By Barbara & Scott Siegel
Last year we wrote a column about the significant increase in the number of new shows on Broadway that featured Latin and Afro-American casts. This year, aside from Once On This Island, something different but no less positive has been taking place; a noticeable increase in color blind casting across the board — or, should we say, across the boards?
In an early and memorable instance of color blind casting, when Carousel was last seen on Broadway, the supporting role of Carrie Pipperidge was played by Audra MacDonald. She won a Best Featured Actress in Musical Tony Award. With the show back on Broadway this year, color blind casting has taken another leap, with the star role of Billie Bigelow going to Joshua Henry (and resulting, so far, at least, in a Tony Nomination for Best Actor in a Musical), and the role of Carrie Pipperidge, this time, going to a Latina, Lindsay Mendez (also Tony Nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical).
Joshua Henry and Lindsay Mendez are joined this season by actors of color in roles all over Broadway that bespeaks a far greater degree of diversity than ever before. For instance, Lily Cooper has a major role in Spongebob Squarepants, Jelani Aladdin is the major male lead in Frozen, Asian-American Ashley Park is a Tony Nominee as Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her performance in Mean Girls, and then, of course, there is Denzel Washington as Hickey in the latest revival of The Iceman Cometh, and Condola Rashad (Tony Nominated) for Saint Joan.
Look at that list, above, and notice how many of these actors have been nominated for Tony Awards. Clearly, the decision to hire these actors for their roles was not based on race, but on quality with such a high percentage receiving Tony nominations. And then add to that impressive list of Tony Nominees, the nominations of La Chanze playing Donna Summer, Hailey Gilgore playing the female lead in Once on This Island, and John Leguizamo’s nomination for Best Play for his one man show, Latin History for Morons.
The simple and incontrovertible point is that while plays and musicals that are designed to be performed with virtually all of their actors as people of color (Hamilton, Once on This Island, Shuffle Along, etc., it is a healthier environment for actors of all colors and ethnicities to be able to play any role in any play — if they are right for it.
This season, even more than the last, has gone a long way toward fulfilling the promise of color blind casting. And the more often that its done, especially with exceptional results, as we’ve seen this year, the more accepting — and normal — this practice will become for audience members, whether they be avid New York theatergoers or tourists from Anywhere, USA.
Times are, indeed, changing, and — as always — Broadway is leading the way.