When I was a budding pre-teen, the siren call of acting tingled in my ears. I jumped into the water and swam to the shore…. or, more accurately I auditioned for children’s theater productions. My parents, always willing to encourage my artistic aspirations ( I was already enrolled in piano lessons, art classes and dance school) drove me to McKinney where I played Beth Bradley in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and then to Plano Children’s Theatre where the talented staff introduced me to the art of the musical.
Recently the memories of backstage nerves and warming up my vocal chords with the talented pianist Mose Pleasure III – who very kindly lowered the key on my solo in Babes in Arms – came rushing back as PCT made national news thanks to their all-white production of Hairspray.
The only acceptable reaction to staging this musical without actors of color is to get up in arms about the implications this has for the state of discrimination in this country. What are we teaching children if we cast white children as black children? What can they possibly learn if discrimination isn’t displayed correctly? Shouldn’t all white characters be played by white children and all black children be played by black children?
I agree with the articles that have appeared in the Dallas Observer and Jezebel - There is something amiss when you see a production about civil rights with an entirely white cast. And it does seem insincere when the answer to questions this detail raises is “well, no black kids auditioned.” This insincerity doubled when the Observer’s critic chatted with the show’s black choreographer and he confirmed that there were black kids in the ensemble during the first few rehearsals, but they dropped out.
So perhaps the mistake is in the choosing of this play to begin with – perhaps it is misguided to choose a play that requires a diverse cast. Perhaps it would be better to stick with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals they were choosing when I was performing there. I can’t help but think that isn’t the solution.
As I was hinting at with my slightly slanted questions earlier, I’m beginning to believe the mistake is in the judging of the professional critic (who found it necessary to attend a children’s show, a decision I am happy to say was never made when I was struggling to hit the high notes).
When I performed in Babes in Arms, we too were required to write a short essay on what we learned while playing our roles. And I can tell you my response to my part was probably something much simpler –and frankly more vain– than a child (white or black) in Hairspray.
The inherent problem with PCT’s casting is the racial division that split our country for years – not in who showed up for auditions or dropped out of the show. Would parents or critics be allowed to complain if a young, black girl were cast as Cinderella (thank you Brandy)? Or what if the title character of Thoroughly Modern Millie were a young Asian woman? Wouldn’t that technically be anachronistic?
I tend to agree with the Huffington Post’s article about this production’s castigation when the author points out the problems this show would have if produced in Japan. You can’t pick a show to teach children lessons about racism and then cancel it because too few black children showed up to audition. Sorry, honey – you aren’t fat enough to play Tracey even though you auditioned well. As a skinny girl, we can’t allow you to explore what it’s like to be treated the way other skinny kids treat fat kids – you don’t deserve that. As a white kid, we can’t allow you to feel what it’s like to be discriminated against. What kind of lessons are they supposed to teach at PCT?
Besides, if PCT constantly produced musicals that stereotypically have all white casts, why would black kids ever show up?
I might be biased, but I stand behind my opinion that supports PCT’s choice to produce this play – I don’t think it’s something for which they need to be publicly shamed. After all, how many times can they produce Annie? And are the lessons less valuable because they are white kids discriminating against other white kids? The message changes, but the inaccuracies might increase its poignancy.
Or maybe it doesn’t, but I will always appreciate Sara Akers and the rest of the Plano Children’s Theatre staff for allowing students to explore new plays without worrying that a certain skin color or waist size would show up to audition.