Hey Playwrights: Make American History as Diverse as America
Wednesday, August 26, 2015  •  
Wed Aug 26, 2015  •  
Broadway  •   9 comments Share This
Diversity is the shorthand for universality.

A few thoughts on making plays more inclusive


So I was sitting at a matinee of Hamilton on Broadway, listening to Phillipa Soo sing the last few bars of the show, when something happened to me that never happens in the theatre: I wept. Openly. I'm talking about tears-rolling-down-my-cheeks weeping. Because I had just seen a three-hour musical about the Founding Fathers, and the main characters – Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson – were played by actors of color. Because the last song was given to a Chinese-American actress playing Eliza Hamilton.

It wasn't historically accurate by any means, and it was one of the most powerful images I've seen this year.

"Why can't all theatre be like this?" I thought. If I had seen this kind of work when I was a kid – featuring characters on stage who were of the same racial background as I, as the people I grew up around – perhaps I would have fallen in love with theatre at a younger age (I didn't start enjoying plays until I was 19).

Happily, Hamilton is not the first production I've seen this year that's played fast and loose with historical characters, to disarming effect. Earlier this summer I saw another play, this time downtown, called Men on Boats, produced by Clubbed Thumb and written by playwright-to-watch Jaclyn Backhaus. In an ironic twist, even though the play was called Men on Boats and recreated John Powell's historic 1869 Colorado River expedition, the cast was made up entirely of women and trans actors. There were no cisgendered white men in the group. And the play sold out its entire run in days.

Both shows contradict the status quo for period dramas, either on stage or on the screen. Typically, people of color occupy one of two roles: side characters or slaves. Or if a boat is involved, they're the exotic denizens of some faraway land (ahem.) Women, meanwhile, are either cheerleaders or worried wives.

To put it another way: in historical works, women and people of color are often explicitly defined by their gender or the color of their skin (or both).

And really, it's not any better for non-period work. On New York stages, actors of color make up only 21 percent of all available roles. On the actual streets of New York City, however, the non-Caucasian and mixed-raced population is around 56 percent. So while New York City may house many theatres, those theatres do not necessarily represent New York City.

L to R: Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, & Jasmie Cephas Jones in Hamilton
L to R: Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, & Jasmie Cephas Jones in Hamilton

That's why what Miranda and Backhaus have done is revolutionary. By casting a Latino man as George Washington or a woman as John Powell, these artists aren't just giving much-needed work to some talented performers. They are also reaching out to today's audiences, today's New Yorkers, who are not all white or all male.

The message of these casting choices is clear: the history of America belongs to all Americans. To all the immigrants and their children who have had to struggle and fight for their shot. To all the intrepid explorers who yearn to put their mark on the world. It's as if Backhaus and Miranda are saying, "We know you are here, and this is your story too."

In a time when gender is no longer a binary, when Caitlyn Jenner is on the cover of Vanity Fair, and when there is a hunger for equal representation in entertainment (just look at the success of TV series like Orange is the New Black, Empire, and Scandal), all playwrights should feel empowered to pull a John Powell and be a pioneer – to be a part of the progressive conversation. And as Men on Boats suggest, they don't need a Broadway budget in order to make waves.

So playwrights, here are some requests: Write in your script that the actors in the show should not be all-white. Write multifaceted characters and cast them across the color and gender spectrum. Create a multiracial family with two mothers and have everyone behave like it's the most natural thing in the world. Because these days, it is.

In short, put the people you want in your audience in your plays. Because then that young man, woman, or genderqueer individual of color won't walk past your marquee thinking, "This story isn't for me."

I know, of course, that a common criticism against non-traditional casting, especially in period works, is: "It's not believable." But what is theatre if not a giant, communal suspension of disbelief? In Shakespeare's time, men played women, white men played Othello, and Cleopatra spoke the Queen's English. Theatre audiences were not and are not obsessed with flawlessly accurate period detail. They just want a fantastic story with memorable performances. And any actor – man or woman, of any race – when handed a killer script, can give that experience to an audience.

What Hamilton and Men on Boats are proving is that historical accuracy is not necessary and that "white and male" are no longer the shorthand for universality. Diversity is the shorthand for universality.

The closing song of Hamilton asks, "Who tells your story?" The answer is those who put the faces of today's America on the stage.


Follow Diep Tran at @DiepThought. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top photo -- featuring the cast of Men on Boats -- by Elke Young. Hamilton photo by Joan Marcus.

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Kevin Stanfa said:
I completely support and agree that theater should be as diverse as the city it comes from. But in commercial theater, especially Broadway, the audiences are not as diverse as New York. The price of a ticket to see a show on Broadway or in some cases even Off-Broadway is only within reach of those that can afford it. Shouldn't we address making heater accessible by a diversity of people?
Posted on 8/28/2015 at 1:04 PM
Sandra Harrison said:
Hispanic is not a race. Demographics of US don't match yours or even most theater audiences. Nothing new (Peter Pan, Cinderella, Pippen, Jesus Christ Superstar, Swan Lake) But, would it work in Jersey Boys? Miss Saigon with Jonathan Pryce criticized for not using an Asian. Reverse doesn't work-using whites to play black roles like in Wilson's plays; Porgy & Bess. Reverse discrimination.
Posted on 8/28/2015 at 5:12 PM
Jeff said:
I wasn't aware the point of historical theater pieces was to reach out to multiple races/sexes/sexual orientations... Silly me I thought it was to try to fairly accurately depict history. Is our history now no longer worthy of accurate representation, but instead beholden to today's special interest groups? Where will this ridiculous "must not offend anyone, facts be damned" philosophy end?
Posted on 8/29/2015 at 2:56 AM
Anita said:
My daughter has been going to broadway shows, (once a year, for her birthday) for 14 years. She has been interested in pursuing a career in the theater but because she is not white, I have discouraged her from trying. In all of the years we have been going to see live theater we have rarely seen good, solid, roles for girls/women who look like her. Great article!
Posted on 8/30/2015 at 8:41 AM
Elaine Rosenthal said:
This article reinforces my belief and teaching that the theater should transport you to another place; get you out of your skin and into someone else's reality, so you can appreciate and experience the plights of others, and hopefully expand your emotional horizons and open your heart and mind.
Posted on 8/30/2015 at 11:56 AM
C Pittari said:
I look forward to a day when casting is color blind. However I believe that to attract a more diverse audience, theater must become more affordable to all Americans and their children, not just tourists visiting NYC. American youth need cultivation to appreciate theater. Current ticket pricing makes that impossible for the average family.
Posted on 8/30/2015 at 8:32 PM
MelissaBell said:
Hamilton is an amazing show and all the ethnicities and race identities melt away and the character become alive and believable just as they are. The music and dialogue, which is rap, is just another way of telling a story in the most concise and entertaining way. Go, go, go see this show!
Posted on 8/31/2015 at 9:50 PM
Sander Gusinow said:
Diversity onstage is essential. However, when we look at Alexander Hamilton and Founding Fathers, they lived in an extremely racist power structure. Hamilton was an abolitionist, yes, but he reversed his position when it became unpopular. Is colorblind casting negating the racial politics of that era, and thus not painting the full picture. Then again, who cares? This play is amazing.
Posted on 10/12/2015 at 11:46 AM
Brigit Clarke-Smith said:
LOVE the concept! MEN ON BOATS played by WOMEN! GREAT shot of the cast above!!!!!
Posted on 8/21/2016 at 8:46 PM
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