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Hamilton To Hedwig: When “Non-Traditional” Casting Becomes Traditional

When I first saw advertisements for Hamilton, I remember thinking to myself, “A musical about Alexander Hamilton. Lin Manuel, what are you doing?” Then the casting was revealed, and I discovered that the majority of the actors and actresses in the production are of color. Now, for some it’s not a big deal. But it was huge for me.

The way my high school history books were written, every single one of those historical figures was white. Manuel did something here. He could have maintained historical “accuracy.”  However, this musical wasn’t about that. He threw out the typical format and hired people of color to fill these roles and guess what? It didn’t matter. Hamilton became an instant hit and no one is criticizing it for its colorblind casting because it’s just that good. The actors make these characters believable regardless of their skin color. What Manuel wanted to create was art, and art doesn’t have a race. It has an impact.

I remember going to see Keke Palmer in Cinderella back in 2014, looking around the theatre, and being brought to tears. I cried because I saw hundreds – and I’m not exaggerating — of young Black girls in tiaras and pretty dresses in the theatre. They were there to see Keke and to experience theatre, some for the very first time. And there was a Black girl playing the princess on the stage. I was so overcome with happiness and joy because it was so important for them, and me, to see. When I was leaving the theatre, a little girl said, “Mommy, I want to do that!” And she can!

What if this could happen all the time? I know we have shows like The Color Purple and Motown, which have no choice but to cast Black actors. However, those shows come and go (that’s another article, for another time). What I’m talking about is something a little different. Oftentimes when I’m catching a show on Broadway, I rarely see faces of color on the stage in lead or featured roles. Sure, I usually can spot them in the ensemble or they may be the understudy, but where’s our full-time Black Elphaba? Does Captain Hook have to be white? Aren’t there Black LGBTQ youth too? Black people go to Paris, right? I’m sure there are tons of Black girls and boys that never want to grow up, so where is their Finding Neverland?

There’s a term in theatre and film called “non-traditional” casting. That term is basically code for non-white actors. For the life of me, I’ve been trying to figure out why they call actors of color “non-traditional.” Are our stories and lives not “traditional?” Do we lack a certain trait to make us “traditional?” What does this even mean?

The answer is something I’ve been trying to discern but, at this point, I don’t think it matters. In the past three years I’ve seen more actors of color in roles that for so long have been cast with predominately white actors. Taye Diggs as Hedwig? Norm Lewis as The Phantom? Condola Rashad as Juliet? Even Trip To Bountiful, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof cast all Black actors during their Broadway runs. When I see that, it’s a great feeling. My question, then, is why doesn’t it happen more? Is it so far off to believe that as people of color we, too, can live these experiences?

I say these things with a spirit of hope, as I was once a young Black girl attending the theatre. I know the impact of seeing actors on stage that look like you. I also know what it feels like to be automatically ruled out of a role based on the color of your skin. Even now as a Performing Arts teacher, I want to be able to take my students to shows where they can look at that stage and turn to me and say “Ms. Harper-Davis, I’m gonna do that.”

Yes, scholar. Yes, you will.


UPDATE: ***In the featured photo: All black cast of “Oklahoma!” at Portland Center Stage from 2011. A fantastic cast and production, and one of their best selling shows ever. In the photo are Jarran Stepney-Muse as Will Parker and Joy Matthews as Aunt Eller


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