Race in the Theatre

I wish more theatres in St. Louis would be colorblind. Many pay lip service to it in audition announcements (Theatre X seeks racially diverse cast for [insert show here]), but fail to make it appear on their stages. I will give them the benefit-of-the-doubt so much; African-American, Asian, and Latino actors actually do go to auditions. I will not point fingers at any one theatre. If they’re reading this and sweating, they already know who they are. All that said, a few theatres in town do more than just say it. They do it.

A lot of people say that I need to use my position in society (you know, the “white privilege” that small-minded white folks hate hearing about) to advocate for change, so I’m going to.

Scott Miller and I, two white men, have spoken about this lamentable state of affairs several times. I’ve told him, and he agrees, that unless the story is specifically about race or gender, it should not matter who plays a character. Before anyone starts arguing that we need to reflect the proper order of things, can we all agree that theatre, even a musical, relies on the suspension of disbelief? All agreed? Good. The only thing that should matter is whether the person cast can accurately portray the story being told.

Scott follows this rule accidentally, I think. If you look at his casts, especially more recently, they skew heavily toward diversity because he sees the characters first. He doesn’t care what you look like, he cares whether you can tell the story. He doesn’t look to make statements with casting, either. Sometimes it just happens (Did you see our American Idiot? Favorite Son was played a Filipino-American actor and Scott didn’t realize he had done that until three or four weeks into the rehearsal process—for those unfamiliar with American Idiot, Favorite Son is a soldier and supposed to be a reflection of the perfect soldier, sexy, cocky, horny, and white).

Alternately, we do need to strive for more shows that give non-white and non-male actors greater visibility. It is a shame and disgraceful that so many talented people are left in the background for reasons as ridiculous as tradition (thanks, Tevye). Theatre should be a place that reflects diversity in our community as well as give a voice to those who think they have none. Besides, isn’t everyone tired of white bread? I am… I gotta have nuts and oats and fruit in my bread (but not fruitcake… Gross stuff, that).

What brings this up? Beyond being a problem, I’ve been reflecting on the furor that surrounded Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s appearance on the Grammy’s. I know, I know; its ancient history already. For those who’ve already forgotten that beautiful moment, here’s a video to refresh your memory (sadly, I couldn’t find an actual video to embed…).

And the “backlash” (read: racism):


There’s a lot more I can no longer find…

Or the reaction to Noma Dumezweni being cast as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child:


It really saddens me that people cannot see past their own biases about things (as Rowling said, nowhere in the Harry Potter books is Hermione ever referred to as white), nor their own notions of what makes for good and compelling storytelling. Part of the blame lies with the theatres. We do not do enough to show you, the audience, the diversity we have in this world and the storytelling we can do. Again, unless you’re seeing Hairspray or a person’s character depends on race or gender (like MLK or Gloria Steinem), there is no reason to consider those traits. We, as viewers, can suspend our disbelief and follow the story.

I want to go a step further with this post: We need diversity not only onstage but backstage as well. It is necessary in the director’s chair, in the technicians and musicians, in the hand that holds the playwright’s pen. That can only happen when YOU demand it. Make your voice heard. Vote with your wallet and talk about it. You do your part, and we in theatre will do our part.

My part is this: The Scene Shop is hosting a series of panels beginning in June discussing diversity in the theatre. Our first one is on race. I hope to see you there.


Sean featured sizeSean Michael is a local actor and director as well as founder of The Scene Shop. He has been seen on stages from St. Charles to Grand Center. See what’s next for him on his website.


**DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of THE SCENE SHOP.




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