'Hamilton' casting call: Diversity or discrimination?

The hit Broadway musical 'Hamilton' is facing accusations of discrimination after a casting call asked for nonwhite actors.

Joan Marcus/The Public Theater via AP
This image released by The Public Theater shows Lin-Manuel Miranda, foreground, with the cast during a performance of 'Hamilton,' in New York.

"Hamilton" faces accusations of discrimination in a casting call audition notice "seeking nonwhite men and women, ages 20s to 30s," according to media reports.

Casting controversies over race are not, of course, new to theater, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical, which casts black and Hispanic actors in the roles of America's Founding Fathers, represents an inversion of the sort of discrimination typically found in showbiz. 

Actors' Equity, the labor union that represents American actors and stage managers, requires that casting calls use stock legal phrases that encourage any and all performers to try out for parts, even when those notices call for a specific appearance.

Representatives of the show later amended the notice to reflect the more inclusive language.

In a telephone interview, Howard Sherman, interim Director for the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, whose office is directly across the street from the Richard Rodgers Theater on 46th Street in Manhattan where Hamilton is performed, says, "Of course there's an enormous irony when it comes to 'Hamilton' being charged with such a thing because it is such as broadly inclusive show that is giving voice to artists who might not have otherwise been in a show about the early days of America."

Mr. Sherman stated in his blog that, "My position on non-traditional (or color-blind or color-specific) casting is that it is not a 'two-way street,' and that the goal is to create more opportunities for actors of color, not to give white actors the chance to play characters of color."

Chad A. Marlow, Advocacy and Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, explains in a phone interview that "Lin-Manuel Miranda wants very specifically to make the point that the Founding Fathers were the equivalent of modern-day American immigrants who faced the same struggles and challenges."

"I think that most modern-day immigrants are nonwhite, so I think that is part of the point [Mr. Miranda] is trying to make," Mr. Marlow says. "This isn’t that he doesn't like white people. That would be problematic."

But Marlow adds that casting-call clause "isn't just for show," but to remind those on both sides of the casting process to keep an open mind.

Marlow explains that one example of keeping that open mind comes from a fairly recent Broadway casting decision.

"A great example of this would be when an African-American actor [Kyle Jean-Baptiste] ended up playing one of the lead roles in 'Les Miserables,' " says Marlow. "Now I think, when you’re talking about revolutionary era France there were probably not many African-American student leaders at the time. So I would think there is an historical proclivity to cast a white actor. However, this guy came in and was so outstandingly brilliant they said, 'You know what? We're gonna cast this guy. So I think you can cast an actor who fits the role but you can ask everyone to come in and see what happens."

Mr. Jean-Baptiste made history in the summer of 2015 when, at age 21, he became the youngest person ever on Broadway to play the role of Jean Valjean, as well as being the first African-American to do so. He died in August after falling from a fire escape.

Sherman points out in a December 15, 2015 blog post, in which he interviewed Miranda, that some critics have tried to place Hamilton’s casting notice verbiage issue in the same lot with when a production went against Author Katori Hall's intent for "The Mountaintop" by casting a white actor as Martin Luther King Jr.,  and when whites were cast, against the playwright's intent, in leading roles in Lloyd Suh's "Jesus in India."  

Sherman wrote, "What’s intriguing is that Hamilton has been offered up both as evidence of why actors of color must have the opportunity to play both characters or color and characters not necessarily written as characters of color – but it has also been used to say that anything goes, and white actors should be able to play characters of color as well."

"My answer is: authorial intent wins. Period," Miranda told Sherman. "As a Dramatists Guild Council member, I will tell you this. As an artist and as a human I will tell you this. Authorial intent wins. Katori Hall never intended for a Caucasian Martin Luther King. That's the end of the discussion. In every case, the intent of the author always wins. If the author has specified the ethnicity of the part, that wins." 

In the phone interview, Marlow concluded that, "Ultimately, when you see a notice like this one you have to ask yourself, 'Is this coming from a place of racism or is this coming from a place of artistic perspective?' and clearly, in the case of 'Hamilton,' this is a very conscious reflection of artistic perspective."

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