Casting by color

On the first day of rehearsal, performing arts department head Rees Pugh waited for silence before addressing the 50-person cast of “Hairspray,” this year’s fall musical.

“I hope that this show will lead to many conversations about race and civil rights,” Pugh said, “but we won’t have time for these conversations in rehearsal.”

The story of “Hairspray” is centered around race and civil rights, and Pugh said that this is the first time the performing arts department has produced a show, where segregation is the basis of the show.

In spite of Pugh’s hope that the show would spark conversation, he said the show was picked in order to promote diversity and encourage minority students to audition for school productions that normally lack a diverse cast.

“I think unconsciously we were picking shows [like “Oklahoma”] that were discouraging minority students from auditioning,” Pugh said.

While the purpose of producing “Hairspray” was to promote diversity in productions, some students thought it didn’t go far enough.

“I think we should have done a show where black people could play a bigger role,” Kristen Lynem-Wilson ’15, director’s assistant said. “There’s still a white girl on the cover and not a black one.”

The obstacle in doing a show like that, however, would be interest. So few minority students had auditioned for past shows that Pugh was not certain that there was even enough interest among African-American students to do “Hairspray.”

Pugh spoke to the Black Leadership and Culture Club, its faculty adviser Janiece Richard and middle school attendance coordinator Brenda Simon, who has “long-standing relationships with black students,” and is also involved with the BLACC, to see if there would be enough interest from African Americans to  do the show.

The production did have an increase in participation among black girls, but the department still did not see much interest from African-American boys.

Pugh said that he reached out to multiple black boys to try out, but realized that even though there were some African-American boys who had the skills to be in the show, they could not try out due to athletic commitments.

Richard said that the lack of participation among African-American boys may be attributed to societal expectations. Richard also believes that “Hairspray” could help close this gender gap in the long run.

“As a black male it’s not okay to be singing or dancing  — you’re supposed to be doing something else,” Richard said. “Hopefully the younger kids will see [Donhem Brown ’14] up there and that will push them to be in these kinds of things and not be forced to fit this mold of what it means to be a black male in America.”

“It made us reach out to the students to get them more involved in this,” Richard added, “I know in the past there have been black students who have felt that they had no chance of getting into the musical.”

Pugh originally considered using race-blind casting for “Hairspray,” but felt that it would confuse and would contradict the point of the story.

“I think that for the here and now, sticking to the original concept of the show was really important,” Pugh said.

This, however, necessitated that the directors consider race when casting the show and establish two ensembles separated by race (a white one and “Motormouth’s Crew,” the black ensemble), which Pugh said “almost flew in the face of what [the directors] were trying to do.”

“In the past, in ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Fiddler [on the Roof],’ an actor’s ethnicity was irrelevant,” Pugh said. “In this it became relevant to establish this idea of racial integration.”

To convey the idea of racial integration, the roles are typically played by black and white actors.

Kennedy Green ’14, a member of Motormouth’s Crew, found this to be a welcome change from “Oklahoma.”

“Traditionally Laurie and Aunt Eller are white, so it’s not like I was auditioning to be Laurie or Aunt Eller,” Green said. “I was really auditioning to be in the ensemble.”

“I did have questions about where to put certain people of mixed ancestry,” Pugh said. “A lot of this was based on exterior two-dimension physicality, which was a weird criterion to use.”

Mazelle Etessami ’14, who is Persian, auditioned for the show expecting to be cast as a member of Motormouth’s Crew, but was shocked to learn that she was placed in the white ensemble.

“I had to ask myself why I was so upset that they considered me white when I’ve always considered myself white,” Etessami said. “I realized that it was a bunch of things that ultimately came down to that I really didn’t like other people deciding my race.”

Even after the initial shock, Etessami still found it weird to be in the white ensemble instead of the black ensemble.

“I went on stage and I was singing the black part,” Etessami said. “I’m not black, but I empathize. I remember in third grade a dad gave the ‘I Have A Dream’  speech, and I looked at my black friend and thought ‘you wouldn’t be here,’ and then I thought‘I wouldn’t be here.’ ”

In spite of Etessami’s experience, she thinks that “Hairspray” will be a good thing in the long run.

“I think that doing ‘Hairspray’ was something that was really important to get minorities involved in the theatre,” Etessami said.

“There’s a whole group of talented kids who felt that they weren’t being given a decent chance to participate, and that was a shock to me,” Pugh said. “I’m thrilled that we’re attempting this.”

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