In the school’s production of “West Side Story” last year, Elizabeth Edel ’16, a white student, played the role of Maria, the lead female character, and a Latina.
“The hardest part about Maria specifically was that her nationality was such a big part of her storyline, so it wasn’t just an aside that didn’t have importance,” Edel said. “So I had to kind of maneuver truthfully being the character and being respectful of a culture that I’m not actually a part of.”
Only when the performing arts department put on “Hairspray” did Performing Arts Department Head Rees Pugh say he took into account race when casting the show, saying that using race-blind casting would contradict the message of the play, according to a Chronicle article the year “Hairspray” was performed.
“All the casting I have done has always been color-blind,” performing arts teacher Christopher Moore said. “You need only look at our productions to see all our casting is color-blind. I did cast one play this year with multi-ethnic ‘sisters,’ but that was only after the auditions — I did not go into the casting with that preconceived plan. We always cast whom we feel is best for the role, regardless of the color of one’s skin.”
In a Chronicle poll of 373 students, approximately 69 percent of students said that they think the casting of the school productions are diverse.
“In general, I believe that the department tries to follow color blind casting,” Sakura Price ‘18 said. “I’m a person of color, and I’ve been in multiple productions at school with other people of color.”
Price’s play “Subway Stories” will be featured in this year’s Playwrights Festival, and she will also perform in “Expulsion from Paradise” by Sophie Kim ’19. Last year, Price wrote “The Kimono,” a play discussing the Japanese-American experience.
“I wasn’t really a part of the casting process, but Mr. Moore wanted to ensure that the part of the Japanese mom was played by a Japanese girl,” Price said. “Though he has a policy not to cast the playwrights in their own plays, he broke the rule so as to be sensitive to issues of whitewashing in casting.”
Moore says that the process of choosing actors is never determined by nationality but instead the quality of their performance.
“The only time the casting of a role is based on nationality is if it is specifically referenced by the playwright, essential to the storytelling and called for in the text that it must be a person of a definite ethnicity,” Moore said. “In my experience, I can only think of one such occasion where this was the case.”
Last year, the popular musical “Hamilton” sparked controversy when it issued a casting call looking specifically for non-white actors. Critics of the action said it was reverse racism, a term used to describe prejudice against members of a majority ethnic group, and argued it hurt efforts to foster diversity. Some theater critics specifically praised “Hamilton” for its casting of people of color to portray America’s Founding Fathers.
“Regarding the nationality of leads, white people might have a slight advantage in that area since the roles portray white people a lot of the time,” Jacob Tucker ’17 said. “But ultimately, a lot more of the people who even audition for theater are white, so if there’s an imbalance in the kids auditioning, then that same imbalance isn’t unreasonable in terms of casting.”
Actors believe that the main factor in who is cast for each role is their ability level.
“I really don’t think it’s an issue,” Henry Platt ‘17 said. “It really is just a matter of who really deserves each individual role, based on a combination of the audition and previous participation or commitment. Mostly the audition itself, but in borderline situations, they tend to verge on those who have been in productions in the past.”
The performing arts department has not shied away from productions focused on issues of racial and economic diversity in the past. “West Side Story” has a plot centered around racial and ethnic tensions between groups of Puerto Ricans and whites in New York City. “Hairspray,” performed in 2013, addresses controversies over segregation and civil rights, and “Les Misérables,” performed last year, depicts a group of poor French citizens fighting to overthrow their repressive monarchy.
Pugh and Moore typically choose the plays and musicals that will be performed during the school year, and together they hold auditions for the performances.
“It’s not about getting every technical aspect of the show perfect, such as the era in which it takes place or assigning someone to a certain role because they are the ‘fitting’ race for that role,” Natalie Kroh ’18 said. “We are telling a story, and that’s all that matters. And with that being said, I’ve just also seen from personal experience that roles are assigned to people based on their ability to portray the role.”
While the department has taken steps in encouraging greater diversity in school productions, Pugh says that some factors still remain roadblocks in an attempt to foster racial diversity. When “Hairspray” was performed, Pugh said that he encouraged black students to try out but said that, although there were some students who were talented enough to be in the show, they could not take part in the musical due to athletic commitments.
“I think the audition process at Harvard-Westlake is fair. The issues with diversity probably stem more from less minorities auditioning than from any casting based on race,” Price said.
Although she doesn’t find that the problem is only in the theater program, Carmen Levine ’17, a Hispanic student, said she perceives the lack of diversity in the theater department as a result of the lack of diversity at our school.
“Less non-white students are cast for roles because there are less non-white students at Harvard-Westlake,” Levine said. “For example, the chances of finding a Latino student who will fit a particular role will be much less likely than finding a white student who will fit that same role, not because they’re less talented but because white students severely outnumber Latino students.”
Price also says that she does not think the theater department is to blame but rather the systemic limited national diversity at the school.
“Though the shows may be predominantly white, I don’t fault the theater department,” Price said. “It’s probably more about social stigmas and limited diversity at the school in general.”
Students say that the performing arts department still actively draws students from different races, genders and social groups to participate in their productions.
“In each production I’ve been a part of, the cast has been full of students from different grades, from different friend groups, of different genders, and from different backgrounds that are all able to take their own experiences and contribute them to the larger, memorable pictures and meaningful messages of each show,” Caroline Cook ’19 said. “I love that every production attracts new faces from all over Harvard-Westlake, and I think I love being a part of them so much because of how diverse the casts are in their talents, interests, backgrounds, beliefs and personalities.”