08 May 2010


I appreciate that Kristen Chenoweth's public comments on this Newsweek article have brought the conversation happening around the issues raised to a wider audience. Chenoweth resoundingly rebutted the article's contents in her response, so there is no need for me to do a point-by-point critique here (though I'd be happy to). I'd prefer to highlight the historical notes that both the article's original author and Chenoweth raised regarding the evolution in casting conventions.

The Newsweek author notes, "In the 1950s, the idea of 'color-blind casting' became a reality, and the result is that today there's nothing to stop Denzel Washington from playing the Walter Matthau role in the remake of The Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3." Perhaps not the best example, but the idea is highly relevant: color-blind casting has continued to evolve, especially onstage, often pushing productions to a new level but never failing to cause at least a little controversy.

Chenoweth gives another notable example: "[T]here was a time when Jewish actors had to change their names because anti-Semites thought no Jew could convincingly play Gentile." This happens to this day, and I've had friends who are actors - some with casting director-marked "charged" names - lament to me they can't believe it's still an issue in this century. Lea Michele just remarked to Jimmy Fallon that pre-Glee she had been labeled "too ethnic" for television.

Of course, it's no shock that in the entertainment industry people are typecast, or that there are still ethnic, racial, gender and sexual stereotypes affecting the creation process. But the benefit of raising these issues and publicly inviting these discussions is - hopefully - that more productions, whether stage or screen, will be pushed to do something differently or take a risk in casting or portrayal choices. Think of Passing Strange using black actors to play Dutch and German characters. I always return to a personal memory of a Midwest production of Our Town in which the casting was completely color-blind - the show was innovative, challenged the audience, and gave the timeless play a number of new dimensions. And it goes without saying that we've all seen countless homosexual actors portray heterosexual characters brilliantly, whether we knew the actor's real-life orientation or not.

Perhaps this is part of the problem: we didn't used to know so much about performers' personal lives. There was a time before tabloids and TMZ when we only saw musicians and actors when they were onstage or onscreen, and little else was shared after the credits rolled. I would never advocate a return to the time when studios closeted their actors or changed their names to hide their ethnicity. But we now have a hard time with suspension of disbelief, and not just on demographic factors (can you watch Brad Pitt in a film without thinking once of the "Brangelina" machine?).

In the end, I believe an opening of audiences' minds will only happen if arts creators and producers continue to push the envelope. The more we see artists of every race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age and more playing non-traditional roles, the more open we'll be to the notion that a great actor can play just about any part.

When In the Heights' Lin-Manuel Miranda responded to criticism of the casting of Corbin Bleu as his show's new Usnavi, he not only did so in verse, but also took on the most controversial issue being floated - that of Bleu's race:

Now THIS is sensitive, and I'm hesitant to begin again
But I'm a Puerto Rican-Mexican; I PLAYED Dominican.
And everyone's from everywhere, we are reppin' so many things
Andrea's Venezuelan and Jewish, Karen's like twenty things
So yes, I see your point, but ethnicity's just a factor
They've gotta play the part: in the end, dude is an ACTOR.