Color-conscious casting may place excessive responsibility on marginalized populations
The purpose of color-conscious casting is to rethink our cultural narrative and empower silenced voices. But if misused, color-conscious casting could limit the BIPOC community’s opportunities and leave the burden of representing their entire identity on their shoulders.
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First off, let us acknowledge that both in theory and in practice, color-conscious casting actively seeks to support marginalized voices and has proven to deliver nuanced stories relevant to the global context. But it is also important to note that in the wrong hands, color-conscious casting could be manipulated to silence the voices of the BIPOC community. In an article for The Guardian, David Oyelowo explains that he prefers to decide for himself, as an actor of color, whether or not a role is worth his time. He plays Javert in BBC’s 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables. While a man of color would not serve in such a position of power in 1830’s Paris, Oyelowo explains that this is one of the reasons why he took the role. The Guardian warns against “naturalistic casting,” which is inevitably rooted in the systemic racism of our global timeline. While this method considers race, it does so under the guise of historical accuracy, which would bar Oyelowo from portraying a character just as he would have been barred from the actual job of police chief in the 19th century. This is a sort of reenactment of racist policies in the name of color-conscious casting. Oyelowo explains that in reality, the lack of nuanced thought or ability to imagine a world where racism does not dictate power (while still acknowledging that in our world, it does) serves as the secret antithesis to color-conscious casting. In a think-piece for American Theatre, actor Greig Sargeant draws attention to his right to play characters in theatrical pieces which talk about race and in pieces which do not. As one of the only people of color in the cast, Sargeant plays a prisoner in theatre company Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of "Measure for Measure". Shortly after the production, critic Maya Phillips noted that casting the only black man as a felon was a racially insensitive choice, and yet Sargeant pushes back on this point. He has been a member of this very theatre company for about ten years and with their support has played roles which men of color are often denied but that which he deserved and executed well. Most important to Sargeant is his autonomy and authority in making the decision to play a role; he explains that if he found a role dehumanizing, he would be the first to say it and walk out. The kingdom of Shakespeare, he clarifies, is not an inviting space for people of color and he sees the role of Claudio as an unfortunately rare opportunity. Sargeant also explains that the text calls for a body double as a part of the plan to protect Claudio, but the ensemble spent an extensive amount of time staging the scene, acknowledging the climate of racial violence and their desire to avoid sending the message that one “black body can be replaced by another.” Sargeant resents the blame that Phillips seems to place on him, when he believes Phillips missed the point of the story. In a world in which he needs to work twice as hard as a white actor to get a chance at an acclaimed role, he worries that critics seemingly fighting for color-conscious casting might actually be stifling opportunities for actors of color. Color-conscious casting has made strides onstage and onscreen for the BIPOC community but, in the wrong hands, places heavy responsibility on the shoulders of marginalized populations and can bar them from opportunities they deserve.
Theatre critic Maya Phillips had a visceral reaction to theatre company Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s "Measure for Measure". According to Phillips, “art doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” and the sight of a lifeless black body onstage is cause for extreme alarm considering the state of systemic racial violence. Phillips notes that there were only two people of color in the cast and both play stereotypical outcasts and choosing to represent a body double with a mannequin thrown haphazardly to the side implies that black life is not valuable. Phillips explains that “when a black body is literally used as a prop onstage,” it is no wonder that she felt suddenly hyper-aware of her own body in the space, realizing she was one of the only black women in the whole theater. Phillips believes that we are not telling the stories that we need; the ones we could tell if we took the time to have nuanced conversations about our societal injustices and in turn, our cultural symbolism. She asks us to consider what it means to put certain bodies onstage and to engage with that complexity. Otherwise, our stories will both remain flat and perpetuate prejudice. According to a 2020 article in Comic Book Resources, continuing the conversation about racism onstage and onscreen is the path that will lead us forward, rather than a collective and color-blind motion to ignore injustices. "Hamilton", for example, takes the founding of the United States and pairs it with the current struggle of immigrants by casting only people of color. While the play acknowledges historic injustice, it also provides a narrative that binds the entire nation together; effectively, there is no other way to tell the story of the United States without acknowledging the ties between the rebellious founding of the nation and the strife of the present day. There is no other way to tell the story of the United States without gathering audience members and actors alike to shine a spotlight on systemic inequality of all shapes and pick it apart. Actor Omari Newton reminds us that theatrical escapism is not as helpful as critical engagement with our cultural language. We must deal with the bodies that we place onstage and the meanings that we, ourselves, have attached to their existence. In other words, bring on the disagreements. The recent years have allowed for a shift from color-blind casting to color-conscious casting. Actor Greig Sargeant of Elevator Repair Service’s "Measure for Measure" did respond to Maya Phillips’ critique of the production’s racial insensitivity, and this kind of conversation, albeit tense, is the very fuel that will push forward our cultural narrative. Divergence on what qualifies as color-conscious casting will help us to define it.
Rejecting the premises