A lesson learned

Sunday, February 17, 2019 - 1:16pm

I’ve read so many headlines about cultural appropriation in musical theatre. Every time a theatre comes out doing a production of “In the Heights” or “West Side Story” and completely miscasts the piece by allowing white people the opportunity to play roles that were not written for them, with stories that are not theirs tell, I feel angered, ashamed and disappointed. How could we, as informed theatre artists, let this happen again? Shouldn’t we be giving the roles to the actors who are equipped with the background and identity to tell the story and do it authentically opposed to those who have many more opportunities to tell their own stories on stage? There are no excuses anymore. If you cannot cast a show appropriately, don’t do the show.  

These thoughts have been ruminating within me for a while now. I went to a high school that is 94.7 percent white. Only one percent of students at my high school are African American. Despite these statistics, my drama teacher, who was also the director of the school musical, decided to do “Aida” as our musical my freshman year. I was 13 years old and didn’t know much about the show before auditions.

“Aida,” by composers Elton John and Tim Rice, is a musical based on an opera, also called “Aida.” It was initially produced by Walt Disney Theatrical and was nominated for five Tony awards in the early 2000s. The musical is a wonderous story of love, loyalty and betrayal, following the love triangle between Aida, a Nubian princess taken from her country; Amneris, an Egyptian princess and Radames, the soldier that they are both in love with.

Aida finds herself falling in love with Radames, an Egyptian soldier who is set to be married to the Pharaoh's daughter, Amneris. Their forbidden love blossoms and grows, and Aida has to weigh her own personal desires against the her responsibilities as the leader of the enslaved Nubian people. Aida and Radames’s relationship and devotion for one another is a beautiful example of finding peace despite their vast cultural differences and the wounds of their nations at war.

Historically, many productions of “Aida” have caused serious controversy after having white students cast as Ancient Egyptians and Nubian slaves. In whitewashing a production of “Aida,” the musical becomes offensive and nonsensical. The story is of a Nubian woman, her struggles in finding love with an Egyptian man, and her responsibility to her enslaved people, who are also Nubian. Having white people play any of the Nubian characters is blatant cultural appropriation. This is absolutely wrong and should not be mounted anywhere as a production in the first place. Marginalized voices deserve to have their stories to tell, and they deserve to tell them. Aida’s story is not ours to tell as white theatre artists, and all creators should respect and acknowledge that simple fact in both casting and selecting productions for theatrical organizations.  

I was 13 years old, at a high school with 94.7 percent white students, and I was playing a Nubian slave. Not only that, but 95 percent of the other Nubian slaves were being played by white or non-Black actors, including the titular role of Aida. Coming from a place of privilege and a place of naivete, I didn’t even recognize the problems with this at the time, but now, reflecting on that heinous production and those ludicrous casting choices, I am mortified. As someone who stands so firmly for minority opportunity in the arts and telling marginalized stories from marginalized voices, I cannot believe that I stood on a stage, telling a story that belongs to the Black community, with all white people for an all white audience.

This is appalling.

I did not know enough about the world around me to recognize that what was happening on that stage with my high school’s theatre group was a serious problem. I was locked in my naivete and in being sheltered and let this experience go by me without feeling as though this was a major issue. Now I look back and I wonder: How did we let that happen? I have put this experience past me, but not let it go too far out of reach. I’ve learned from it. I’ve seen the importance and beauty in minority voices having the chances to tell their own, specifically unique stories. I am aware that there are not enough of these opportunities. I’ve consistently thought back to that production: How nobody said a thing, how, perhaps, nobody knew to object. But mainly, I constantly think of the administration and production team who selected this musical for a cast of majority white students. With the other hundreds of thousands of musicals out there, why was it at all necessary to select one of the few that should not and cannot be cast with white actors?

Most importantly, I’ve reflected a lot on this experience and what it meant to me.

I’ve confronted my privilege: as an artist, a student and, most importantly, a human being. I confront my privilege every day. Knowing that, as a woman, it will be more difficult for me to reach my goals than my male counterparts, but for women of color, queer women and non gender conforming women, it will be even more difficult. To commit myself to breaking down the door that is closed off to minorities in the arts, and to know that once I break that door down, I will stand there, with it open, letting everybody and anyone in. My takeaway from an experience that is derived from a problematic, uninformed and sheltered high school theatre group is this: As I go forth in a career in arts administration, writing or producing, I will not stand for any situation or circumstance that is like the ones I have been involved with, read about or seen. Instead, I will push myself to give opportunities for the unheard voices to tell their stories, loud, clear and proud, to everyone.