Race on the Stage

Why aren’t there more minorities on Harvard’s main stages?

The Book of Joseph

Two weeks ago, I went to Sunday at the Park with George at the Loeb Theater. It was an excellent show about the brilliant and obsessive artist George Seurat. But I noticed that although the audience was only around 50 percent white, the cast was about 90 percent white. Indeed, of the seven student shows I have attended at Harvard, only one has had more than one minority cast member—the freshman musical.

I had never been a big fan of theater until I got to Harvard and started attending wonderful student productions that made me think more deeply and profoundly about life. But being more invested has also made me more conscious of the racial dynamics. As a South Asian, it bothers me that there aren’t more people who look like me on the stage. Although theatre is universally meaningful, this skewed makeup of the performing corps makes it seem less so.

This situation is rooted in the audition process. The 104-year-old Harvard-Radcliffe Drama Club holds auditions through Common Casting, a mechanism whereby potential actors and actresses can audition for many shows at once at the beginning of the year. Each director sees hundreds of students for each part, a system that lends itself to typecasting. If a director is casting for a family show, it can seem awkward to cast white parents and an Asian child or siblings of different races. Appearance is supposed to add to the reality of a theatrical production, not subtract from it, so it can be hard from a creative perspective to cast an Indian male as a 19th-century French painter.

Says director Kriti Lodha ’12, an inactive Crimson editor, who has acted in productions and directed Proof and Rabbit Hole, “I’ll be honest, I think my race, as a part of many different things about me, from my body type, to the way I dress, affects how I’m seen in Common Casting.” Jason J. Wong ’10, who directed The Laramie Project in 2009 and advocated for diversity in theater during his time at Harvard, said of Common Casting, “It might be a little primitive.” Lodha adds, “As a minority you have to be that much better in auditions because you’re not who people typically see in the part.”

A common retort when diversity in theatre is brought up is that minorities simply don’t audition as much. Margaret C. Kerr ’13, current president of the HRDC said, “It comes down to who auditions. It’s entirely their choice.” This is certainly true, but if a student gets turned away from Common Casting, it is often too easy for them to think—whether or not it is actually true—that racial factors came into consideration, and thus the “choice” to audition is more complex than a simple time calculus. Moreover, if you attend shows and never see someone who looks remotely like you, than what kind of message do you get about your potential to succeed? It can seem easier to get involved with the many performing arts opportunities offered by cultural groups on campus, opportunities that result in a separate-but-equal arts scene—one in which the old and historic is largely Caucasian and the new and experimental is largely not.

There are easy steps that could be taken to make this process better. First, the HRDC or Harvard Foundation should keep statistics on how many racial minorities audition for their shows, as this is a basic aspect of being race-conscious. Maybe the theater community has no diversity problem, but we cannot know because no one keeps track. Also, the HRDC should spam email lists about casting, which is a significant way in which other organizations make an effort to increase their diversity. Lastly, although these productions are theoretically colorblind, this is not written on the audition form. Students should be made aware of this and of what constitutes racial profiling in theatre so they understand their rights.

“To suggest that any person or particular group of people needs special consideration is insulting to their abilities and to the integrity of those constructing the casts,” wrote Benjamin K. Glaser ’09 in a 2009 Crimson op-ed on the subject. However, it’s also insulting to underestimate the role of race in America and the way it subconsciously affects the way we identify each other, the opportunities we’ve had, and our campus social networks.

In the end, theater fundamentally reflects social mores and beliefs. Its influence depends on the degree to which it reflects what we know, but it, itself, can  affect as well how we view society. That’s why meaningful diversity in performers, directors, and shows is so important. As Wong says, “Take Death of a Salesman. When you see someone different from the original vision it brings something new to the experience. If you can only see one group of people in these roles, you’re not living the potential of theater.”

Anita J Joseph ‘12, an editorial chair emeritus, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays. Follow her on Twitter at @anita__joseph.

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