One of the hottest topics of conversation at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) annual conference in Chicago earlier this month was no surprise. Announcements in the press about the casting of Porchlight Music Theatre’s upcoming Chicago production of In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes had recently raised urgent questions. Triggered by the reaction of some influential commentators to the company’s choice of an Italian American actor for the leading role of Usnavi (a character whose identity as a Dominican immigrant to the United States is central to the musical’s story, and one that was originally played on Broadway by Mr. Miranda), many attendees and some speakers at the conference discussed the value of authenticity in casting in the context of the ongoing need for more and better opportunities for actors of color.
In light of the currency of the issue, conference organizers* made a last-minute addition to the program which I found to be one of the more interesting sessions I attended (even though unfortunately I had to leave it a little early). Princeton faculty member and award-winning dramatic critic Brian Herrera gave what he described as an “interactive performance” in which he answered attendees’ questions about a subject on which he is the best-informed researcher that I have heard tell-of: the history of casting.
As he spoke, Dr. Herrera’s theoretical point-of-view emerged, challenging conventional wisdom. He asserted that the idea of the “best actor,” which most directors (and producers and their casting directors) would likely assert is the grail they seek in casting each role in a production, is for the most part a myth. He went on to describe how an artistic casting process cloaked in a particular sort of mystery has often preserved traditional systems of privilege in the ethno-racial, gender and sexual identities of those assigned to plum roles in performances on stage and screen.
I may well be garbling some of this, and fortunately there’s no need to rely on my memory to learn from Dr. Herrera’s deep study of the practice of casting over time. At his ATHE conference session, he directed us to an excellent article he authored–one that fortunately is available for free on the web site of the journal that published it, The Journal of American Drama and Theatre.
Here’s the article, which is entitled “The Best Actor for the Role, or the Mythos of Casting in American Popular Performance.” I think it issues an important challenge for us to confront as we make casting decisions: Do we (directors and others that make decisions about who plays what parts) keep the process mystified–probably unconsciously in most cases–in part to protect our own implicit biases?
*Meaningless disclaimer: as the organization’s treasurer I am on the Governing Council of ATHE. Not that it matters here, but I really had no significant role in programming for the conference.