There has been a lot of talk lately about the lack of diversity in most theater both on and off stage.
It has led me to think back on my years in theater – in school, in community theater, and performing professionally with Bottom’s Up.
The area in Michigan where I grew up was mostly white. The school system I attended was almost exclusively white.
I had almost no opportunities to meet people of color; except a few latinx kids in our school system.
I remember our school did a production of Finian’s Rainbow – complete with black face. I was not part of that production – but nobody questioned the appropriateness of the choice or how the production was carried out.
I did not really become involved in theater until my Junior year, but the shows I was doing were mostly standard Caucasian fare – then the Bay Music Foundation decided to do Flower Drum Song.
I admit I think back on that and cringe.
The music from this show is gorgeous. But this is the original version and was rife with offensive stereotypes. Not to mention a bunch of white kids onstage with our hair sprayed black and trying to look and sound Chinese.
The next year, Bay Music Foundation did Fiddler – a very different experience, as the Jewish community came out and helped to educate us about the show and Jewish customs. It was a wonderful experience where an effort was made to try to embrace the culture the show is based on.
Not so with Flower Drum Song. I don’t know if, at that time, there was an Asian community in Bay County Michigan. There may be now because Dow Chemical has its headquarters in nearby Midland, and at some point, quite a few Asian families came to live in the area, most working for Dow at that later point in time.
Years later I auditioned for a production of 1940s Radio Hour. I love that show and the music. I auditioned for the role of Ann Collier because it was the only female role I felt I could possibly play. Instead, I was asked if I would be interested in the role of Geneva Lee Browne. I had not considered that role because the role is written for a woman of color.
I am embarrassed to say, it did not take me more than a moment to say that I would definitely be interested in that role.
I was up against a woman of color, and I got the part.
I should not have agreed to consider the role and I should not have taken the role.
My “excuse” and is not an excuse, it is a rationalization, is that there are few roles for a fat old woman and I’ll take whatever I can get – especially in a show where I love the music.
I hope that I know better now.
There may be few roles for a fat old white lady, but there are even fewer roles written for black women (and men) and I should respect my fellow actors and the truth of the story being told in the script and music.
I have been up against people of color before for roles, but they have been roles that were not specifically written for someone of color – and in those cases, I feel that we all have an equal chance. But I should not have played Geneva.
And the Bay Music Foundation should not have done Flower Drum Song when they knew there were no Asian kids in the area to play the roles.
It is a disservice to the truth of the show.
It is a disservice to the culture (purportedly) represented in the show.
If you do not have the performers to play the roles – you should not do the show.
However, I will also say, that I believe all casting should be gender neutral if at all possible. Gender is different than race or culture. Gender bends. And I think you can bring interesting insights to a show by going gender neutral.
I would love to see the day when ethnic-neutral casting is possible; but we’re nowhere near there. That is only possible when (and shouldn’t even be considered until) the opportunities in theater for people of color are equal to white opportunities.
And we are, sadly, a long way from there.
And there is so much work to be done.
All I can say, is that I hope to be much more aware of the impact of my actions in the future.