Changing the script: Students of color break barriers in musical theatre

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe

Nkeki Obi-Melekwe Buy this photo
Courtesy of Nkeki Obi-Melekwe

 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017 - 7:59pm

With the highly-anticipated opening of “Hamilton: An American Musical” in the summer of 2015, it seemed as if Broadway — and theater as a whole — was taking the first step to combat the highly divisive and potent movement that has persevered in another section of the arts: #OscarsSoWhite. The hullabaloo and frenzy surrounding the opening of the musical included a feature in Vogue magazine, shows selling out months in advance and scalpers asking for over $1,000 a ticket to the show.

Hamilton and its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda were lauded for their casting of non-white actors in traditionally white roles; Black, Asian and Hispanic actors played historical figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The initial casting call for the musical, which specifically requested actors of color, generated controversy over its alleged “reverse racism” toward white actors.

According to data collected by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, 70 percent of the actors in Broadway musicals running from 2014 to 2015 were white and 10.2 percent of actors were cast non-traditionally. Racial diversity in Broadway, despite Hamilton’s popularity, has a long way to go. 

The University of Michigan’s musical theater program, ranked one of the best in the country, trains students of diverse backgrounds to take on major roles in Broadway and off-Broadway shows across the country. The program recruits about 22 students annually from an applicant pool of over 1,000. I sat down with four students of color in the musical theater department to speak about their individual experiences both within the classroom and the industry about their identities.

*****

After competing in the prestigious National High School Musical Theatre Awards in New York City, Sam Hamashima, a School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior, knew he could do this for the rest of his life.

“I was so exhausted, but I really loved it. It was like finding that passion trumped the exhaustion. I also thought about how hectic it made my life feel. So, it's definitely a job and it's definitely an interest, but it's a way of life too. It's a lifestyle. Musical theater — it takes over your entire world.”

When the time came to apply to college, Hamashima — a musical theater major — wanted to highlight both his ethnicity and sexuality because they are central aspects of his identity. When auditioning for the University, he chose a song from the musical “Flower Drum Song,” and a monologue from the play “The Laramie Project.”

“Before I started applying, I had heard some things whispered about certain schools that was like: ‘They really like Asians there … they don't take any Asians there you know,’” he said. “So, you kind of start to get the reputation of a school. For example, there were several schools on my list that I didn't apply to primarily because I looked at their student body and they didn't have any representation.”

While the University has made strides to improve their diversity numbers, especially in the musical theater program, Hamashima said he still faces microaggressions that cast doubt over his future career on stage. In class Hamashima was once assigned to read the part of a character with an Italian accent. Shortly after attempting the part, his professor suggested he should read the passage by being “a little more accessible, like (doing) a Japanese accent.”

“Having my Japanese American identity, it’s just been a whirlwind for me,” he said. “Being looked at as Asian in the field, there are limitations. After [the incident], students came up to me and were like, ‘That was so crazy.’” 

Although he is biracial, Hamashima said he doesn’t have the option of presenting himself as anything other than Asian due to his physical features. This constrains him when marketing himself for roles that call for certain casting types, ranging from the romantic lead to the sidekick.

“It’s frustrating and my journey is very different,” he said. “Especially now that I’m leaving school, I have to figure out not just what type am I, but also what type am I with the lens of my race, with the color of my skin, with the way that my face looks and the way my eyes are.”

His challenges in the musical theater field have not diminished his love for the stage and theater as an art form. After graduating in April, Hamashima plans to move to New York City and start auditioning for shows.

“To be honest with you, when you are auditioning for anything, the hard part of this career is that there's nothing stable,” he said. “If the show opens and closes then you have to find another job. You know, we switch employers so many times a year based on what show we're with.”

*****

Sam Hamashima

Sam Hamashima Buy this photo
Courtesy of Sam Hamashima

For most of the roles Music, Theatre & Dance junior Rohit Gopal has been offered — varying from television scripts to Screen Arts and Culture department projects — the American-born musical theater student has had to use a South Asian accent.

“Everything that I've submitted for that hasn't been a commercial or for print work has been an Indian guy with an accent,” he said. “I don’t like it.”

When he gets a script for a comedy, Gopal said he first reads the lines without an accent to make sure that the dialogue is funny regardless of whether or not he imitates a South Asian person. He does this, he said, to make sure the comedy is in the writing rather than in the character’s ethnicity. Sometimes, that's not the case.

“Reading these lines, there's nothing inherently funny about the situation other than it's funny to hear the Indian guy say bootylicious,” Gopal said. 

When asked if his identity as an Indian man is something that often plays into his interpretation of a role, Gopal paused to think before answering.

“I'm very, very underrepresented. I’m in a very underrepresented group … in musical theater in particular,” he said. “In music or musical theater, where there are very few Western musicals that are written about that are Indian or an Indian person’s story … I don't aim to be represented in that way.”

Gopal names comedian and actor Aziz Ansari and his hit Netflix series “Master of None” as an example of how the landscape of Hollywood is changing to include more roles for those of his ethnicity.

“Aziz Ansari is a person who made his own work, and that is what I feel like I can do,” Gopal said. “I need to lead myself to a work that is a picture of what modern inclusivity really is.”

Nonetheless, Gopal has faced other obstacles in pursuing his passion for the arts. When he expressed a desire to major in musical theater to his parents during his final years of high school, he was initially met with resistance and concern.

“My parents and myself were very convinced that it was not going to be successful,” he said. “There's very little possibility going into this field and my parents are very academic. So was my brother and I’m not so much in that way.”

However, when he was admitted to the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Gopal knew none of his other college applications for academic majors would matter to him.

“Here was my second acceptance and it was also my top choice at this program, because I love the University,” he said.

*****

Music, Theatre & Dance senior Nkeki Obi-Melekwe was fresh off of the new department-presented musical “One-Hit Wonder” when she sat down for an interview with The Michigan Daily. Her experience being in the musical was rewarding — as has been the case with much of her time in the department, but still she sees room for improvement for Black women in musical theater as a whole. 

In an industry struggling with issues of inclusivity, Obi-Melekwe said it is hard not to come across roles that are stereotypical portrayals of Black women.

“They have this idea of what the Black woman is; sassy and brassy and bold,” she said. “A lot of times that's the box they’re putting you in. Yes, I'm Black and I’m a woman, but I'm also a person that feels how anybody else would feel. Recently, like within the past year or so, the narrative has begun to shift where people of color can be seen in roles with emotion and depth and they can fall in love and in a way that isn't tragic.”

The Power Center for the Performing Arts

The Power Center for the Performing Arts Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

Like Gopal, when it comes to facing obstacles in the industry, Obi-Melekwe’s first challenge was convincing her parents and reconciling her identity as a first-generation American. Though they were aware of Obi-Melekwe’s love for singing and dancing, they initially dismissed it as a hobby and encouraged her, instead, to devote her time to more academic pursuits.

“My mom wanted me to be a chemist or something,” she said. “I'm not and could never be a chemist, but the further I committed myself to (musical theater) and going to (the performing arts) high school I went to and all of the great things that we did, my parents realized that, ‘OK, she's serious about this and she's good at it,’ which I think was a hard conclusion for them to come to because they're very traditional.”

*****

Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Joshua Strobl hadn’t considered applying to the School of Music, Theatre & Dance until the father of an alum approached him after a high school performance of the song “Goodbye” from the musical “Catch Me If You Can.” After attending MPulse, a summer program run by the University for interested Music, Theatre & Dance School applicants, Strobl said he was hooked.

“The camp here really got me to figure out that I wanted to do musical theater,” he said. “Obviously, Michigan was my number one choice because after that camp I had worked with all the professors that I would be studying with at the school … I just fell in love with everything he said and his passion to the art.”

Before finding his calling in musical theater, Strobl said he was actively looking to pursue a career as a rock musician.

“With me being the lead singer of my rock band, we were playing paid gigs around LA like the Sunset Strip and the Whiskey a Go Go. So, that's what I thought I'd be going into,” he said. “But, as I was getting a little more professional in that, I realized that the scene is a little rough and it's tough to get into and tough to be in. Musical theater was not easier, but I feel like I have a longer career in musical theater and it was something I was more passionate about, too.”

Being half Mexican and half white wasn’t something Strobl was actively conscious about before coming to campus.

“I had grown up in a town where I was viewed as the white guy and they're like, ‘You don't look Mexican,’” he said. “I had been told that my whole life and so I had just kind of believed that I didn't really look Mexican enough. I didn't really identify as a Mexican even though I'm half and my mom is full and most of the traditions that I do during my holidays and stuff are Hispanic traditions.”

It wasn’t until he came to campus, Strobl said, that he was able to explore his Mexican identity. Playing a range of roles in his major allowed him to explore not only his ethnicity, but also broaden his understanding of what it means to be a Hispanic man in musical theater.

“I do tap into my identity and my traditions that I've had as a Hispanic person when I’m in a show sometimes,” he said. “I'm playing a role right now in ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,’ and I'm playing a Native American in that. So, I've tapped into that lot. I've called my mom and asked about my ancestors and what tribe they have been a part of and all that. And just to kind of tap into the character a little bit more and play that a little bit more real.”

Breaking into a professional musical theater career with any measure of job stability is difficult in and of itself. For some, the added strain of fitting into a still-homogenous field is yet another hurdle to success.   

As he left his interview, Strobl said, “This is the most I’ve ever talked about my identity, just so you know.”