If you happened to follow the #oscarssowhite controversy earlier this year, then you know that diversity in casting is a steep mountain that the entertainment industry has yet to scale. According to the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, minorities account for more than 40 percent of the US population, yet remain underrepresented nearly six to one on broadcast and cable television. These numbers are even worse for films. With caucasian actors like Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson portraying ethnic characters in blockbuster films and an entirely white nominee list for acting at the 2015 Academy Awards, it is clear that the issue extends beyond television, and affects all entertainment arenas.
Broadway is no exception. According to American Theatre Magazine, over a six-year period only four playwrights of color were featured on their annual list of the top 10 most-produced playwrights.
Having worked in casting for the past eight years in both New York and Los Angeles, I know this is not a problem that is simply going to solve itself. I agree with Hustle & Flow producer and former Columbia Pictures executive Stephanie Allain, who said “Diversity does not just happen. You have to have the intention to make it happen. You have to talk about it. And then you have to walk the walk.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda certainly walked the walk, and was awarded with the 2016 Pulitzer Prize earlier this week for his massively popular hit musical, Hamilton.
Hamilton tells the story of how the former (and first) U.S. Treasurer immigrated to the United States from the West Indies, and became one of our countries most memorable founding fathers. For those of you who have not seen the show, or who live under a rock, the cast of Hamilton is incredibly diverse. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other caucasian historical figures are portrayed by black and Hispanic actors; while the play’s creator, composer and lyricist, Miranda, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico, plays the role of Alexander Hamilton.
It is incredibly rare for a Broadway musical to transcend the confines of the theatre community and make any kind of a mark in the celebrity-obsessed culture we live in today, especially when a major star is not attached. However, Hamilton has done just that — demonstrating that there is, in fact, a robust and passionate audience for stories told and performed by diverse actors.
Hamilton has broken down all sorts of barriers. The intentional casting of actors of color — which is rarely seen on Broadway with the exception of the occasional production of Cabaret or Les Miserables — not only works to modernize the narrative, but also allows for young people of color see themselves in history. This in part lends a new kind of relevance to the telling of America’s birth, and relays that past in a current and refreshing manner while still being historically accurate. As leading lady Renée Elise Goldsberry said, Hamilton has given many the “opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own.“
“Hamilton makes an extremely visible case that both artistic and financial success can be directly traced to imaginative casting and creative choices,” said Kate Shindle, president of the Actor’s Equity Association. “But as rightly celebrated as this musical is, it would be shortsighted to assume that it solves the industry’s diversity problem, any more than electing Barack Obama solved America’s.”
In short, we have a long way to go within the industry and of course as a society — but to me, Hamilton is hope that change can happen if we have the courage to have these conversations and instead of just talking the talk, walk the walk.