But however well-intentioned, there are complications that come with works that aim to use colorblind casting to highlight people of color who wouldn’t otherwise be represented. Creators may cast blind, thinking their job done, failing to consider that a Black man cast as a criminal or a Latina woman cast as a saucy seductress — even when cast without any regard to their race — can still be problematic. One kind of blindness can lead to another.
And then there’s also the “Hamilton” problem. The show may place diverse bodies on the stage, but productions that would subvert a narrative traditionally owned by white characters must not just tag in actors of color but reconsider the fundamental way the new casting changes the story. In “Hamilton,” the revision of American history is dazzling and important, but it also neglects and negates the parts of the original story that don’t fit so nicely into this narrow model. The characters’ relationship to slavery, for example, is scarcely mentioned, because it would be incongruous with the triumphant recasting of our country’s first leaders. (The “Hamilton” star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda responded to this criticism this week, calling it “valid.”)
The trouble of a colorblind production might not be the casting itself, but the fact that the casting may still erase the reimagined characters’ identities. (If Willy Loman is Black, wouldn’t he have a more complex understanding of the American dream?) Careless colorblind casting — in animated roles, in live-action roles on TV, movies or the stage — assumes that identities amount to nothing and that all experiences are transferable, which is far from the reality.
In a 1996 speech, the playwright August Wilson spoke out against colorblind casting overall, saying:
To mount an all-Black production of a “Death of a Salesman” or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as Black Americans. It is an assault on our presence, and our difficult but honorable history in America; and it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.
Wilson called not for colorblind casting, but for institutions that invite art by and for people of color, to tell their own stories and not simply ones adapted for them. He doesn’t call for blindness, but visibility: people of color seen on stages and behind the curtains. This applies to all art forms — people of color should be on movie screens, on the TV and in recording booths giving voice to stories about them.