Theatre Thursdays: Is Race Lifting in Theatre a Lie?

This month, Keke Palmer will be the first Black actress to take on Cinderella’s glass slippers on Broadway, following in the recent footsteps of the likes of Norm Lewis being the first Black actor to star in Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera. We’ve talked a fair amount about colorblind casting on this blog, and I’d say these are examples of the practice working for its desired benefits: making sure actors of color get a fair chance at playing a variety of roles, including leading roles that have long been considered “whites-only” territory. However, I’m asking the reader to consider: is Broadway seeing its first Black Cinderella, or merely the first Black actress to play Cinderella? What is the distinction and why does it matter? Allow me to elucidate.

Keke Palmer's debut as Cinderella is September 9th, right around the corner!

Keke Palmer’s debut as Cinderella is September 9, right around the corner!

Lady Saika recently wrote an article about how staging more diverse productions isn’t about obligation or quotas, but rather adding some genuine artistic and narrative nuances to shows, particularly long-running, well-established shows that may be prone to stagnation. I whole-heartedly concur with her, though I fear most theatres are missing these opportunities by not fully engaging with diversity when they could be. Race Lifting, or racebending, is an extremely common phenomenon in media, from insidious whitewashing to well-intentioned efforts to update and/or diversify otherwise monochrome casting situations. However, the majority of times, casting choices in theatre do not truly qualify as race lifts, and casting an actor of color in a work of theatre does not automatically make for a character of color.

Lea Salonga Eponine

Lea Salonga as Éponine.

If the play/musical does not acknowledge the realities of the character’s altered race, I’m not sure the character’s race can truly be said to be changed. When Lea Salonga had her memorable time as Éponine both on Broadway and London, I don’t think anyone took that to mean that the character of Éponine was Filipina, or Asian of any descent. Could she have been? France certainly had colonial contact with parts of Asia, and though it would probably require casting at least one of her parents as Asian as well or some small subplot of her not being the Thénardiers’ biological daughter (maybe Cosette was just one of many children they were “raising” for money?), the idea of someone of Asian descent living in 1800s France is not beyond the realm of possibility. That being said, I’d be willing to bet large sums of money that was not the idea behind the casting of Lea Salonga, and for all intents and purposes, this is a case of an actor of color playing a white role.

Norm Lewis Phantom

Norm Lewis as the Phantom.

Let’s look at the other example I mentioned at the very beginning of the post, the inimitable Norm Lewis as the iconic Phantom. Like an Asian Éponine, a Black Phantom could certainly have been a possibility; people of color were indeed around in the past and not just invented in 20th century urban America like some period pieces would have you believe. A Black Phantom would be an extremely interesting look at the intersection of race and disability. Would the bigoted people of Victorian-era Paris have perceived a disfigured person of color as even more monstrous than a white counterpart? Would his disfigurement have overshadowed his race (or vice versa)? We may never know, as without anything to explicitly acknowledge a race shift, the Phantom’s Blackness may just be something incidental that the audience is supposed to overlook, like that one time I saw the show in London and the “organ” in the Phantom’s lair was a dinky little electric keyboard with “CASIO” (the brand name) emblazoned in full view of the audience.

Verisimilitude ain't easy.

Verisimilitude ain’t easy.

Which brings me to the heart of the matter—why do I keep qualifying with “in theatre”? Because of the fundamentally different ways theatre and film/television operate. “Suspension of disbelief” is often a term thrown around in dealing with media, but theatre is where the principle is most greatly called upon. For example, no matter how minimalist or elaborate the set in a play or musical, it will never have the realism of something filmed on location or a mutli-million dollar movie studio set. Sure, many TV shows or films may have plot holes so big that they really require some suspension of disbelief to keep watching, but in regards to visual perception, with the advent of green screens and CGI special effects, most film and television works hard to eliminate any disbelief before it needs to be suspended. In other words, theatre asks us to use our imagination to complete the picture, whereas film and television uses technology to complete the picture for us, and then asks us to fully accept exactly what we are seeing. Because of this, in film and television seeing is believing; when a Black actor is cast as a previously white character in a film (think Nick Fury or Johnny Storm), there is no question that, in the film universe anyway, the character’s race has been altered. But the ambiguity involved in the suspension of disbelief during live theatre means the issue is not always so clear.

The musical The Wiz. These characters are not Black by accident.

The musical The Wiz. These characters are not Black by accident.

Does this mean there can never be racebending in theatre? I’d say it’s possible, but would take more effort. In order for a character in theatre to have a true race lift, there must be something that clarifies this wasn’t just colorblind casting. For better or for worse, this often seems to involve changing the entire socio-cultural milieu of a show. The Wiz, for example, takes the characters of Oz and race lifts them in a way that simply casting a Black actor in the role of Elphaba or Glinda in Wicked would not. Shakespeare’s works are often updated or staged in unique and innovative ways that frequently, though not necessarily always, offer examples of true racebending. If we have a production of Macbeth that is staged in a very traditional way with an overall conventional historic setting/costuming/etc. with an almost entirely white cast but happens to have a Black actor in the title role, the creative team is probably not trying to say that the Thane of Glamis, and later King of Scotland, is of African descent. It’s just colorblind casting. On the other hand, we have Orson Welles’s 1936 staging of the same play, nicknamed “Voodoo Macbeth”. It features an entirely African-American cast and transplants the story to a Haiti-esque location; now I’d say that is racebending.

Of course, art does belong to the consumer as well as the creator, and even unacknowledged race lifts can be inspiring to an audience member. Even from just an equal opportunity employment perspective, an aspiring actor could see such a performance and have faith that actors of color can indeed have *gasp* leading roles and portray iconic figures like Cinderella. Seeing a PoC actor could also lead to the creation of innovative headcanons; like I mentioned, Black!Phantom would have an extremely interesting story to tell, one that I’d love to see explored (it might be hard to fit it all into a musical, but would make for a great novel).

Sherri Shepherd, or as I fondly think of her, 30 Rock's "Queen of Jordan"

Sherri Shepherd, or as I fondly think of her, 30 Rock‘s “Queen of Jordan”

To bring things back full circle, I’m not 100% sure where the creative team is taking Cinderella in terms of racial reinterpretation. Sherri Shepherd is slated to take on the role of the wicked stepmother the same time as Keke Palmer begins as Cinderella. To me, that seems to be a possible acknowledgment of a race shift for the characters, even if just in an attempt to make it less racist by not having a white wicked stepmother controlling the life of a Black servant Cinderella. Acknowledging race lifting might require a little more effort from the creative team, but to champion characters of color as well as actors of color should be the endgame of diverse theatre. We want to make sure that color isn’t just one more thing, like microphones taped to the actors’ faces, that we are supposed to pretend simply isn’t there.

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