Let’s Keep Coloring in “The Great White Way”


Norm Lewis performing at the IPW NYC Center Stage Luncheon last year. (COURTESY OF DWAYNE KHAN/ IMAGINE COMMUNICATIONS VIA FLICKR)


In a moment of boredom a few weeks ago while stuck on a stalled A train, I challenged myself to a Broadway edition of LaTina Fey—a game invented by comedian Billy Eichner to play on his TV show, “Billy On The Street,” in which he challenged Tina Fey to name 20 Latino celebrities. Unsurprisingly, I, like Tina, found myself to be at a loss for names–They don’t call it The Great White Way for nothing, right? This, however, got me thinking not only about the Latino presence on Broadway–or lack thereof–but minority representation overall, especially in principal roles.

Fortunately, with regards to this issue, we’re heading in the right direction, yet we still have much to do. “The Phantom of the Opera” just recently celebrated Norm Lewis as the first African-American to play the titular role on Broadway, followed by the debut of the late Kyle Jean-Baptiste as not only the first African-American, but also the youngest actor ever to play Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables. While these are both great developments, we need to go beyond the realm of single instances and turn them into an actual trend. Many of us in the Latino community grew up without seeing a version of ourselves portrayed on stage, but that doesn’t mean that this generation must suffer that as well. Color-blind casting and diversity in productions should be the future of broadway, as it gives more opportunities to more people. But perhaps the movement has already begun.

This season, in particular, is one of the most colorful to date. This is not just in terms of race, as the transfer of Deaf West Theatre’s American Sign Language revival of “Spring Awakening” features not only an unprecedented representation of the deaf community on Broadway, but also a racially diverse cast. Combine this with the upcoming openings of “Allegiance,” “On Your Feet” and “The Color Purple,” and Broadway is transformed into a rainbow of representation.

If you want to refer to a show that’s already open, you need look no further than the work of slightly obscure composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote a little musical titled “Hamilton.” Alright, so maybe it’s not so little. Everyone and their cat is clamoring for a ticket to this show, and with good reason! It is a prime example of the power and beauty of color-blind casting. With a Latino Alexander Hamilton, a black Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, and a multi-racial mega-talented cast, Miranda and his entire creative team deserve a round of applause. “Hamilton” isn’t about race and with such a colorful cast, they raise the pertinent question of “why not?”  Although it’s a historical story, it isn’t meant to be told through period music or conventional conceits. If anything, it further highlights the fact that our Founding Fathers were not native to this country—seemingly a very purposeful move.

Most works aren’t written to rely on race anyway. Audiences are first and foremost drawn to the stories that are told and if the story is powerful and captivating enough, they will not register race. It then becomes the job of the creative teams to take the next step and support diverse productions. It can’t just happen from the outside with writers creating specific roles for non-white actors. The change must also happen from the inside with casting and producers. At the end of the day, even if the writer has a certain vision, the producers with the money bags have the final say. I’m not saying that creative teams need to value ethnicity over talent, but simply be open to the possibility of telling a slightly different story. After all, non-white actors have proven that they are just as capable of nailing a traditionally white role as their white peers, so why not utilize color-blind casting more often?

It’s certainly not for lack of talent that this hasn’t happened before now. It is simply that many people of color choose not to pursue their dreams of acting before they even start because the odds are so stacked against them. If kids growing up have trouble finding people on stage that look like them, they won’t believe they have even the slightest chance of making it on Broadway.

This past season, Ruthie Ann Miles became only the second Asian actress ever to win a Tony Award for her performance as a supporting actress in “The King and I,” one of the few shows with a majority of Asian roles. Her win came 24 years after Lea Salonga’s win for her performance as Kim in “Miss Saigon.” Upon being asked about the diversity on Broadway and the presence of Asians on Broadway in an interview for Playbill, Miles said, “They don’t have an opportunity. But they are working. They are going to class. They are hitting those auditions and doing readings, and they are striving and working so hard. But there’s no place to practice, which is on the stage. There aren’t enough roles. There aren’t enough opportunities.” Now just imagine what could happen if all actors had the same kind of opportunities. We could have a black Christine or Galinda and an Asian Javert or Marius.

Imagine what the Broadway stage would look like if more racially diverse roles were written and if more long-running shows got on board with color-blind casting.

A colorful future indeed.