‘Color-Conscious’ Casting: Putting Diversity in the Spotlight

The musical “Hamilton” has created a sensation on Broadway in part for its nontraditional casting of blacks and Latinos. The show will launch its touring company in Chicago this fall and for that production, a casting notice appeared in Backstage Magazine last week that's become a sensation of its own.

The audition notice said the show is looking for “non-white” men and women. Stage productions often call for specific ethnicities and races, but some feel the wording of this notice crosses over into reverse discrimination and may also be a violation of labor laws.

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Sean Taylor, the central regional director of the Actor’s Equity Association, said the labor union mostly had a problem with the wording.

“Although the ‘Hamilton’ casting call wasn’t technically illegal, Actor’s Equity thinks it was poorly worded,” Taylor said. “Unlike in other professional sectors, you can run an employment [ad] looking for a black or Asian or white actor. The way we think ‘Hamilton’ should have been worded is that they were looking to fill the role of non-white characters, rather than saying they were looking for non-white actors.”

Non-white actors play the principle roles in "Hamilton." From left, Okieriete Onaodowan, Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Courtesy of The Public Theatre)Non-white actors play the principle roles in "Hamilton." From left, Okieriete Onaodowan, Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Courtesy of The Public Theatre)

“This whole controversy is silly,” said Jackie Taylor, founder and executive director of the Black Ensemble Theater Company. “Why didn’t they just write that they were looking for a black actor? We get hung up in the words and the semantics.”

Others in the local theater community said they didn't take issue with the ad's wording.

“The only reason why it’s getting so much attention is that white actors felt excluded,” said Isaac Gomez, a playwright, literary manager at Victory Gardens Theater and artistic associate at Teatro Vista. “They’re getting just a small taste of what actors of color experience all the time.”

Gomez said tackling diversity on stage doesn't necessarily mean "colorblind" casting.

“I believe in color-conscious casting,” Gomez said. “We can’t pretend race isn’t there. It’s such an important part of our culture. We must address it head on. However, in plays that don’t call for a specific race – Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare, for example – I don’t want it to be seen as out of the ordinary for a person of color to be included in the play.”

Lack of diversity in theater and the entertainment industry in general led Jackie Taylor to found her own theater company.

“It’s a huge problem,” she said. “I started out in movies. I was in ‘Coolie High’ in 1975. That was a great movie, but most of the roles for blacks are gangbangers and ghetto folks. I’m an optimist though, I do believe things will improve. “

Jackie Taylor, Sean Taylor and Gomez join "Chicago Tonight" host Eddie Arruza for more discussion on the “Hamilton” notice and diversity in the theater community.

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