Accusations of Reverse Racism on Hamilton: An American Musical

After taking home a record-setting 11 victories at the 2016 Tony’s, performing for the president at the White House multiple times, and selling tickets for record-breaking prices, there is no arguing that the success of the Broadway musical phenomena, Hamilton, has been revolutionary in its own right. However, these accomplishments have not come without controversy. Earlier this year, a casting call for Hamilton was released on social media, indicating that the producers were “Seeking NON-WHITE men and women…for Broadway and upcoming Tours.” This word choice received harsh criticism and accusations of “reverse racism” from those both inside and outside of the theatre world, with critics expressing their disdain at the fact that the show would omit white performers from auditioning. In their minds, the auditions should have been open for everyone to attend.

I would argue that what has made Hamilton so successful is that it is a commentary on the white-washed past of the United States through the lens of the diverse populations that live and work here in present-day. The fact that the historically white, male founding fathers are played by a primarily non-white cast of black and Latinx actors really forms the context and the messages that the show seeks to convey.

How would the musical change if Alexander Hamilton was not played by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Aaron Burr was not played by Leslie Odom, Jr.? Consider the implications of a white man on stage, spitting out lines such as, “Immigrants: we get the job done!” It would surely still be enjoyable to watch, however the story being told would not be the same and the commentary on the racial dynamics of past and present-day America would certainly be nonexistent. Take Dreamgirls or The Color Purple as some more examples; they would be completely different shows if the leads were played by a white cast. It just would not set the same context in order to provide the same intended messages to their viewers.

As for Hamilton’s intended message, it appears as though Lin-Manuel Miranda and the other producers of the show aim to make a statement on the binary of reality versus fictionalized reality. In reality, the founding fathers of America were white men who placed people of color in subordinate positions, through institutions such as enslavement. In Hamilton’s fictionalized reality, and through lines like “…we all know who’s really doing the planting,” the people of color become those in power. In other words, the show argues that enslaved people and other marginalized groups were responsible for growing America’s economy and making it the successful superpower that it is today.

The professional theatre rules state that the use of “non-(anything)” in a casting call is considered to be outright discrimination. In essence, Hamilton’s mistake was that they should have specified what races they wanted, rather than what races they did not want. However, it seems that criticizing the show’s poor choice of words is not the same as criticizing their wish to fill certain roles with actors of color. After all, shouldn’t members of the theatre community celebrate the fact that more actors of color are being given the chance to be cast in a history-making musical and, thus, becoming less “invisible” in mainstream entertainment?

In her discussion on “The Rebirth of Caste,” Michelle Alexander describes the various systematic ways in which the American political system has essentially locked black Americans into a subordinate state due to laws and custom (classically enacted by white men). In essence, Hamilton is a way for people of color to reclaim this and to rewrite their own history, per se, as well as to comment on present-day racial tensions. While institutions such as enslavement and segregation are obsolete, people of color continue to be forced into positions of marginalization. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s choice to place black, Latinx, and Asian Americans in the political roles of power that continue to systematically fail them is not only a statement, but the beginning of a conversation.

Was Hamilton’s casting call word-choice an act of “reverse racism” towards whites, or an act of support towards people of color?

2 thoughts on “Accusations of Reverse Racism on Hamilton: An American Musical”

  1. The point of casting calls in theatre is to attract a certain group of people that the casting director is looking for. Oftentimes, agents will send their clients that fit that “type” for an audition, but with open casting calls it is a little different because anyone without an agent can audition for them. I think the choice to specify that the casting director was looking for non-white actors matched the vision and goals for the play. I agree with you that the impact of the musical rides on the fact that the actors in the leading roles are people of color. The themes and values that created the United States of America still shine through which is a credit to the universality of this story.

    To touch upon Jess’s question, Hamilton: An American Musical, does not explicitly advertise itself as a musical that focuses on diversity, but I do not think it needs to. The fact that the cast is comprised of primary people of color should not detract people from seeing the show. Most people who can get a ticket to the highly coveted show know that it was written by Lin Manuel Miranda and he oftentimes writes musicals where racial issues come into play (i.e. In the Heights, Bring It On, etc.) If White people do not want to see it because of the diverse casting, then that is their choice because there are plenty of people who want a ticket to the show that will happily take their place.

  2. I believe we talked about this in class that reverse racism is not actually a thing. Of course, marginalized groups can be prejudiced, but not racist, as it would imply that these same marginalized groups are benefitting from the system – when they aren’t. If theatre rules state that “non” anything is discrimination, then I can understand why it would be a problem. However, I completely agree that Miranda is trying to make a point and a very powerful one, at that. The casting call could’ve been worded differently, because I also agree that auditions should be open to everyone – but, Miranda has the final decision in who he wants to play certain roles. However, I can see the other side too because why should marginalized groups have to fix or moderate their language in order to please white people? This reminds me of the white girl (whose name I do not remember) got rejected from a university and she sued, because she claimed it was racist. It makes me wonder if the people who complained about the “seeking non-white” were from white people.
    I also have a unrelated question: I’ve never seen Hamilton and probably won’t, but I know that I’ve only heard about it from white friends and I would like to know how Hamilton is actually advertised. I just wonder if it was advertised in a way that made it clear that the cast was diverse (i.e., you know the cast is diverse for Dreamgirls and The Color Purple), would as many white people want to go and see it?

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