Casting a Light

Casting a Light

Examining the Relationship Between Diversity and Campus Theater

Published on September 25, 2014

In 2011, Nikki M. James—a New Jersey native and graduate of NYU—won a Tony Award for her role as Nabulungi, a Ugandan villager in The Book of Mormon. Earlier this year, James took on a new role, joining the cast of Les Misérables as Eponine, a French peasant girl.

Some point to James’ flourishing career as a sign of progress: She is a famous, successful black Broadway actress. She has played both a Ugandan villager and a historically white character within only a brief amount of time. However, for this very same reason, others emphasize that James’ career merely highlights the frustrations of actors of color everywhere—constantly bouncing between an essentialized version of their identities, and whitewashed roles in plays written for and by a world that has historically excluded them.

The discussion around racial politics in theater is one that extends to our own campus. Last year’s production of Top Girls at Barnard featured a white actress playing a Japanese character, dressed in a traditional kimono, a black wig, and courtesan-style makeup. The casting decision was met with backlash from student groups, who considered it a clear case of yellowface. Other productions that have sparked conversation include the 120th Annual Varsity Show Morningside Nights, which featured a cast that was almost entirely white, and V-Day’s production of The Vagina Monologues, which featured exclusively women of color.

Columbia’s campus theater as a whole has been critiqued for having predominantly white casts, for racially insensitive casting decisions, and for generally not offering enough roles for people from marginalized groups. It is, in short, a contentious and complicated issue. While some artists celebrate the inclusion of artists of color in historically white productions, others highlight the lack of roles designed specifically for people of color and other identities. Our own student-theater community on campus is now faced with these questions—just what is diversity in theater supposed to look like, and how does a community achieve it?

Beyond the Stage

For many, the same lack of diversity that defines the theater community pervades the University’s academic structure as well. The Literature Humanities syllabus features no writers of color and only two women. Second-semester Contemporary Civilization is marginally more diverse, with readings by Franz Fanon, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mahatma Gandhi, Virginia Woolf, and Mary Wollstonecraft (though syllabi differ from class to class). Still, the Core Curriculum arguably leaves much to be desired when it comes to representing the world we live in.

Whatever one might think of the Core, this is not an issue at Columbia alone. Matters of race and ethnicity in American literature, art, theater, and film stretch back hundreds of years, and continue long after the days of minstrelsy and blackface. From 1852’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which perpetuates racist black stereotypes, to 20th-century film, with its white heroes and nonwhite villains, mainstream American culture is beset with racial othering. Even in the rare nonwhite narrative, white actors were called on to fill in the roles for characters of other races, especially Arabs, South Asians, and East Asians in the later part of the 20th century.

This cultural insensitivity, while improved, still reverberates throughout America today. While it pervades our mainstream media and culture, it also has remnants within the theater produced on liberal campuses like Columbia, and the stories that we tell.  Jenny Singer, a Barnard senior who has been involved with theater on campus since the fall of her first year, says, “It would be an easy fix if the perceived and often very real lack of racial diversity in campus theater was a result of a few racist members of the theater community, but it is a much more complicated issue than that.”

Unwelcome Spaces

As Singer says, the problem is not the result of a few people, but a system that begins with the audition room. While Columbia’s undergraduate schools have an extremely diverse student body, most audition rooms are filled with white actors.

Last year’s production of Passing Strange was no exception. The musical, a coming-of-age story about a young black man who leaves America in the ’70s in the hopes of finding himself, was produced by the Black Theater Ensemble (BTE) and Columbia Musical Theater Society (CMTS). The musical, originally on Broadway in 2006, offered a plethora of roles for actors of color, and included explicit discussion of race and racism. In casting the show, however, the production team ran into trouble. Singer, a participant in the production, recalls that “after weeks of searching, the groups were unable to find an actor to play one of the two lead roles, and ultimately had to cast an off-campus actor. They literally could not find a black male actor to star in the show.”

Clearly the issue isn’t the lack of talent on campus, but a matter of unwelcoming spaces. “I feel like there’s an unwritten code about who ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ audition and be involved,” says Rae Binstock, a Columbia College senior and one of the writers of last year’s production of the Varsity Show. “Theater is de facto cliquey, whether you’re in community theater, school theater, or professional theater. But at Columbia, the vast majority of mainstays and people who make their community out of theater folks are white.” The cliquishness of these often white groups can alienate artists of color.

Lamar Richardson, a junior in Columbia College who has performed in a number of BTE productions, certainly felt that way while auditioning for classes in the theater department.

“I feel like there’s an unwritten code about who ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ audition and be involved.”

—Rae Binstock, Columbia College senior

“I was amazed at the little representation in the room. To my surprise, the vast majority of performers were white, and I rarely saw any people of color,” Richardson says. By the end of his callbacks, Richardson was the only black person in his class of 14. In fact, much to his surprise, he ended up being only one of three people of color in his entire class. “It baffled me,” he says, of the both the casting process and the results. “The makeup of the room was not an accurate spread of the artistic talent present on campus.”

Columbia alumnus and former BTE member Krista White agrees, saying actors of color notice and are discouraged by both the whiteness and the perceived exclusivity of many of Columbia’s more “mainstream” productions.

“People need to be convinced that groups want them for their spirit, their talent, their unique contributions. People of color are very wary of predominantly white groups, because too often they only reach out when they need something,” she says. Even when invited in, some artists feel like they are being tokenized—valued more for filling a quota than for their talent—which keeps them out of the audition room and, in turn, off the stage.

The Default Narrative

It is an oversimplification, however, to say that this is solely a matter of diversifying casts. To build a more inclusive performing-arts community, we also need more diverse roles and projects. Many argue, after all, that simply casting actors of color in traditionally white roles reinforces white-normative narratives.

“A lot of people will try to speak to the effectiveness of colorblind casting and use tokenizing examples to celebrate themselves for casting actors of color in roles that were traditionally white. But you can’t stop there,” says Casey Gilfoil, a member of the V-Day production team that helped produce The Vagina Monologues featuring a cast of exclusively women of color.

Many criticized the Varsity Show for just this reason: While the majority of the cast was white, the narratives being presented within the show were also largely white and heteronormative. “Generally in casting, when a woman isn’t specified as a woman of color, the character is assumed to be white,” says Lhana Örmenyi, a Barnard junior who is also a  member of the V-Day production team.

The default narrative presented to theater and moviegoers today is a white, heteronormative narrative. Even when we are presented with experiences of different cultures, these are often depicted through a white lens. “We need to stop assuming that white is the default,” Jo Chiang, a Barnard College senior and theater major, says. “People assume characters in the source materials are white when they are not, such as in the case of Katniss in The Hunger Games. We also tend to place the experiences of a white character at the forefront of a narrative about people of color, like in The Last Samurai or The Impossible.” The former stars an American Tom Cruise fighting for rebels in Japan, the latter Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as a white family in Thailand caught in the 2004 tsunami.

“People need to be convinced that groups want them for their spirit, their talent, their unique contributions.”

—Krista White, Columbia alumnus and former BTE member

“We sometimes even change the character’s race completely from the source material as they did in Avatar: The Last Airbender and 21,” she adds. “Just in the last two years they put Ben Affleck in Argo and Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia.”

This wider cultural phenomenon is one that reaches Columbia’s campus as well.

Richardson, in discussing his departmental auditions, agrees. “After reading the breakdowns of each production, it struck me that there weren’t really any characters that fit my cultural identity. In fact, the content of most of them didn’t relate to me as a person of color at all,” Richardson says. “Each seemed whitewashed, and I didn’t really feel as if I had a fair chance at being considered. We need more diverse productions, from the scripts being selected, down to the actors and actresses who are performing.”

Groups like V-Day and BTE work to do just that. Last year, V-Day produced a version of The Vagina Monologues exclusively featuring women of color. In doing so, the producers hoped to provide a space for historically underprivileged women to articulate their own stories and identities in a way they felt that wasn’t possible in other projects in the community, where the stories and identities of white women have always been prioritized.

“It was interesting in the audition process,” Örmenyi notes about the production of The Vagina Monologues, “because there were people who said they couldn’t audition because it wasn’t their space. But as soon as we opened it up specifically to women of color, people who never thought they would audition for us were on stage sharing their stories. We felt it was important to do something actually constructive for diversity.”

“I loved the recent production of The Vagina Monologues,” Singer says. “Actors of color are at an immediate disadvantage in all theater because the overwhelming majority of shows are written with white characters in mind. While mainstream and student theater have taken huge leaps casting actors of color in roles that were written for white characters, The Vagina Monologues helped redress the persisting inequality inherent in most plays and musicals. I’d like to see more theater like that.”

Passing Strange was similarly encouraging. The musical is specifically about a black man and his struggles to come to grips with his life, his family, race, the nature of art, and much more. It was not only an opportunity for actors of color to perform, but to star in a project that put the narrative of a person of color at its center.

Initiatives for diversity extend beyond what happens on stage, however. Last year ROOTEd (Respecting Ourselves and Others Through Education), an organization “dedicated to facilitating respectful informed discussions about diversity in the United States with regards to power and privilege issues,” according to its website, held an open discussion for those in the theater community. The facilitation provided a space to hear the perspectives of others and for those fighting for diversity to share their thoughts and concerns.

Diversity: An Expansive Concept

Diversity in itself is an expansive concept that includes race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, political stance, citizenship, ability, and more. It is common in the United States to associate the term diversity solely with race, and that has, for the most part, been where the student body has focused as well. But while the Varsity Show faced a number of questions about the racial makeup of its cast, it faced just as many about its presentation of gay characters. The show was criticized mainly for the gay stereotypes it projected through one of its lead characters, the effeminate and flamboyant Alistair Bollinger.

Additionally, even though the show prominently featured a number of gay characters, both male and female, these characters were white and cisgendered.

“While I do believe that positive, un-sensationalized, and public representation of gay individuals should be applauded, it’s telling that we’re only discussing ‘gay’ representation,” says Zac Collazo, a Columbia College junior and member of Latenite Theatre. “People who identify as gay only make up a portion of the larger queer community. For truly accurate representation of Columbia’s campus, I think that more could certainly be done with this in mind.”

Racism and homophobia are not mutually exclusive, however. As Collazo points out, it is important to see the ways different identities intersect with one another. “There’s this pervasive idea in our society that the spectrum of LGBTQ+ individuals is represented by a white, gay, cisgendered man, when in reality this is but one example of what being queer can look like. To best portray and serve the vibrant Columbia community, inclusion of all too frequently ignored identities is of utmost importance,” he says.

The Pushback

In spite of the efforts of many, the performing-arts community, as well as the campus as a whole, has not fully embraced diversity initiatives. The comments sections of major campus publications are often riddled with comments bemoaning everything from reverse racism to the improper politicization of art.

While some argued to protect the artistic freedom of Top Girls director Mikhael Garver—who graduated from Columbia’s M.F.A. program in 2010 and is now a professional director—from what they felt were unfair attacks, others argued at length to explain why they felt the choice was so racist. As Wilfred Chan, a 2014 Columbia graduate, says in an op-ed on the subject published last year, having a white person occupy the voice of an Asian character invokes years of power dynamics that have seen white supremacy prevent the authentic articulation of Asian identity. It was, in many ways, Columbia’s version of Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai or Noah Ringer in The Last Airbender. It implied that white people could “be Asian” better than Asian people could.

Last year’s rendition of The Vagina Monologues drew accusations that it unfairly excluded white actresses, which some were quick to respond to. Nicole Blakeman, a Barnard senior and member of last year’s V-Day production team, defends the show’s focus on women of color. “We’ve already talked about the experiences of white women, and it’s just one year. We’re not taking away space from white women. We’re just giving one to people of color, and people appreciated that,” Blakeman says.

Blakeman continues, “It wasn’t a ‘diverse’ cast in the classic kind of way. It was about really focusing on the women of color. Because when it’s them alone, you can’t turn away from it. And watching that as a white woman, it forced me to face experiences that weren’t mine, and learn more about the experiences of others. And if it felt like it alienated me, I feel like I just needed to accept that as well.”

“It was not only an opportunity for actors of color to perform, but to star in a project that put the narrative of a person of color at its center.”

Gilfoil agrees. “When you’re able to show that people of color are not monolithic, when they’re not forming three characters out of your whole ensemble, you get to tell real experiences and stories,” she says. “White women have always had that, and the dynamic changes when they come into a space like that.”

Still, many feel like too much of the theater community misunderstands the purpose and the effects of pushes for greater diversity. “Affirmative action and other pushes for diversity aren’t trying to make you feel bad for your whiteness. It’s just leveling the playing field,” says White. “It’s saying the best regardless of race will be cast.”

Diversity in theater is not about punishing or excluding white artists, but about making the arts a more open and equitable space on campus, one in which everyone is as comfortable with their place as so many white artists are now.

The problem, to many, also seems to be one of privilege. As Chiang says, a lot of difficulty arises from how some react to discussions of race—namely that many take systemic critiques as personal attacks. “Nobody is claiming that the actors in the all-white ensemble are not talented or that they don’t deserve to be there. All that’s being asked is that people question their biases in order to understand how they contribute to creating an environment where that kind of exclusion happens,” Chiang says. “What these white artists need to understand is that diversity is not a zero-sum game. With so much privilege and power afforded to them already, they can get by very comfortably with a little less.”

“People came up to us after The Vagina Monologues to tell us how cool it was. It shows how much it was needed. The fact that white people were frustrated by exclusion kind of shows the sense of privilege, that they feel entitled to enter any space they want to, to never be excluded,” adds Gilfoil.

Privilege also affects the way in which people understand the relationship between art and politics.  “It’s a function of privilege, not having to deal with the reality of a system stacked against them,” Barnard junior Victoria Sun points out.

As the famed American playwright August Wilson once said, “All art is political, in that it serves someone else’s politics.” Regardless of an artist’s focus, he or she cannot ignore the political implications of what he or she is making.

“To remain silent on an issue is to choose a stance, whether intentionally or not,” Chiang says. “That’s not to say that an artist doesn’t have a right to that stance, only that they must then accept any consequence that comes part and parcel with it. To not do so is irresponsible, and in my opinion, a sign of a poor and lazy artist.”

The theater community on campus has offered answers to countless questions regarding race and art: Are roles without racial attribution inclusive? Do they allow flexibility, or are they simply whitewashing? Do we make space for marginalized identities that are not solely racial, or even racial at all, such as the LGBTQ community? But these questions prove difficult, and our campus has yet to agree on any of them, save maybe one: Do we need to talk about the state of diversity in student theater right now? To this, the answer is a resounding yes. That is hardly the progress many hope to see. But it is, nevertheless, a start, and the first step forward.


Note: An earlier version of this story reported that Nikki M. James had won a Tony Award for her role as Nabulungi every year since 2011. She has won one Tony Award, in 2011. Additionally, an earlier version of this story reported that Mikhael Garver was a Barnard student. The Eye regrets these errors.

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