You know what really grinds my gears? When people go to see a musical, and then complain because a POC is playing their fave and that’s just not realistic. Like seriously, guys, there are chimney sweeps dancing on rooftops and people singing their deepest feelings in front of crowds, but a character of color is unrealistic in a part?
The first time I encountered this was in myself, several years ago. Yup, my dumbass high school self had the incredible luck to see Norm Lewis play Javert live on Broadway and think “Wow, he was great, but a black guy would have never been a policeman in the mid-1800s!” First of all, racist high school self, remember that unabridged copy of Les Misérables you read like eight times? Javert is a character of color. His mother was Roma. But whether Javert is textually POC or not, it shouldn’t matter. If you can suspend your disbelief and accept that a couple can fall in love after bumping into each other on the street, or that a girl who’s been shot in the stomach can hold onto life long enough to perform a musical number, but you can’t accept black Javert? You might be a racist.
The same old song and dance has been picked up again recently with the announcement that Quvenzhané Wallis will be playing the eponymous Annie in the upcoming movie reboot. Here are some gems from the IMDb page, where she’s currently the only listed cast member:
“Now I’m not saying that the kid doesn’t have talent…BUT… A black girl being adopted in a depression era by a millionaire is a little far fetched to happen. So they’re obviously going to modern it up. Which I don’t like. All we’ve been seeing out of Hollywood is cheap crappy remake [sic] dumbed down for a P-C crowd.”
“I have no doubt the little girl has talent to spare, she is adorable. However, why are they doing this to a musicale that has a specific look and sound and completely changing it to suit them? Why not take something like ‘The Wiz’ and do a re-make of that. They can modernize it all they want. ‘Annie’ has a certain look, sound, and feel that should not be tampered with.”
So basically, the first commenter is saying that an Academy Award-nominated actress has been cast solely as a political correctness move, and not because she is talented and was the best choice. Also, according to both, the only way to include a black lead is to ‘modernize’ the show, which seems to be slang for ‘make it edgy and quote-unquote urban because little black girls don’t get to have goofy adventures and cavity-inducing happy endings in a historical setting’.
This movie is currently in pre-production. There’s literally no sign that they’ll be changing the setting or costumes or time period or songs or orchestration or anything from the original. But Annie has a certain look (read: a white look), so apparently the simple act of casting a person of color in a role has totally undermined the movie already.
On the other side of this, if a character is canonically POC, white audience members seem to adhere to the “a brown person is a brown person is a brown person” mentality. In the Heights, for example, is about a Dominican-American neighborhood, but it’s cool if they cast non-Latin@s(1) in it, right? Dark is dark is dark! Mimi Marquez from RENT is a canonically Latina role, but she’s often played by black actresses rather than Latinas. Where are the people raising a stink about this? Oh, wait—they’re too busy being worried that King Triton is black but Ariel is a ginger in The Little Mermaid musical and that is just not realistic. Protip: if you’re more worried about mermaid genetics then you are about adequate representation, you are both probably a racist and you probably have your priorities in spectacularly shitty order.
Musical theater is about having a fun or cathartic emotional experience, and the color of an actor’s skin, regardless of the time period a show is set in, should not affect the quality of your experience. There are certainly shows that call for certain races in certain roles because their subject matter deals with race relations (for example South Pacific, Once on this Island, Ragtime), but if race is not an issue in the show, then it shouldn’t be an issue in the casting. If you feel the need to make an issue out of it, maybe you should step back and ask yourself why that is.
1. Fun fact: that’s the actual gender-neutral term to use for people from Latin America.