You hear people preaching about representation and diversifying the racial makeup of the entertainment industry. It permeates news sources, casting pages, guest lectures at universities. They speak wonderful dreams of equal opportunity for all people of color amidst a white-washed Hollywood. They hail Crazy Rich Asians (2018) for taking major steps towards bringing Asian faces into the scene.
I would love to jump onto that dream. It fulfills every desire of mine in creating a career for myself in the future, one where I can fight an equal fight with everyone else who chooses the same path. One where if I do land a job, it’s because of what I can offer and not because of how I look or what I symbolize. I don’t want to be present in an artistic process just because I have the face of a Asian-American woman. I want to be there because I can contribute the experience of being a woman from an Asian-American background with an honest and genuine point of entry.
Because we are newly embracing the melting pot of the entertainment industry, it goes without saying that the methods we use to approach diversity in casting are basically in a trial-and-error cycle. I would also like to put out a disclaimer that I am by no means an expert on any of this. I am merely writing from the point of view of a person of color (POC) who has experienced the subjective nature of writing and casting. My experience does not encompass anyone else’s, and my opinions are not the final say on any of this matter. I am still developing my awareness surrounding this highly controversial component of entertainment, but this has been my journey thus far.
I like to think of all of this as walking backwards. When you walk backwards, you are living in two realities depending on your state of mind. You can believe that you are going towards a destination and making progress to that because your body is doing something regarding momentum, so you accept it as personal effort. You could also see it as going further away from your destination. The tragedy lays in the merger of the two. People are walking backwards because they think that they are walking in the right direction, but what is really happening is that they do not see what is coming up behind them and as a result, they may unintentionally head down the wrong path while still believing that they are contributing positively.
Let us begin with color-blind casting. It sounds like a miracle that someone came up with this idea because it fully eliminates any subconscious judgment in the people involved with the pre-production process. A candidate comes into the room and auditions, only allowing their voice inflection to embody everything they have to offer to the work and indicate their expertise.
Colorblind casting throws the notion of experience out the window. Experience in this sense is not how much experience the actor has had in the theatre world. Experience envelops the moments this particular actor has lived through that has shaped their reality and perception of the world, leading them to this present time in the audition room. Colorblind casting may have been effective in a time where characters were only being written for white individuals and it took this method to see people of color on stage, but in an era where more and more playwrights of color are writing for POC to emerge, colorblind casting may actually take the opposite direction. You can read about it more here.
Rather than focusing on colorblind casting, color-conscious casting may be the direction that producers need to go. There are two, and maybe even more than two, reasons to this.
First, color-conscious casting takes into consideration individuals and sees them as people with diverse backgrounds. It eliminates the general terms of “Asian” or “black” and adds depth to not only the characters that are being portrayed but also to the people who you are working with. It also demonstrates the recognition of progression within our country and especially within the entertainment industry. Policies and movements shape people’s opinion of subgroups, either encouraging us to welcome them in or marginalize them further. By intentionally casting a POC in a traditionally white role, we are not stripping opportunity away from the white community. Plays are generally not caught in the time period that they were originally written in. Placing a POC within that work changes the meaning for the better of today, updating the message to better suit the audience who will be receiving the performance.
Secondly, allowing fluidity in casting makes the art of performance even more interesting. We consume art that makes us think. A work of art is not effective if you are not thinking upon it hours after you see it. That is especially how I felt about Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Gloria at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. There are so many interpretations of narrative within that two hour spectacle, making you wonder who truly has the right to tell the story of tragedy. By casting a POC in a role that may not have been traditionally written for them, you get the audience thinking about what would have happened if someone else with a different race and background and gender had played that role. You bring in dimension by setting up many realities of the “what if” in your audience’s mind.
I believe that change in the racial makeup of entertainment can’t just stem from casting, though. For truly effective progression, the intention needs to start from the very beginning of the process. Plays are being written with characters of specific races in mind. In the past, this was done by white playwrights who wrote about white characters because those were the only backgrounds and lives that they were conditioned to understanding. America has diversified. The world has connected identities and experiences thanks to the power and speed of media. There is so much potential for expanding the mind to other cultures and for exploring said cultures.
Writing for race can become dangerous, though, if written without a complete understanding of who you are writing about. Playwrights of color rightfully can project their own personal experiences into their characters, so it makes sense that they reserve the right to assign a race to their creation because it is a claim to their own identity. If a play can’t fulfill the request of the playwright to cast a certain ethnicity, then the play is not doing justice to the message that the playwright originally intended.
However, writing characters of color should absolutely not be done as a political statement because the second that a writer generates a character for the sake of representation, the meaning is lost. The character has no depth. It would almost be equivalent to creating a story then drawing ethnicities out of a hat and assigning them to whatever roles you see fit. I will not speak about ethnicities that I have no claim to, but I have read plays that include an Asian-American character because I was intrigued by why that particular role would be specific to an Asian-American experience. After reading the play, I saw no indication as to what part of the character’s background would allude to an Asian-American narrative being intentionally included in a story. Even then, the term “Asian-American” is a broad term that pulls together many, many different backgrounds and ethnicities under one heavy umbrella. I interviewed another playwright about why she included a Chinese-American character in her story about a Midwest town. She had no answer.
It is so dangerous to tokenize people of color because it means that we only see the color of their skin. We also need to clarify the difference between talent and skill because when artists are brought into a production, they want to feel purposeful. Skill, to me, indicates stagnant offerings, something that is nurtured through professional training that is only afforded through privilege. Talent indicates personal effort and individual recognition. When I come into the production process, I want people to look past my dark hair, tanner skin, hooded eyes, and medium height. I want people to recognize my skill as the reason why I am standing before them.
I don’t have the answers to save anyone from taking the wrong step off of this risky path. All I know is that narratives have to be intentional within entertainment, meaning that it has to contribute something significant to the progression of the story. That is how we will get the faces of POC onto the stage and onto screens without generating further stereotypes and grouping individuals under umbrella terms.
Turn around, open your eyes, and look at where you are placing your feet. The path you take ahead matters, and every footstep you leave behind is a reflection of where you chose to go. Be aware of your surroundings, and use them to guide you towards what you believe is right for yourself and for the rest of society and humanity not only today, but also tomorrow and forever.