By Dominique Morisseau, member of the 2011 Emerging Writers Group
It’s time for an Equity Principal Audition (otherwise known as an EPA) for a new play. Actors of color are skimming the breakdowns. They see something like the following:
KAREN – Black, Latino, or Asian woman, 35, quiet, shy, and a loving heart.
All of the Black, Latino, and Asian women from their 20’s through their 50’s strongly consider attending (unless they’re already among the masses who have completely given up on EPAs, and with good reason. It’s gotten them little to no results.)
Now, rewind. Let’s do that again. EPA for a new play. Actors of color are skimming the breakdowns. They see something like the following:
KAREN – 35-year old woman, quiet, shy, and a loving heart.
Most of the Black, Latino, and Asian women from their 20’s through their 50’s will not consider attending that EPA (even if they are not among the masses who have given up on them completely).
Why? Because there is an un-spoken rule in the theater that no one is talking about. Character descriptions in plays, which may eventually be shared in casting breakdowns, are coding a tone of racial inequality in the theater. Unless race is specified, we actors of color (yes, I am also one of them) know that we are most-likely not going to be seriously considered for the role, because no racial specification usually translates to “white”.
I mentioned this to my fellow EWG playwrights recently and there was an uproar in the room. Half of them couldn’t believe it. The other half could and had just never considered it before.
Am I jumping off the deep end here? Making a blanket accusation? You may think so. But I ask you to consider where there may be truth in this claim. Think about the casting breakdowns you see. (If you rarely see a breakdown, try skimming through some on the various casting websites.) Is race specified? And if not, then why are those racially un-specific characters often cast white? Does that not subconsciously send a message that the “everyman” is white? Is that not some un-intentional (or intentional- you be the judge) upholding of race privilege?
I challenge my playwriting peers to think about the ways in which we are describing characters. How specific are you in your descriptions? If I am writing a play about my community in Detroit, I’m crystal clear about who those people are and what they look and sound like. Therefore, my descriptions are often going to indicate “Black man” or “Black woman”. If you are basing your character off of a woman from a predominately white community, do you have a preference for her race? If so, be unafraid to own that. If your character is white in your mind and that’s what you intend, I don’t think there is any shame in that. We are writing real people, after all. I say, OWN it. Could it not encourage playwrights to be clear and specific about the kind of people they are writing? Distinguish the race of the character. Think about their speech and their dialogue. Is it reflective of a particular cultural rhythm? Or is it intentionally neutral? And if the character is truly not any particular race, try noting your descriptions something like this:
KAREN- Any Race. 35 year old woman, quiet, shy, and loving heart.
See what may happen. Let that get into the casting breakdown. See if you get a different pool of actors at your audition. If a white character is envisioned, then state it in the breakdown, just as people of color are specified. If the race is truly any race, then let’s stop making the unspoken “everyman or everywoman” white. And then strongly consider allowing the casting to reflect the diversity of the true everyman/woman.
If theaters and its practitioners are charged to “specify race” rather than “hide from race”, then we will all communally be responsible for acknowledging some major racial disparities in the theater. It will be blaring in Black and White (no pun intended) that a theater is or is not supporting actors of color in the work that they are producing on their stages. It will be undeniable because the breakdowns will show it. And if we are sincere in the EOE statements at the bottom of casting calls that state “We do not discriminate based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc”, then let’s put some real action into standing behind that statement.
We are all a part of this continuum of theater, and ensuring that it reflects the accuracies of the changing world around us is our collective responsibility. In NYC especially, I do not know of one place that you will find a community of exclusively white people that do not have to engage on any work or play level with people of color. Playwrights, let’s write the truth of the world around us, and put it in ink, so that the rest of the theater community can respond in-kind.
Dominique Morisseau is a member of the 2011 EWG and the Women's Project Playwright's Lab and is a fellow in the 2011-2012 Lark Playwrights Workshop. She is currently developing a three-play cycle on her beloved hometown of Detroit. The first of the three, DETROIT '67, received a reading in the Public EWG Spotlight Series and the 2011 Lark Playwrights' Week. She was also a runner-up for the 2011 Princess Grace Award. email@example.com / or catch her on Facebook!
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.