BAME groups have always been under-represented in theatre. Statistically, 76% of ethnic makeup in casts from Broadway and non-profit theatres are Caucasian (AAPAC, 2015/16). When the producers of the West End transfer of the award-winning musical Hamilton announced that ‘colour-blind casting’ would be implemented, it prompted the question, should all theatre be colour-blind in order to promote equality? If Caucasians were played by BAME members and vice versa, would it change the plot and meaning of the play?
Hamilton the musical tells the story of one of the four founding fathers of the United States of America, Alexander Hamilton; his successions and also his corruptions and downfalls. From the recent uproar of history geeks suggesting the musical to not be an accurate representation of American history, Lin Manuel-Miranda (playwright, lyricist) had this to say: ‘let’s not pretend this is a text book, let’s make the founders of our country look like our country now. Every shade and every colour.’ (PBS Newshour, 2015).
Miranda DELIBERATELY chose to have colour-blind casting to represents America today and the struggles BAME citizens still feel (especially under the power of the ‘orange man’). It forms a political message that comments on the United States’ past by using the United States’ present and future diversity. In relation to the west-end casting following suit, this can also mirror the culture and diversity of our society by making a stance against policies such as Brexit. We live in a society so vast in ethnic diversity, with London, home of Hamilton, being one of the most celebrated cities for this. With a wider variety of people stepping into ‘theatreland’ everyday, the theatre should represent this ever growing change too.
This raises another question, should all members of the theatre industry think like this when casting and creating? Where race isn’t pivotal to the story line of Hamilton, it is important in other shows. Hairspray, for example, highlights the struggles of integration between black and white members of the community. Through its cheesy comedy the musical tackles real issues that are still prevalent today. Colour-blind casting just simply wouldn’t work in this musical and would completely change its intention. For example, when main character Tracey Turnblad uses dance moves, that black student Seaweed J. Stubbs taught her, at the segregated school dance, it is vital to have a segregated cast in order for the shocking political message to really hit home with audiences’. It will not have the ‘shock’ factor of seeing the races separated by a literal rope just because of the pigmentation in their skin. The genuine pain and struggles the black characters go through in this musical would not be as effective and almost made redundant by colour-blind casting. The real pain comes from the historical reality; the racial injustice black people faced in the 1960’s, which audience members are most likely to understand with the cast actually representing the characters. A while ago my boyfriend’s little brother was in a school production of Hairspray, coming from quite a white area, the show’s programme contained a little disclaimer stating how would never want to ‘black face’ the children in the show and didn’t intend on having colour-blind casting, there just wasn’t enough black people to play the characters. I really respected this as they were basically acknowledging that this musical shouldn’t be a colour-blind musical and that the characters are intended to be played with race in mind.
If a show, like Hamilton, isn’t about race then colour-blind casting is a brilliant way to promote equality. The reason this musical is so ground breaking is because of its strong political message. Colour-blind casting shouldn’t undermine the struggles but should follow in the footsteps of Hamilton. Theatre today should strive for more diversity in order to effectively represent our brilliantly multicultural society.
By Aliya Siddique
Photo: Matthew Murphy
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