Theatre Thursdays: Diversity, Obligation, and Storytelling

We spend a lot of time here talking about how diversity is important. Creators should want to include diverse characters in their creations, not out of some obligation to some imaginary race/gender/sexuality quota, but because seeing characters who look and act like them is important to marginalized communities, and because it makes the story more realistic: after all, white men are not the majority on our planet.

norm lewis phantomAnd even more, because it just makes a story more interesting. It’s a sad truth that women, people of color, people with disabilities, queer people, trans people, and people at the intersection of two or more of those descriptors have it harder in life. I’m not saying that cishet abled white guys can’t struggle, but changing any one of those qualifiers (gay guy, abled woman, black guy, trans woman) adds another difficulty level in the game of life. And while this is a tragic fact in the real world, in storytelling it allows for a much wider range of conflicts. Today I’m going to look at a few different examples of plays where diversity has made me even more invested in an already powerful story.

First and foremost, let’s talk about Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays have been set everywhere from Joss Whedon’s house to space, but one of the most intriguing productions I’ve encountered was set in the classic historical setting. It kept the period attire and the medieval backdrop, but in actress and director Asta Nielsen’s 1921 silent film version of Hamlet, Asta herself played Hamlet as a young woman who was raised as a prince so that she could inherit the throne.

asta hamletNow, obviously Shakespeare is considered the best writer in the English language for a reason; it’s not like Hamlet needed any work to be a fascinating piece of literature. But by making Hamlet female, Asta provides a whole new layer of conflict to the story. Hamlet must keep her secret from others, including Horatio, her best friend, with whom she is smitten, and Ophelia, who is smitten with her—not to mention her subjects, as she would lose her claim to the throne should her true gender be revealed. At the same time, making Hamlet a woman provides female viewers with a far more relatable character than the story did previously. Hamlet gets to travel and study abroad, joke and fight, seek revenge and even question his place in the cosmos, but Ophelia gets to die as a way to prove how far gone Hamlet is in his quest, and Gertrude gets to hang on Claudius’s arm and also die in a poison-switching accident.

les mis dallas javert valjeanAnother example is the recent production of Les Misérables performed in Dallas, Texas. Now, if you know anything about me, you know that I adore the original Les Mis in all its melodramatic historicity. Despite that, I’m obsessed with the Dallas Theater Center’s adaptation. Les Mis Dallas, as it’s been referred to in the adoring frenzy it’s sparked online, pulled the story of oppression and redemption from 1830s France forward into the modern day, and cast the show in a way that reflects modern societal struggles (i.e., with people of color as the disenfranchised). Not only does this make the story more realistic—after all, it’s not white people who are still fighting for their rights in 2014—it adds a deeper level of conflict for the characters. It’s one thing for a white former convict with no relevant experience to become a sainted businessman and politician, but it is far more difficult for a person of color to gain the same foothold. (Hell, it’s statistically easier for white-ex convicts to get jobs than it is for Black men who’ve never even been arrested.)  The modernization of the revolutionaries’ causes also brings attention to current and ongoing struggles, such as the right to clean water, the personification of corporations, and the right to a living wage, rather than a long-past anti-monarchy movement.

It was recently announced that Black actress Keke Palmer would be taking on the role of Cinderella on Broadway. Now, for people like me whose first introduction to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella was the TV movie starring Brandy, Whitney Houston, and Whoopi Goldberg, a Black Cinderella may not seem like a new thing. But it is the first time Broadway‘s Cinderella will be Black, and that’s worth celebrating. Not only is it good for representation, adding a racial component gives the story a more compelling edge. In a world where Black womanhood continues to be exploited and where Black women in media rarely get to be the princess or the love interest, Keke as Cinderella will give us a narrative about a young Black woman escaping abuse and servitude for luxury and romance.

Here’s the thing: the original stories these adaptations come from aren’t bad. It’s just that there’s only so many times you can perform the same story in the same time period about the same white guys before it becomes tired. Furthermore, it sends the implicit message that only white people have pain, or worse, that only white people have stories worth telling. Remixing the casting is an excellent way to refresh a piece, appeal to a wider range of audiences, and to give its messages more cultural heft for today’s viewers. Instead of seeing this remixing as some sort of kowtow to a politically correct quota, try to consider the ways more diverse casts give deeper meaning and consequence to a story.

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