Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is an anomaly. For a musical about an American founding father to achieve cult status beyond its home turf is strange and unprecedented. Yet night after night, the musical plays to a full house, eliciting powerful responses from its audiences. The reason Hamilton is extremely successful, even in “the stubbornly white world of British theatre”, is because of its explicit multi-racial casting. Latinx, Asian and black actors are cast as the founding fathers, challenging and subverting narratives of whiteness. For Thomas Kail, this is not an example of “colour-blind casting… [rather,] it felt essential”.
Challenging dominant histories
There is dual subversion in the casting of Hamilton—not only does it challenge who participates in history-making and history-telling of the nation-state, it also challenges the dominant history of theatre in the western world, which is built on erasure and stereotyping of minorities.
The most popular example of this would of course be blackface, where white actors would paint their faces black and perform exaggerated, stereotypical caricatures of black people. Even when there was no caricaturing, blackface was routinely used to depict black characters on stage—up until the 1980’s in Britain, white men were routinely cast in Shakespeare’s Othello, and performed with blackface.
Nearly forty years since, not much has changed. Even in the absence of blackface in theatre, POC actors are rarely cast as leads in major theatrical productions.
In 2016, a group of actors accumulated data that found that over 80% of roles in major Broadway productions go to white actors, even when the roles are not explicitly race-bound. Attempts of colour-blind casting of landmark plays—even as recently as 2017—of a black Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016) and a black George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (2017) were met with widespread opposition from both the audiences and the estate of the plays. The argument used most frequently by these groups is that these roles were not ‘written’ for non-white actors. This argument is racist, because it reads racialized codes even when they aren’t present. Audiences assume that the white actor is the default for a leading role, precisely because that is what has historically happened.
Re-evaluating the ‘tradition’ of white actors
Yet an adherence to a ‘tradition’ of white actors, in a living text like a play, feels obsolete. All cultural texts (like books, films and especially plays), are open to re-interpretation and re-examination, based on the social pulse of the period. The form of the play, especially, is based on a live immediacy that responds to the needs of the contemporary moment.
Casting white actors for the sake of history—especially in this postcolonial moment, when people are actively speaking out against the historical marginalization of people of colour—is racist erasure.
Interestingly, the one arena where there has been (relatively) accepted non-traditional casting is Shakespeare’s plays. Recent productions of Hamlet and King Lear starred black actors in the lead roles. That being said; even in colour-blind castings of different productions of plays, BAME actors were mostly assigned to stereotypical and problematic roles, such as of the ‘best friend’ or the ‘servant’ of the lead. As such, casting a non-white actor in a lead role in a story that isn’t explicitly about race or minorities is still construed as ‘radical’.
This points at a major problem in western theatre: plays by white playwrights are overrepresented and plays by POC playwrights remain underrepresented. These plays considered to reflect minority experiences only: rarely are they treated as plays with ‘universal values’.
This strikes one as especially odd, considering the number of plays by white, male playwrights (from Shakespeare to Albee, Miller and Ionesco) that are prescribed in syllabi and performed for their ‘universal values’ across Asia and Africa—far from the contexts the playwrights were writing in. This is not to say that minority experiences should not be expressed and valued in theatre: the problem is that these experiences should not be relegated to a niche status.
This undervalues the power of these plays, which visibly affects audience and revenue for these plays.
Plays of ‘minority experiences’ rarely make it to massive playhouses, instead playing at smaller venues, which affects their reach, budget and actors’ pay.
Even as organizations like the Arts Council England strive to increase visibility of minority theatre groups by funding and supporting them, during budget cuts BAME theatre groups are the ones most disproportionately affected. By limiting funding, there is only limited outreach to these voices—which reinforces the domination of western drama by a white, male canon.
Strangely, even without direct engagement, this domination is not lost on a theatre-loving audience. One of the most memorable lines in Hamilton is “Immigrants, we get the job done”, because it gets the audiences cheering in every performance. There is something unusual happening on stage—a ‘non-traditional cast’ is making a ‘non-traditional’ statement about both history and the stage. If anything, this reaction of the audience indicates that we need more ‘non-traditional’ voices to “tell [our] story”.