White Men and Others
October 15, 2022: The history of the Western world is the story of wealthy white man, told, until recently, by those same or other white men. These are the facts. We cannot change them. Alexander Hamilton was not Puerto Rican. Nor would he have considered himself an immigrant, having merely moved from one British colony, the Caribbean Island, Nevis, to another British colony, New York. And the Founding Fathers were not (as far as we know) female, transgender or nonbinary.
Musicals like Hamilton and the current revival of 1776 that attempt to retell history with actors who are of a different race or gender than the original do not really give us any insight into the past. They merely allow us to thumb our noses at people we consider less enlightened than ourselves.
If we really want to expand our view of history, it would be far better to actually present the stories of those people history has not singled out. How about a musical focusing on the lesser-known Washington and Jefferson, the two Marthas? Or a drama that tells us about the War of Independence from the point of view of African Americans, many of whom were helping the British, who promised them freedom?
The Roundabout’s acknowledgement of the Leni Lenape, who inhabited New York before white people is very nice. But it does nothing to alleviate the poverty of the huge reservations in our Western states. Bemoaning the Founding Fathers’ refusal to denounce slavery in the Declaration of Independence will have no effect on upcoming Supreme Court decisions on voting rights. These are just examples of theater people patting themselves on the back.
We in theater like to believe we have a powerful tool to change society. The truth is theater merely reflects what is already happening in some parts of society. The people who don’t agree with those changes, for the most part, keep away from plays and musicals that make them feel uncomfortable.
What diversity in casting does accomplish is to give some people jobs they might not otherwise have. This is not necessarily bad – unless you happen to be someone who lost a job because you were a white guy in the wrong period of time. But it would be far better if these same people were cast in roles that allowed them to tell their own story, not the story of their oppressors.