Hollywood casting, when it comes to diversity, is taking one step forward and two steps back, but theatre is boldly progressive. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and other protests have been circulating, but Broadway is perhaps more diverse than ever.
There’s been a commotion in Hollywood recently over casting announcements for two much anticipated movies; the adaptation of the popular manga “Ghost in the Shell”, and the adaptation of the comic book series, “Doctor Strange”. Both movies are being criticized for whitewashing—casting white actors in roles written for people of color.
In the first promotional photo for “Ghost in the Shell”, Scarlett Johansson, hair dyed black, appears as Japanese cyborg Major Mokoto Kusanagi, and in the new trailer for “Doctor Strange”, a bald Tilda Swinton is shown as The Ancient One, formerly a Tibetan man.
Whitewashing is not a new concept. These kinds of casting decisions are not new or surprising, because they reflect the comfort level of parts of our society. Many Americans believe that if their lifestyle isn’t affected, there isn’t a problem. In Hollywood, if Asians aren’t being cast as white people, there is no debate. But theatre embraces progress.
- Deaf West’s revolutionary production of “Spring Awakening” incorporated American Sign Language signed by both deaf and hearing actors, and even cast the first actress in a wheelchair on Broadway.
- “Allegiance”, dealt with the Japanese internment camps of the 1940’s.
- Stephen Karam’s play “The Humans” follows a family gathering fraught with arguments about class, religion, money, and the generation gap, all things that feel especially relevant today.
- “Eclipsed”, another contender for Best New Play, shines a spotlight on five Liberian women at the end of the second Liberian Civil War.
- “Shuffle Along” chronicles the journey to Broadway of the first musical performed, produced, and written by African Americans.
- “The Color Purple” and “On Your Feet!” both deal with women of color fighting for their identity in a world that seems not to be made for them.
- “Hamilton” is a show about America’s founding fathers (and mothers) has a cast comprised almost entirely of people of color, and has become a sensation like no other in the theatre world’s recent history, is a testament to Broadway’s commitment to promoting diversity.
Many Americans talk about all the steps toward equality society has made while African American men and women are still being killed by police, male politicians are still making decisions about women’s bodies, transgender bathroom laws are still making headlines, and Hollywood is still reflecting our country’s lack of progress.
“The diversity represented on Broadway this season embraced race, culture, international politics, domestic politics, avant-garde artistic choices, alongside moving traditional ones. Even the revivals (both plays and musicals) were done with a strong will to rethink, reconsider, and explore older material for new insights,” said Pirooz Aghssa, theatre professor at EMU.
Broadway marches forward, a finger on the pulse of its surroundings, making leaps and bounds for diversity. The theatre community seems to understand something that Hollywood has not grasped. There are roles for a wide range of people, and there are actors, directors, and producers willing and eligible if given the opportunity.