In the past two weeks, the UT theatre department has found itself caught in a casting controversy, and racial inequalities may be to blame. According to a Daily Texan article published Oct. 30, the department chose “In the Heights,” a drama about 12 young Dominican Americans living in New York, as the upcoming musical.
However, according to the department, there were not enough students whose races matched those of the characters of the play and met all the audition requirements, so many theatre students were left without leading roles.
Consequently, the majority of the main parts will not be played by UT students. Instead, nine out of 12 of the lead roles were contracted to actors outside the University.
For theatre students, this situation is not only frustrating but infuriating. The casting decision bars students from getting the on-stage experience they need to succeed in their industry. If the students only have one musical per semester, being unable to participate in “In the Heights” is, for white students, a valuable opportunity gone.
But non-white students face this problem on a regular basis. Generally, lead roles in productions set in a specific place and time period are racially restricting. The main cast of characters tends to be all of one race: Try and remember the last time there was a mixed-race version of “Oklahoma!”
However, many non-white students who finally saw an opportunity to act in a lead role were not cast.
In more modern musicals, such as “Rent,” a multiethnic cast is necessary, but musicals written to be multiethnic may not be the norm. The solution may lie in non-traditional casting. According to Angela Pao in her book “No Safe Spaces: Re-casting Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in American Theater,” a trend toward recasting classic musicals with a multiethnic and multiracial cast is growing, with the aims of increasing employment for non-white actors and challenging racial stereotypes. This trend is often criticized for disrupting the “reality effect” of the performance, causing the performance to be either too realistic or not realistic enough by making the audience aware of its unfulfilled expectations between the character and the actor’s appearance.
Pao, interestingly, argues that recasting does not threaten the realism of the performance per se, but rather “the normativity of white social and cultural dominance.” In other words, our pre-existing notions of how people of different races and ethnicities should interact in the United States may cause us to feel a disconnect between what we see onstage and what we experience in our culture and is furthered by an underlying “whiteness” of American identity.
If theatre is supposed to be a reflection of reality, the controversy in the UT theatre department speaks to a larger problem in our society. In order to give students the opportunity to play lead roles, the department had to overlook other students’ needs and choose a play that requires a cast that could not accommodate as many people as possible.
That a musical with ethnically varied characters was not chosen — and might not have been available — shows the deep racial divides that still mark our society but go relatively unnoticed. That recasting a musical with an ethnically varied main cast, as Pao advises, was out of the question shows that even the leaders of the department may be normalized to the white social and cultural dominance that Pao writes about.
This controversy extends past our University and into the societal norms that we have come to accept. Rather than blaming the department for its choices in production and casting, we must look critically at the factors that drove those choices. That is the only way that the citizens of our multiethnic University will actually have the opportunities they deserve, both on the stage and in the world at large.
Franklin is a Plan II, linguistics and Middle Eastern languages and cultures senior from Sugar Land.