

How theatres handle race with casting has been a long-standing discussion. For some, the term “color blind casting” may sound familiar, as it suggests that acting ability and skill should prioritize race when considering an actor. However, this type of casting can severely backfire. For example, take Kent State University’s production of “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall last year. The play, which dramatizes Dr. Martin Luther King’s last night, was double cast. For one half of the performances, Martin Luther King was played by a white man. This caused an uproar among theatre artists, and the playwright added a statement that dictates roles be played by African-American actors. In an effort to respond to these types of events, the term “color blind” has been replaced by “color conscious.” Rather than stating that directors and producers will not “see” color when casting, color conscious indicates that roles will be cast with the race of the actor in mind.

In response to “Bring It On,” the theatre department created a color conscious casting policy. In the policy, it states that the department will “work diligently to cast actors of the appropriate race, ethnicity and gender identity when a script requires us to do so.” The policy, which was announced at a town hall meeting last spring, was created in an effort to respond to both student concern for the season and a growing awareness of how race is addressed on stage.

Monica Goff, a junior in the Actor Training Program, recognizes that this is a step in the right direction, but there is also a long way to go. “It will all depend on who is admitted in following years and whether or not we as a full department make an effort to continue to honor the policy and the groups that it serves. Anyone can claim to be conscious about marginalized groups, but it takes commitment and hard work to work through these issues.”

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