White-washing?, or – American Theatre

Sorry for the title, but there’s no way else to say it. On Monday,  June 30th I had the pleasure of attending the National High School Musical Theatre Awards,  otherwise known as the Jimmys. Before I begin my polarizing tirade on this event and the general state of theatre, I want to say this: The Jimmy Awards is an amazing event organized by incredible people and organizations. It’s been a monumental help in bringing clout and purpose to Arts Education and its needed existence in schools over the last five years.

That said it highlights a massive problem in our current state of theatre: the major lack of roles for people of color and underrepresented populations. Let me say that the Jimmy Awards aren’t perpetuating these issues, in fact, with the amount of diversity on their stage I’d say they are actively fighting against it. However, when watching these amazingly talented students belt their hearts out, it was impossible not to notice a couple of things.

First, of the first three non-white students to sing, they were singing from IN THE HEIGHTS. It’s a some-what accessible musical – that gives Latino/a actors a choice beyond WEST SIDE STORY – that provides great characters for actors who aren’t looking to play a Dream Girl for the umpteenth time.  We also had the obligatory Seasweed from HAIRSPRAY, and Effie from DREAM GIRLS. Moving away from African Americans, we had Aida from AIDA and Kim from Miss Saigon.

Are these bad roles? No, they’re all GREAT roles actually, but when compared to the array of different roles for the students who, well, aren’t a minority- it proved that the theatre lacks who things: accessible roles for under-represented students (outside of a small handful of musicals) and the encouragement of these students to play roles that have been typically dominated by white actors.

I mean, why can’t the girl playing Vanessa from IN THE HEIGHTS play Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, or Dorothy from THE WIZARD OF OZ (and NOT THE WIZ)? Why is theatre in general (NOT the Jimmy Awards) telling young students that this is their reality? Why are we not encouraging them to break the mold and revolutionize an historical role?

The same can be said for actors who aren’t “conventionally skinny.” One girl played Tracy Turnblad, one girl played Effie from Dream Girls, one guy played Enda Turnblad. Thank god another girl played The Drowsy Chaperone, otherwise I would have vomited in my seat from seeing another talented girl shoved into the role of Tracy Turnblad (again, a GREAT role) because of her size. The Tracy I saw last night should have been playing Ado Annie or Calamity Jane, she had the perfect voice for it…but no. Turnblad.

And I get it, these kids were nominated for roles that they performed at the schools, and an actor wants to play a role the identify with, I’m just noting something that I’m uncomfortable with in American Theatre.

So what do we do? The Jimmy Awards are doing all that they can do. They’re providing a spotlight for theatre education across the country and striving to keep Arts Education in schools. We can’t ask them to do anything else, and instead we need to turn to producers, playwriting festivals, and theatre companies. We need to turn to our own community and demand that we start producing established plays with bold, informed, unconventional, and risky casting choices. We need to demand that we start producing plays and musicals that feature universal and identifiable roles for all types of actors that are written by people who aren’t just white males (I’m looking at you TONY AWARDS).

We need to help the Jimmy Awards out because they’re doing amazing work crafting the future of theatre and a majority of us aren’t doing our best to supplement their work.