You might be familiar with the phrase “color-conscious casting.” It gained popularity with everyone’s favorite hit musical, Hamilton. According to Lavina Jadhwani, a contributor at How I Round, color-conscious casting is when “race is acknowledged in, and ideally deepens, theatrical conversations.” Jessica Gelt at the Los Angeles times calls it “[an implied] understanding of the profound implications of skin color.”
Hamilton changed the game for a lot of actors and artists of color. A critically-acclaimed, successful, and most importantly, money-making production with people of color cast as the United States’ founding fathers and mothers. Who were actually white.
What is the impact of casting people of color in roles they “shouldn’t have?” Most famously, Lin-Manuel Miranda himself has said on Hamilton:
“This is the story of America then, told by America now… this is what our country looks like now, so we’re allowed to tell the story because it’s the story of our country too.”
Since I was in 8th grade, I’ve never had more than five lines in a show, despite having auditioned for every single one in high school. In Oxford College’s production of Sense & Sensibility this past Spring, I barely ever left the stage.
Before now, I had convinced myself that I was just bad at acting – and I think a lot of young people of color interested in the arts go through the same thing. Getting rejected over and over and over and over again during the most formative and sensitive years of your life will destroy you. High school is a time when young kids should be learning, and should be given the opportunity to learn. But too often, the fact that someone doesn’t “look the part” gets in the way.
Months ago, when I saw Sense & Sensibility for the first time, I went with Pamela Joyce, Lecturer in Theatre Studies here at Oxford. She took me and Willis Hao to see the production because other Asian-American actors were in the show, and beforehand we all had dinner and spoke about our joint frustration at the lack of representation we had all experienced in theatre and the arts. Watching the show was transformative for me – three actresses and actors of color just got to play fun, interesting, dynamic characters. It was inspiring.
When I saw the show, I knew immediately that I wanted to play Marianne. I was scared though – I’ve never had a lead role in my adult life or even in my teenage years, I can’t walk in a straight line without tripping over my own feet, let alone be backflipped, and most frightening to me, I’m not white.
But when the cast list came out, the cast started having a lot of really important, really cool conversations. Once, at rehearsal, Jessie said “Look around at this cast. No one is playing who they are ‘supposed to.'” That stuck with me.
I’d heard that once before, in my first-year at Oxford, when I was cast in the Fall play JB. Dr. Lemons once sat the cast down and said something along the lines of “I don’t get it when people ask me why the family in the show isn’t all of the same race. Why does it matter? The show is still the same. Who cares what they’re ‘supposed to’ look like.”
What does “supposed to” even mean? How could we, as a cast, show a familial love and great camaraderie, even though we all identify in a myriad of ways? And how could we show others that it doesn’t always matter who plays the part, when the show you just watched was just as good as if it had been cast with white actors?
Sense & Sensibility wasn’t color-blind casting – it was color-conscious. Let’s take a quick look at the breakdown of Oxford’s racial diversity in this year’s first-year class:
Asian / Asian American 27.5%
Latino / Hispanic 7.6%
Black/African American 9.2%
American Indian / Native American 0.6%
Did not Identify 7.8%
Oxford College is not a Predominantly White Institution. Most of the people you meet here will not be white. So when watching Sense & Sensibility, or any play at this institution, you should hope and expect to see people who look like you. We played sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, friends, and love interests. In your life at Oxford, these characters all look different. And so they did in S&S too.
This play was transformative for me. I still have a lot to learn, but I have a new kind of confidence now. Everyone can do theatre. Everyone has a role to play in the arts. The arts are integral as a tool for social change because they are meant to represent everyone, and because they allow for those who are not normally heard to speak up. And we all have a part to play in that.
A special thank you to our director Jessie Rivers, for trusting us, for acknowledging the importance of color-conscious and diverse casting, and for making sure we knew that not only could we play these parts, we deserved them.