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National Diversity Forum
2002 Opinion Pieces







By Arnold J. Mungioli





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 New England town in the early to mid-1900’s and the aunt is Black and the woman is White and the husband is White and the cousin is Black…” He went on about how for that time period such choices violated the truth of the story and to have cast that way when the script is without any specific reference to people of color made no sense and laid waste with any validity that the production might have otherwise had. When he was finished, I asked calmly, “But the rocking horse glued sideways to the roof – that didn’t bother you at all?”


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 Chicago. I brought to the creative team a character man with a natural heavy Italian accent. The producer turned to the director and admitted, “Well, that is a color we’ve missed with this show!” Even in a multiethnic cast, there are missed opportunities if we limit ourselves to the ethnic specificity of what is on the page.


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.”


“Let’s 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 summer. Sharon recommended that I speak with a wonderful woman named Gail Williamson at MEDIA ACCESS. These two women armed me with all of the information I needed to make that which seemed initially impossible to my colleagues no longer unfamiliar and scary, but rather a new, meaningful and worthwhile reality. The producers, director and rest of the creative team are to be commended for their vision.


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 New York City. All types of people make up the reality of my world. I remember how my mother would say that it was important for her to raise her kids in New York City – she said it would make a difference in our lives – a positive and a powerful one. While the rest of our friends and relatives moved off into the suburbs in pursuit of some patch of green lawn, my family stayed here in New York City. And here one finds the vibrancy and truth of human life as it is on this planet: Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Italian-Roman-Catholic, Wicca, Asian, Latino, African, WASP, Native-American, Australian, Canadian, Brazilian, Indian, Old, Young, Gay, Straight, Bisexual, Transgender, Female, Male, Differently-Abled…and so much more! That is New York! That is America! That is the World!


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 Greece. And while, like most entertainment, the theater is a medium of illusion, truth is told through its illusion and story. How we choose to chronicle our truth – whether or not we eliminate the skeletons in our cultural closet so that future generations shall be denied the opportunity to learn from our struggles; whether or not we include all peoples of all types to accurately represent the truth of our world, or whether we sanitize our tales to misrepresent ourselves because somehow, somewhere, deep down, we think any one member of the human family is any “better” than any other member – these are the decisions which shall ultimately determine the value of the art we leave behind as a people; as a civilization; as a generation.


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?






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 United States. Even if only five per cent of those see this show which I have just described, and the work of this courageous director and producer, that’s a million people who will see themselves represented on that stage; and have a role model; and know that the story they are hearing is their story too. And doesn’t that make it more our own story, as well? And from there, they may have the courage to go out and tell their stories! And, if we are lucky, maybe they shall include us.


And that is how we shall heal this world.