Updated: Apr 12, 2019
I took my family to see Dear Evan Hansenat the Ahmanson on Saturday, November 10th, 2018. It’s a story about anxiety, friendship, healing, and forgiveness centered around high schoolers and their family. It was nominated for nine Tony Awards and won six. I was excited to expose my two high school aged sons to the show. The good news is they loved it. The bad news is my Latino sons saw no representation of themselves on stage. They saw seven white people and one brown person navigating a story that, to them, seemed outside of their experience.
The 2015 report The Cultural Lives of Californiansby Jennifer Novak-Leonard, Michael Reynolds, Ned English, and Norman Bradburn, explored arts participation in California and found that “[m]any of the differences in participation rates between California’s immigrant and non-immigrant populations can be attributed to income, education and age effects, but significant differences persist even after controlling for additional socio-demographic characteristics.” (p. 28) Further, in general, the study finds that the Latino population overall attends arts events at a lower rate than the overall average. (p. 30) This is troubling considering that, in 2015, 34 percent of the adult population was Latino and the 2040 projection states it will grow to 43 percent of the population. (p. 29) Theater in California can’t ignore this growing population and market.
The next step for theater, as I see it, is to change who gets cast in shows. Considering the diversity present in California, we should strive to produce works that look like the population in California. Specifically, for Dear Evan Hansen, those characters don’t have to be white. The story isn’t about the race of these characters; the characters’ key decisions are not informed by their race.
The Asian American Performers Action Coalition did their own study on ethnic representation. They determined that “[l]ookingat the averages over the last 10 years for which we have data, 76% of all roles were filled by Caucasian actors, 15% by African Americans, 4% by Latinxs and 4% by Asian Americans. Middle Easter/North African, American Indian and Disabled actors together amounted to just 1% of all roles.” (AAPAC, 2018, p. 6). This doesn’t match the real world. For theater to be relevant, it should be a mirror of the world it is produced in. In my opinion, the percentages of the races cast in productions should, at minimum, match real world percentages and should, at maximum, help us dream about possible futures for the world.
Representation matters. My sons watch George Lopez and Gabriel Iglesias on television. My home values the movies Cocoand Moana. Theater makers must pay attention to the landscape of the population. Stories that are told utilizing only Caucasian actors will generally receive the traditional Caucasian audiences. Good stories, however, are universal and not unique to Caucasian people. Audiences will come to engage in theater when they can see themselves reflected. By expanding and challenging any casting habits, theater can make sure that it is welcoming all audiences and remaining relevant in the changing world around us.
Novak-Leonard, J., et al. (2015). The Cultural Lives of Californians,San Francisco: The James Irvine Foundation.
Bandhu, P et al. (2018) Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages, New York: Asian American Performers Action Coalition.