HAMILTON wasn’t shot–the Broadway musical has been stabbed.
Political correctness is a polished saber slashing at honesty. Leaving behind truth bloodied on the ground. The overly zealous, speech-sanitizing kills slaughtering directness in the civilian world has too cozily crept into audition studios, rehearsal halls, and film locations where political correctness now claws at creative expression. The mega-hit HAMILTON is political correctness’ most recent felled victim.
HAMILTON is under fire from a black, civil rights attorney. He is offended by a casting notice put forth from the popular musical that dares to look beyond traditionally casting white actors to portray historical Caucasian characters. Before proceeding I suppose I must apologize for highlighting the gentleman’s skin pigmentation. But in context with HAMILTON’s alleged offense my honesty must breathe for I do not know if the offended lawyer is African-American, Haitian, of European, Caribbean, Brazilian, Canadian, or of Icelandic heritage. Perhaps he has some Asian or Native American ancestry? I cannot assume that a black man or woman in the U.S. is African-American, just as an African-American cannot be certain what my white skin tone represents of my heritage. (Dutch-French-Eastern European-Some Ancestral Background Unknown-American if it so matters to you.)
So what was so outrageous within HAMILTON’s open call casting notice? The notice included the phrase, ‘Non-white’ to winnow attendees. What the outraged civil rights attorney doesn’t understand is that actors will respond to almost every casting notice. When I cast the original New York production of COBB (Lee Blessing’s play about the racist ball player Ty Cobb) white actors submitted themselves to my office to be seen for the role of Oscar Charleston: a highly competitive baseball player of the Negro League who was saddled in life by white men as being ‘The Black Cobb.’ The casting notice included the historical slight but many white actors thought they could play disenfranchised ‘black.’ My casting colleagues experience similar with actors demanding to be seen for roles in which a director, playwright, or history does not desire the actor’s type (gender, skin-tone, height, or weight). So if the appalled attorney is to insist that casting notices not be specific in what creative teams are seeking of actors to portray characters—what does he suggest I and my colleagues write as descriptors for casting actors in FENCES, or THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES?
Casting directors are often riddled by worry for what vocabulary choices are to be implemented when issuing a casting notice for non-Caucasian actors. I’ve anxiously stared at my computer’s blank screen when about to write a breakdown seeking actors of any skin tone; especially when seeking a black actor and the phrase ‘African-American’ doesn’t apply to the character(s). ‘Black’ and ‘African-American’ are not the only vocabulary pitfalls stalling the writing of a casting notice. There are landmines with ‘Asian,’ ‘Latino,’ ‘Hispanic,’ plus other ancestral generalities, or gender, weight, height, or overall appearance. And now, ‘non-white’ to describe what is being sought for a character is maligned. Is ‘Caucasian’ the next offender?
The quandary for what is socially acceptable remains when encountering a script in which physical attributes of the actor are pertinent to the character(s). I’ve shied away from stating ‘heavy-set’ in some casting notices to instead stating the vagary of ‘a person of weight’ (which will offend some actors).
I mentally wrestled with honesty in describing a person’s religiousness when the director for the ill-fated musical OY! insisted I bring in only, “Jewish actors.” The casting dilemma stemmed from a then popular NY theater critic who previously bashed the director’s prior play for having ‘non-Jews’ portray ‘Jewish characters.’ What of actors of Jewish faith portraying Christians? Or will that offend a Christian, theater critic?
I repeatedly witness an Asian actor cry foul on Facebook when racial lines are blurred as a casting necessity due in part because there were no viable actors of the heritage to portray the role of heritage required. Yet the actor had no problem being cast as a Native American character in one of my past projects when we couldn’t find an age-appropriate, Native American actor in New York available to work several months at a remote regional theater.
How, in an industry in which we are to reflect the human experience, can we be honest in describing the physical attributes without offending? Writing a character breakdown sometimes involves over examination of watchwords which unfortunately results in a casting notice leading many inappropriate actors falsely believing they can play a part that is not remotely within their type. Sit in a casting chair. How would you write the physical attributes of my skin tone that stems from my Dutch-French-Eastern European-Some Ancestral Background Unknown-American pigmentation? Don’t use ‘white.’ Don’t detail me ‘Caucasian.’
The answer to how we describe each other is that we allow ourselves honesty in our words while being respectful. We know the dog whistle watchwords, and the blatantly offensive language. We reject their use when implemented outside of historical context. But when do inoffensive words of ‘non-white,’ ‘white,’ and ‘black’ become as offensive as the name of a football team? What then becomes the acceptable vocabulary?
— Paul Russell
Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned over thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Elon and Wright State University. He is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information visit www.PaulRussell.net.