National Diversity Forum
MUNGIOLI THEATRICALS, INC.
The theater is not a literal medium.
Years ago, when Nick
Hytner’s innovative revisal of CAROUSEL was brought to the American
stage, I remember one producer going off on a tirade about how the whole thing
was absurd. “Here the show is set in a small
Why is it that we so readily understand and accept that the theater is not a literal medium, letting our imaginations soar as we explore a new text or reexamine an old one, EXCEPT when it comes to the issue of Non-Traditional Casting!?
I recently spoke with another member of the casting profession who inquired about my passion for this issue of Non-Traditional Casting. We were discussing the current Broadway revisal of CABARET, and she commented that an African-American actress in the role of Sally Bowles would be absurd to her, as it would violate the truth of the time period and the story. I asked her about the glitter on the nipples of the Emcee and the bowtie in the middle of his bare chest; the convention of the 21st century audience members in contemporary theatergoing attire seated at front tables and being treated as guests of the club in pre-war Germany; and the very convention of an elderly man and woman singing a song to one another because the man brought the woman a pineapple from his produce stand. None of this bothered her. And yet, she, herself a woman-of-color, could not envision a woman-of-color as Sally Bowles. One need only look at the casting of the show these past five years to see that she is not alone in this lack of vision.
So what is that about? Why does our imagination hit such an abrupt boundary? Why is it we can envision the theater’s power of illusion only up to the border of an actor’s skin color or his or her ambulatory ability?
* * * * *
In 1994, I began work on
the musical RAGTIME. RAGTIME was a story about our country’s loss of
innocence. It focused on three groups of Americans at the turn of the century:
WASPS, Jews, and African-Americans. I had introduced the creative team to
Asian-American and Latino performers whom I felt would have been wonderful in
the world of this show. During the show’s inception, however, the team
was intently focused on the primary story, which involved only three ethnic
groups. A few years later, we were casting the third company of the show in
Currently, I am working on a new musical about the Sixties, which deals with the African-American/Caucasian racial conflicts of the period. I have been encouraging the creative team to cast beyond black and white, so that they do not later regret having missed colors that they might ultimately like to have in the world of the story they are telling.
* * * * *
I recently cast a large-scale musical. A young girl came to an open call. She was Asian-American. She used a wheelchair – quadriplegic. She entered the room and sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. I thought she was just beautiful. At the end of the day, I suggested calling her back to hear her do the material from our show. I was met with initial resistance on the part of my colleagues – they could only see the complications it would entail. Questions flooded the discussion: Who would take care of her? How would we incorporate her into the world of the story, the show being a period piece? Could we accommodate necessary special needs, such as wheelchair accessibility from the greenroom to the stage? Would the producers ultimately flip out at the very suggestion of opening up these doors? My colleagues concluded that the girl was not really a singer – “…she just showed up here singing a song that she probably knows from singing at church.”
see,” I told them. I brought the girl back the next day with material
from our show. She sang it quite well, especially considering that she had only
just received it the night before. She also performed another song of her own
choosing, “Your Daddy’s Son” from RAGTIME. At the final callback auditions, we presented
her to the director, a woman of great vision who recognized this young
girl’s gifts, and cast her in the show. Now, there were several calls
made to Sharon Jensen of the Non-Traditional Casting Project, tracking her down
while she was visiting family halfway across the country in the middle of
Courage and vision are necessary now – perhaps more than ever. It feels to me that in the past five years, we have grown somewhat more limited. Departing from the standard or expanding one’s focus – whether to cast an Asian-American performer in a musical about black and white racial conflict in the Sixties, or to include a young Asian girl who uses a wheelchair in the telling of a fable – these ideas are initially perceived as somehow radical. They conjure up thoughts of expense, risk and often compromise.
So why is it that I am enchanted by the idea? Why is it that when that young Asian girl wheeled herself into the open call, I saw nothing but the possibility of our show vaulting forward into a work of theater now more meaningful than it ever could have been before?
Perhaps it is because it
is the truth of the world in which we live! I grew up here in
As theater artists, we
have a responsibility to reflect the world in which we live. The ideas and
social mores and messages that we present on the stage become the voice of our
time – no less than the voices of Sophocles and Aeschylus depict for us
today the world of ancient
Our only barriers are the limits of our own imagination. And since imagination is the stock and trade of our business, it is surprising that the issue should even come up!
* * * * *
What can we do, as individuals?
BRING IT UP! BRING IT UP! BRING IT UP!
And KEEP BRINGING IT UP!
The more we talk about it, the more impossible it seems that inclusion and diversity could ever NOT be a part of our work! There is fear embedded in the unfamiliar. Schopenhauer put it this way: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” The initial reaction is almost always one of expense, risk, fear, and compromise – and yet, when we talk about it long enough, it becomes seemingly self-evident that this ancient town has a young Asian girl in a wheelchair who lives there, and she is as necessary to the fabric of that society and the telling of that story as any one of us would be to the telling of our own.
And that is how we grow as
a society and as a people and as an art form and as an industry. There are
nineteen million people with disabilities in the
And that is how we shall heal this world.