In February of 2018, I wrote High School Non-Musical, the story of a New York High School that cancelled a production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Why would they do that? What happened to “the show must go on?” Plague? Natural disaster? Trump Derangement Syndrome? Various student cracktivists objected because an admittedly highly talented white girl was given the lead female role. The part of Esmeralda, you see gentle readers, was part French and part “Roma” in the original novel, so no mere white girl could possibly play her. That makes sense, doesn’t it?
This could have been easily handled by school authorities, putative adults, however, as John Belushi used to say: but nooooooooooooo! They bought the child cracktivist’s complaints and cancelled the show. I wrote:
In this case, the role was for a French gypsy, not a black person, not a specifically brown-ish person. One might imagine a French gypsy would be more or less olivish, or maybe even tending toward whiteness, but that’s not inclusive, at least not in Ithaca. It’s also theater. There is, if necessary, such a thing as make up.
In any case, obviously no whites need apply, and any hope that talent might have a part in productions is now a thing of the past. There will be decades of failing to fulfill the racialist expectations of a few noisy students to appease, and where such people and expectations are concerned, nothing anyone can do will ever be enough. All drama in Ithaca will, ever after, be tragedy.”
But as ever, progressivism, and its subsidiary, identity politics, have conspired to drive all pleasure from life, this time, at Kent State University. The only wonder is this sort of thing has taken so long on college campuses, though I’m sure we’ll never hear about all the productions contemplated that, to appease the Left, never made it to the stage. Fox News reports:
Kent State University has cancelled its fall musical production of “West Side Story” following complaints that too many white students landed lead roles.
Bridgett Martinez, a junior musical theatre major who is of Puerto Rican descent, tried out for her ‘dream role’ of Maria, but she said ‘it all just got screwed up’ when ‘it was given to a white female,’KentWired.com reported.
I like to be in Amer-i-ca
Okay by me in Amer-i-ca
No role for me in Amer-i-ca
For a white girl in Amer-i-ca
If Kent State were truly diverse, they would have given the role to a male of any race, regardless of voice part, transitioning to female Hispanic. Wouldn’t a Hispanic trans maleish bass, preferably with a Zapata mustache, be perfect as Maria? Martinez’s angst led to a “school-wide town hall,” which led to:
The cancellation of West Side Story was in response to our community members’ voices and the national dialogue regarding the desire for authenticity on our stages,’ [school drama director Eric] van Baars told Fox News. ‘To be current and culturally engaged, the School of Theatre and Dance supports the progression of conscious casting in the American theatre today.
Apparently these people are unaware that Natalie Wood, who played Maria, was of Russian origin, which at last check, has little to do with Hispanic people. Besides, don’t they use makeup in theater anymore? Do they have to cast people just like the characters in all respects, and if so, where are schools going to find elderly characters or people with horrible deformities or fatal conditions? If the script calls for a pirate with a peg leg…well, you get the idea, gentle readers.
Students pointed, not to talent, but rather diversity and inclusion as their main focus.
Of course they did:
Something we would like to continue to push for is have a person of color in that room all the time – auditions, callbacks, cast lists being made – because we should have someone on our side in that room,” Martinez told KentWired.com.
“Someone on our side in the room.” Casting plays is now a matter of sides? Why not settle such things with single combat? What happens if a play has only white characters? Or do they simply not do that sort of theater anymore? If one of the characters is a Polar Bear, is that allowed? There appear to be a few rational people on campus, actually, one:
Skyler Dye, a theatre performance minor, blasted the decision to cancel the performance because “those people can’t see anything but skin color says more than enough about the university and its dedication to quality.
The performing arts are supposed to be about talent. They are, by their very nature, gifted and talented programs, but if this trend holds, not much longer. Virtually everyone can sing, but few can sing well. Most can dance; few can do it on an expert level. Virtually everyone can speak, but acting well takes rare talent. Combining all three of these talents very much limits the available talent pool. If that talent pool is primarily determined by race, the scope of play writing and theater is similarly limited.
One wonders about VanBaars. Doesn’t he realize he just surrendered his academic freedom as a director? Any future student that thinks a role theirs regardless of their talent, need only cry “racism,” and how will he refuse them? Some precedents are particularly dangerous.
I do not know any of the students or faculty involved in this situation, but because VanBaars was obviously more than willing to recast the play along racial lines, one might safely believe his original casting decision was not informed by prejudice, but by talent, which is what should inform all casting decisions. Of course, that’s not always the case. Favoritism, and less noble factors are sometimes involved in such things, but in this case, talent appears to have been the deciding factor for the original casting, and race the deciding factor for the abandonment of an iconic musical, one any theater major should have the chance to play as an essential part of professional development.
Theater is about creating illusion, an illusion that will cause audiences to gratefully suspend disbelief. During the production, they forget they are sitting in a theater at Kent State, watching undergraduates put on a play. Rather, they are living in the New York City of Leonard Bernstein, and vicariously living the lives of Maria and Tony. All of the elements of the art are involved: sets, props, costumes, sound, and all of the technical arts that make any production possible. Above all, in this case, is makeup. It is makeup, combined with the other facets of theater, that allow high school and college aged students to become elderly, to alter their physical appearance, to become different species—think “Cats”—and yes, different races.
Many years ago, when Saturday Night Live was funny–in 1984 if memory serves–Eddie Murphy did a classic sketch called “White Like Me” (go here for that video). He was made up in white face to experience the secret life of white people. In one scene, Murphy, in a suit, wearing glasses and straight, white guy hair, was on a bus. As soon as the last black guy got off, the remaining white people began to party. A hostess distributed champagne from a tray as Murphy watched in astonishment. It was a brilliant skit, but if Kent State is true to its supposed values, could a black student do whiteface? Can black or Hispanic students be allowed to assume white roles, or will Kent State pretend there is no such thing, that all roles are racially flexible, unless a white student actor is involved?
Taken in it’s logical course, schools in small towns, places where there are few minority students, or at least few interested in theater, or with the necessary talent, may have to entirely abandon theater. Will white kids darkening their skin tone for a role be accused of cultural appropriation? Which plays, if any, are possible?
At Kent State, the only illusion left is the illusion that talent has anything to do with theater.