Actors fight Whitewashing of Ethnic Characters on Broadway
HOST INTRO: A new study from the The Asian American Performers Action Coalition says the last Broadway season was the most diverse in a decade. But many actors of color aren’t celebrating just yet. A group of actors is trying to prevent ethnic appropriation, or the whitewashing of roles on Broadway. As Juan Torres-Falcon found they want to stop Caucasian actors from playing roles written for other ethnicities.
TORRES-FALCON 1: Courtney Daniels is proud – this year she’s signed her first lease to her very own New York City Apartment.
What’s your favorite part of your apartment?
I love my toilet. I am a fan of sitting on the toilet and talkin’ to people even if I’m not using it. I love everything about my bathroom. I live in the Bronx so it’s not gentrified yet. Thank you! Rent still cheap. How you doing? (00:20)
TORRES-FALCON 2: Having her own apartment is a big achievement for her. It’s a sign of success. i But finding that success has been tough. Daniels is a comedian and a musical theatre actress and ……[pause here before you read ]she is black. She thinks that there aren’t enough opportunities for actors of color on stage.
There are no story lines for us. I know they’re coming. I you know, you have Hamilton breaking barriers. That’s great. That’s wonderful. That’s also like um,one show. Um, if you look at the statistics and it. We hold 8 percent of the shows on broadway. 8 percent.
TORRES-FALCON 3: Daniels is referring to a internal study released last year by Actor’s Equity, the union that represents stage actors. It found that less than 8 percent of roles went to African Americans, that percentage dropped to just over 1.5 percent for Asian Actors. Now many actors of color are joining forces to help raise those percentages. Lauren VIllegas is one of them
Her call to arms came when the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre, for which she had worked, released the cast list of whitewashed production of Evita, a musical about the life of Argentinian First Lady Eva Peron.
Uh Marriott Theater God bless them and they were doing a production of Evita and the cast announcement was like literally one Latino person one the rest were all white people.
TORRES-FALCON 3: Villegas says the problem is more than just making sure that there are roles for actors of color, she wants to make sure they are actually played by actors of color.
and why people like no like I knew most of that cast they were mostly my friends like people I’ve worked with and love and think are great people and that’s when I had a light bulb moment of like, oh my God, my friends have no idea that this hurts me. (00:23)
TORRES-FALCON 4: Villegas organized an aggressive online campaign attacking the theatre for its casting choices. And although Marriott Lincolnshire didn’t change the cast of Evita, the regional theatre made a bold choice the following season
They really heard us. They did way better like they did Bridges Madison County the next season and they cast a black man as Robert. Why not?
TORRES-FALCON 5: There’s nothing in the script that says the actor has to be caucasian. Still, that role was played in the film version by Clint Eastwood. And although Villegas thought that casting choice was a great first step, she says that preventing the kind of whitewashing in that production of Evita.isn’t just the responsibility of producers and directors. She wants actors to stay away from auditions and roles that they don’t identify with ethnically. Last Month similar online fallout caused Broadway actress Sierra Boggess to step down from playing the role of Maria in a West Side Story for the BBC. Boggess is Caucasian, but Maria is, Puerto-Rican. New York audition coach Sheri Sanders is caucasian too. And she thinks that it may have been ok to have a caucasian person in the role when the West Side Story film came out in 1961, but she teaches her students that it isn’t anymore.
You need to identify. This character is Latin American. She is Hispanic. She’s Brazilian she Spanish. She’s Portuguese. She’ll be any of those. But what needs to happen is that you need to say it is not mine to play.
We could look at Maria and say Maria is…Latin-American, this is her. experience. She’ having it is not an it is not um a, Caucasian experience. Therefore Caucasians should not be seeking that rollout. So in order to be an incredible activist and friend, we can do that inside the Arts and the best way to do that.
Once again, my dear beautiful Caucasian friends is to back up back up. Back off know that this is just not your place and it’s totally okay because there’s tons and tons and tons of other places for you.
TORRES-FALCON 7: Not everyone agrees with Sanders. I spoke with two casting directors who both told me they have felt frustrated after not being able to cast their first choices for Broadway roles, because the actors were white and that frustrated them. They did not want to be named because of potential fallout. Take the case of well-known Hollywood acting coach Lesly Kahn. She came under fire and later apologized after a tape surfaced of her telling a non-Hispanic student during one of her classes, that she would have a better chance of landing an agent and “booking a series” if she changes her name to Rosa Ramirez and pretends to be Latina.
Tell them you’re Latin. Wear something f*cking red. Wear some f*cking sparkly earrings. Change your goddamned name, and let’s just do an experiment.
TORRES-FALCON 8: Kahn declined requests to comment. Navigating all of this is even complicated for actors of color. Like Deon Oliverio. He has hard time deciding what to and what not to audition for as a person of color that can “pass” for many different ethnicities.
TORRES-FALCON 9: “Did you grow up on a reservation?”
Yeah, my family like all still lives there.
Oliverio is a Native American and Italian actor. He has hard time deciding what to and what not to audition for as a person of color that can “pass” for many different ethnicities.
It’s hard because like you don’t want to offend anyone but me being the niche that I’m in I still need to do whatever I can to try to get a job because I’d rather be an actor than than like a flower salesman.
TORRES-FALCON 10: Oliverio says there aren’t really any roles for Native Americans on the Broadway stage, but he does get lots of auditions to play Latinos …and he often feels torn. Oliverio feels like he should be in those audition rooms, but he doesn’t always feel welcome, even though he was invited to be there.
I don’t really want to draw attention to myself when I’m not performing in the audition because I don’t want to draw attention to the fact that I’m not really supposed to be there, you know.
TORRES-FALCON 11: As a an actor myself, I can attest to how confusing this can all get. I’m Afro-Cuban-American. My father is black of Nigerian Descent and my mother white of Spanish descent. And I have the 23 and Me Reports to prove it. But I can’t count the times I’ve gotten the “NO WAY, but aren’t you Cuban or Puerto Rican” response from a casting director when they find out I’m black. I have also felt pressure to audition for roles I shouldn’t have because a casting director asked me to, like the King and I, which is set in Thailand. But I didn’t want to come off as rude…and, like a lot of actors facing this predicament – I needed the money.
TORRES-FALCON 9: But Lauren Villegas thinks this isn’t just about business
VILLEGAS So like don’t forget that when you go to take an audition that it isn’t just about you. It’s about who you’re telling the story to and how the body you walk around the world and Is Not Invisible you get up on that stage and it’s still you the audience still sees you and that matters
TORRES-FALCON 10: Villegas wants audiences to see people of color telling their own stories and she wants all actors to remember that before they audition.
The TONY Awards are less than a month away and only 3 of the 10 nominations for best actor and actress in a musical went to actors of color. For Columbia Radio News, I’m Juan Torres-Falcon.