Some may wonder why it’s okay for Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and other Founding Fathers to be portrayed by minority actors in Hamilton, and not for Martin Luther King to be portrayed by a White actor in an adaptation of Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop. This was the case in a production at Kent State University a few years ago, done without Hall’s knowledge or permission, which drew criticism from the playwright and many others. The main reason has to do with respecting the playwright’s vision, and not altering the playwright’s work without first gaining permission.
Hamilton represents Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reinterpretation of historical events, depicting the arguments among the founders as to how the republic will be formed as classic rap battles, thus exploiting one historical era to reflect on an earlier one. Katori Hall’s play represents a different type of interpretation, casting a historical figure in a imagined context. The work itself has garnered some criticism for presenting King as the flawed human being he was, rather than the icon many now see him as, but regardless, Hall’s intention is to portray the actual historical figure, not a reinterpretation of the man or his mission. Miranda’s intent was to ironically reinterpret the characters of the founders for a new generation, whereas Hall intended to portray a vision of the real MLK in a fanciful situation. Since King was both a historic figure and African-American, one would assume a theatrical company would cast a Black actor in the role, unless the playwright specifically leaves the question up to the director, which was not the case in this instance.
Miranda both envisioned and created Hamilton as just the sort of groundbreaking production it has become and what appears onstage is his unique interpretation of the founders. They’re played that way because that’s how he wanted them played. The Mountaintop is Katori Hall’s unique interpretation of the night before Martin Luther King was assassinated, but unlike Miranda, Hall did not intend to alter or re-envision the person of MLK. The director of the offending production offered an explanation for the controversial casting choice, but not until after the limited run of the play was over. Hall has since added verbiage to the contract theatrical companies must sign to license the play, to explicitly clarify her instructions for future stagings.
The controversy with The Mountaintop highlights a practice common in theatrical companies nowadays: colorblind casting. The practice often involves giving roles to minority actors when the race of the character isn’t specified, or where the race of the character isn’t crucial to the storyline, or, in some instances, where, traditionally, White actors have been cast. Its intent is to increase minority representation on the stage, which has had notable disparities throughout history. Shakespearean theatrical companies frequently use minority actors in roles which have largely been regarded as “White” roles usually without much controversy. Equally, Shakespeare’s work has been reinterpreted by companies as all-female casts (Shakespeare’s original actors were all-male, bowing to restrictions of the time), and with swapping the gender of major characters. Sometimes, these choices have garnered controversy, such as a recent production of Romeo and Juliet, which cast two women in the title roles, garnering death threats directed at the theater and leads.
In the case of Shakespeare, the plays are sufficiently iconic to withstand reinterpretation and enough time has passed that the specific vision of the author can no longer be ascertained. The same can be said for Greek or Roman drama. With a modern play, however, particularly when the playwright is living, the way it’s presented by the director and actors is crucial in conveying the playwright’s intentions, since how it’s performed can make a critical difference in the way the work is received by an audience. In such cases, casting can have major consequences on the success of the work. How the author has defined the characters should therefore be considered as part of the writer’s vision for the piece.
I wrote a story called A Debt to Pay which is about a man who’s served time for causing an accident while driving drunk in which a woman was paralyzed. The man meets with the woman upon his release from prison to attempt to make amends for injuring her. In its original format, published in a collection of stories entitled Freedom and Consequence, the race of the characters was not specified. After turning the story into a play, I considered casting an African-American actor in the role of the woman, and this caused me to rethink the character in the story.
When I updated the story for use in Fables of the New South, I chose to make the female character Black and the male White and this totally changed the dynamic of the piece, giving it an entirely new level of meaning that’s not inherent in the action of the story. As a result, when I adapted this version of the story as a play, I stated explicitly in the stage directions that the race of the characters should not be changed. While their race is not crucial to the reason for their being acquainted — anyone, of any race, can cause an accident driving drunk — their race does make a big difference in the message an audience takes away from the piece.
Stories from earlier periods in United States history are often problematic for modern audiences due to the numerous racial and gender stereotypes inherent in them. People of color and ethnic characters (Jews, Irish) frequently reflect the cultural biases of the era, just as gender roles in these works demonstrate misogynistic attitudes toward women and negative views of homosexuals. The underlying problems with race are compounded by the fact that often characters of color were portrayed by White actors in black- or yellow-face, such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffanys. In these instances, it’s difficult to respect the intent of the author, since many times, such misrepresentations were part of the message of the work. Consequently, much of the dramatic output from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is no longer performed.
Over time, the way an author’s work is perceived changes as the original intent of the author is lost. All writers draw on personal experience in their work, which is informed by people and events of the day. Equally, customs and traditions of the given society factor into the work with the author omitting explanations for references that would be taken for granted by the audience. Shakespeare’s work undoubtedly makes frequent allusions to people and situations that would have been recognizable to audiences of the time and are lost on modern viewers. The writing of Mark Twain draws frequent criticism today due to the language used to describe minorities portrayed in the works, whereas, the action of the story often suggests Twain’s intent was to portray the simple dignity of common people, regardless of race. More recently, the company that holds the licensing to Dr. Seuss’s work stirred controversy when it announced it was withdrawing titles that contained outdated stereotypes.
What a writer intends to say is often subject to much discussion, even if the writing is fresh and not four hundred years old. There’s a cottage industry devoted to dissecting the music of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and other performers, and commentators have filled many pages speculating on the references in Don McLean’s “American Pie”. Knowing their work was being picked apart by conspiracy-minded fans prompted The Beatles to deliberately include lyrics that only fueled the fire. Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick came about for a similar reason, following the discussion surrounding Aqualung which the listening public has always regarded as a “concept” album, though the band has always denied that it was the intent.