The Hamilton casting notice brouhaha is no even-handed controversy. It’s childish carping by callous and prejudiced people railing against people of color who’ve been mistreated far too often for far too long. I don’t really want to waste a post railing against the railers. So let’s talk about Brigadoon.
Brigadoon is about a magic town in Scotland that disappears and reappears every hundred years. It’s stumbled on by two post-war Americans, and this prompts some excellent songs. I particularly admire how composer Frederick Loewe gets the best-known tune, Almost Like Being In Love, to fit both the contemporary vernacular and also 18th century Great Britain. I played the lead in this show when I was in Eighth Grade. The following year, my high school did it. And, unsurprisingly, every production I’ve ever seen of Brigadoon has used an all-white cast.
Now, why is that? Well, in the theatre, we blithely accept the idea that a director has a vision for a show. Most directors want to cast their 18th century Scottish town with nothing but white folks, because that’s how Scotland really was. And they don’t trust that the audience will accept Anglo-Saxons played by People of Color.
Yet, they do trust that the audience will accept that a town has a magic curse placed on it, which involves everybody going to sleep and waking up in the next century. Because, you see, that sort of thing happens all the time.
As does people breaking out in song.
But, yeah, we respect that “director’s vision” thing. And we’re fine with directors casting whomever they want. It’s not as if we require that directors cast the most talented performers that can be found. Some, it seems, would rather see an all-white Brigadoon than a Brigadoon cast with the most talented performers available: a certain percentage of those are minorities. If theatre were a meritocracy, the magical hamlet in the highlands would have a multi-racial population.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Performers of Color truly encounter casting notices that say “only Caucasians will be considered” both literally and in effect, all the time. We writers look at this situation and sometimes respond by creating characters that either CAN be cast non-white, or MUST be cast non-white. Two of my shows starred the rich-voiced actor Jay Aubrey Jones. In one he played a character written as black; in the other he played a character with no race designated. He was wonderful in both roles.
Suppose you’ve written a musical filled with MUST-be-minority roles. And it’s a smash hit. As a result every young performer really really wants to be in it. Your casting notice for replacements for those roles might be totally upfront and honestly state that, this time, no whites will be considered. The writer, in this case, had a vision, and the director shares it, telling a story with ethnic minorities. Who’s going to complain about this want ad?
Only a beneficiary of White Privilege who is blind to the realities Performers of Color face. A typical day in the life of a non-white actor involves auditioning for white directors who don’t, can’t or won’t imagine any dark faces in the cast. This season’s two most notable musicals, Hamilton and Shuffle Along, represent a rare reversal of the status quo. They’re celebrations of not-so-pale talent. If you’re going to complain about that, you’re an asshole.
The so-called “civil rights attorney” who started the current kerfuffle is right in line with bigots you hear calling in to right wing talk radio, shouting about white folks’ rights being taken away. As if fair treatment of other ethnicities will lessen their white privilege somehow. I long ago gave up listening to talk radio in disgust. I’m incensed to read about something similar in theatre-related media.
But here’s another problem. So-called “theatre journalists” aren’t really doing their job. They print press releases as truth; they don’t take the trouble to figure out whether a story’s worth reporting. This one was not, and only served to make a lot of people angry and give publicity to an undeserving asshole lawyer. [Insert joke here.]
It’s easy to imagine this on a broader scale: What if national journalists gave free media exposure to an asshole plutocrat who regularly made racist statements?
Nah: That could never happen here.