Yet More Casting Ethics: “Hamilton’s” ‘No Whites Need Apply’ Open Casting Call

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[ I am back from a speaking engagement that required over eight hours of driving, being in a supposedly “luxury resort” hotel room that had no Wi-Fi for most of my stay and no functioning TV for any of it,  and various other distractions and misadventures that prevented me from posting so far today. I apologize, though it is really the famous Omni Homestead in Hot Springs, VA. that should apologize. The good news is that my seminar was well-received, and that the disappointing trip–this time I was paid only with the supposedly sumptuous two-day  Homestead experience for myself and my long-suffering spouse, including outdoor activities that were impossible due to constant rain and a room with more things in poor repair than a Motel 6—is over.]

 

Broadway’s biggest hit, the Tony-winning  “Hamilton,” is under attack for, of all things, racism.

An open casting announcement on the show’s website read…

“Hamilton” is “seeking NON-WHITE men and women, ages 20s to 30s, for Broadway and upcoming Tours.”

Whaaaat? This joyous musical celebration of America’s founding and its Founders’ inspiration…engaging in racial discrimination? How could this be? Sniffed Actors Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma “The language … is inconsistent with Equity’s policy.”

Yes, this would be because Actor’s Equity has a lot of dumb policies, and like all unions, doesn’t really care about keeping the industry its members work in healthy, productive and profitable, only  making sure as many members as possible have jobs or at least shots at them. There is nothing whatsoever racist or discriminatory about a show that relies on the concept of non-white actors playing the very white Founding Fathers announcing that only actors who can fulfill that conceptual requirement will be considered for roles.

Civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, in an interview with the NY Daily News,  agreed the advertisement might technically violate the city’s human rights law, but that this is because casting is an anomaly. “It’s almost always illegal to advertise on the basis of race, but when you’re casting … it can be a bona fide occupational requirement,” he said.

But why couldn’t properly talented white actors use dialect and make-up to meet the requirements of the roles? He or she could, in a sane and logical theatrical world, but actors have allowed their political correctness and extremist leanings to undermine their art. Yes, this device called “make-up” is a theatrical tool many thousands years old, ethically neutral and basic to the concept of acting.  Make-up designed to allow a performer to play a character of another race, however, is currently taboo because it reminds some ill-educated people of blackface, just like the word “niggardly” is taboo because it reminds illiterate people of another, completely unrelated word.

In fact, telling actors that their race disqualifies them for certain roles is ethical, because it is transparent, honest and kind, and prevents them from wasting time and expensive head-shot resumes auditioning when they have no chance. Today, however, while your casting call for “The Wilt Chamberlain Story” one man show might escape protests and threatened lawsuits if you say “TALL ACTORS ONLY,” if you dare say that only tall, black men can audition for the part of an iconic tall, black man, you’re spitting in the wind.

“It is advisable to take an affirmative approach, rather than an exclusionary one,” said Howard Sherman, interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, in reaction to the controversial casting notice. Even if the approach cannot be honestly “affirmative,” Howard? Not all exclusions are racist, biased, bigoted, illegal or inappropriate, especially in casting. If a revival production of the old musical “Superman” can say “only athletic looking male singers with muscles” will be considered as Superman,  and it certainly can, “Hamilton,” in which the casting of non-whites is part of its concept, can and should say that no white actors will be cast.

“If it was the other way around, Sharpton would be down here in a frenzy,” noted a “Hamilton” stagehand. You mean if there was a show in which the whiteness of the cast was essential to the story, the characters, the message and the concept of the show, Al would make a fool of himself arguing, say, that blacks should be encouraged to audition to play Jefferson Davis, George Wallace, or David Duke? Well, maybe he would, being Al, and so what? This kind of observation adds nothing to the discussion, and confuses the issue.

It isn’t only stage hands who are confused. So are law professors. Jonathan Turley writes,

“If racial casting is permitted for plays, can other businesses claim that same right to discriminate as necessary to maintain an image or tradition? Even among acting positions, how do we draw this line? Here the producers are claiming that it is an “accepted practice that certain characteristics in certain roles constitute a bona fide occupational qualification.” That would seem to suggest that black actors could be barred from leading roles that are historically white or based on white characters in literary works.”

Yes, that’s exactly what it would imply, and that makes perfect sense without suggesting a racial animus or racist result at all, especially since the group excluded by racial verisimilitude is the same one arguing that whites can’t play Othello, which is nonsense. If the race of the actor is an important feature of a stage work’s success, then it is neither racist, unethical, unreasonable nor inappropriate to make that particular race a requirement of casting—and saying so in the casting announcement. The only reason Turley’s line seems hard to draw is because race-hucksters and ideologues only care about power, not art, and an issue entirely within the realm of expression and artistic freedom is being distorted for political leverage.

11 thoughts on “Yet More Casting Ethics: “Hamilton’s” ‘No Whites Need Apply’ Open Casting Call

  1. I would LOVE to see that performance!

    As a very slightly related aside, how do “gentleman’s clubs” and restaurants and bars, like Hooters get away with their “discriminatory” hiring practices? Is there some loophole for them? I know some clubs that require all of their girls to have breast enhancement or be naturally huge up top. There is a requirement for attractive body and pretty face and generally youth. You don’t see too many 62 year old strippers hanging around to get their pension at 65. Or maybe women (or men!) who don’t fit the stereotypical type just don’t apply because they don’t want to hear they are too old, fat or ugly or not curvy enough in the right places?

  2. I will say at the outset that have seen Hamilton, and I absolutely loved it. It was one of the few things I have seen that did live up to the hype. So with that said, I don’t understand the controversy over the casting notice. A huge number of Broadway shows call for specifically Caucasian actors in their casting notices. And yes, while I guess they could put a black actor in a wig and makeup in an attempt to make them seem white, most casting people are not going to go through that much trouble (unless that person s a big star).

    The point of Hamilton is to show the birth of the nation using people who were typically dispossessed during that era, with musical hip-hop stylings. It would be rather pointless to have white actors in those roles, even white actors in makeup. In this case it is important that the actors are minorities, and given the frequent fourth wall breaking, there is not the typical separation between them and the audience.

    And just from a practical standpoint, if they did not specify that they wanted minority actors, especially ones who could rap, and did not necessarily have theater experience, they were going to be swamped with white actors, who are the vast majority of the Broadway actors. It sounds like they are already set for the white roles of King George and Samuel Seabury, and are now looking for the minorities in the other principal roles.

    • One way of getting around the direct request: just list the roles available and how the characters are described in the show. If a director is open to non-traditional casting, say so.

      • I don’t think the characters are described in the show as such. From what I’m to understand, they are also open to women playing the parts of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (perhaps others, but those are the ones I heard specifically). So it would be more as if the director was open to “traditional” casting to indicate that. lol.

        “We *miiight* just consider traditionally casting this role. We try to have an open mind, after all.”

        • Well, “non-traditional casting” means “casting the show other than how it’s usually cast.” So if the casting is traditionally untraditional, non-traditional would mean casting the roles traditionally, for this show.

  3. Any specs in a casting call could seem discriminatory if you want them to be or have an attitude about such things. But it’s dancing on the head of a pin. Don’t these people have anything better to campaign against? Seriously. Is it discriminatory to specify that auditioneers for the role of Dickens’ Oliver be a young child who is male? Perhaps an Off-Broadway spoof production might cast Jane Lynch in the title role, but not a “normal” production.

    By the way, I did love “Writes law professor Jonathan Turley, who writes…” Made me smile.

  4. Aren’t there two Caucasians in the publicity shot above? And aren’t some of the “non-white” actors pretty fair? Aren’t they too light like the Nina Simone actress? Where’s the outrage? Where are the SJWs?

  5. I also saw Hamilton and it is rare when a theater ticket cost more than a hotel stay. My wife – The Lovely Cynthia – thought it was one of here top five. Myself? Overpriced flotsam – but some of the “greatest musicals” I have found to be rather tedious. A great conflict with my spouse. I thought “Bloody Andrew Jackson” was superior and ditto 1776 in historical adaptations. But casting? Gotta update for the latest generation.

    I doubt you will see many Black actor’s doing Fiddler or Sound of Music, but those musicals could always be modified into different time frame or historical background. Heck – Wizard of Oz has resurfaced in many formats. Certainly would be strange having Sound of Music in a 1850s plantation format with Von Trapp being a plantation owner falling in love with Maria a Black slave in charge of the children – Jeffersonian like?.

    What I have noticed through the years is the dancers being more representative. The latest revival of “Anything Goes” with Sutton Foster had an amazing diversity within the dance team. The last revival of 110 in The Shade had a blended cast and it worked and Audra McDonald got a Tony.

    I would find the application of Black face to be laughable, but it certainly would provide quite a statement.

    • I’d bet on the license-holders blocking black Von Trapps, at least in any professional production, ditto Fiddler, and rightly so. Both shows, like Hamilton, should not be marred by “diverse” staging.

      In most musicals and operas too, the chorus is a mass character, and individual ethnicity is less crucial. Good point.

  6. The whole brouhaha was over nothing. The notice was just badly worded that’s all.

    And you know eventually this will happen.

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