Directorial Racial Choices and their Implications

I grew up in a mostly-white suburban town.  However, I was a part of the musical Once On This Island multiple times.  The premise of this musical is that there is a peasant girl (who was traditionally played by a black, female actor) who falls in love with a rich man (traditionally played by a white, male actor). The entire show centers around how these two very different worlds are not allowed to associate and talk to each other, and definitely not fall in love.  She winds up sacrificing herself for him essentially.

In the two productions that I participated in, all (or most) of the cast was white.  This caused us to have to switch the theme of race to class.  We portrayed the two different worlds as the “rich world” vs. the “poor world.”

I found this whole ordeal very interesting.  Obviously, nobody should be representing a racial group that they do not belong to. However, in making the play about class and not race, it does ignore the racial implications of the show and make the basis of it different.  I don’t know the right way to handle a situation like this, but in one of the productions, my friend (who is black) was not allowed to play one of the roles because it was thought of as a “traditionally white role.”

This did not sit well with me.  I think that if we are taking out the racial implications of the show (even though there are still some associated with class) then the idea of characters being tied to one racial category should not prohibit someone from being cast in a certain role. When she expressed being upset about this decision, the director and staff of the school brushed her off. This reminded me of the microinvalidations described in the Harwood article – when the RAs and residence life staff were invalidating the students of color’s feelings and brushing them off in a similar way.

I’m wondering what others think about this, and I’m wondering how people feel about the class themes replacing the racial themes?  Is there a “correct” or “better” way to do this?

What do you think? Join the conversation!