It is a fact that theater companies use peoples’ appearances in casting. A person may or may not get a role or job due to their physical shape, face, hair color, height, etc. Judging people based on their appearance is a tricky subject. Some argue that such judgments are valid because they help create something wonderful: They are needed to carry out a director’s artistic vision or to please the audience. This viewpoint is often the grand finale of an argument about superficiality in a theater. Many performers don’t see this as a serious problem because these superficial judgments seem to come with the job. Anyone arguing with this “doesn’t understand” or “is making a big deal.”
I counter that just because something fits the status quo doesn’t mean it’s morally acceptable. These arguments are fundamentally flawed. What the audience wants is almost impossible to measure because the “audience” is composed of anyone who can get a ticket. A director or producer’s right to deny someone a role due to their appearance is debatable because this is a judgment based on one person’s preferences and may not actually create something that is stage worthy. The current status quo allows people to be barred from the stage due to physical “flaws,” as determined by the direction. These judgments are not harmless, and when the issue of race is involved, the problem only gets bigger.
I am currently working in a theater in southern Germany. We have a premiere of “Cabaret” next week, yet instead of worrying about perfecting my moves and voice, I’m preoccupied with a moral dilemma. If you don’t know the story of “Cabaret,” it’s a musical based on the story of an American man visiting Berlin during the rise of Hitler. He falls in love with and eventually ends things with a British woman working in a nightclub. The show touches on a number of issues, especially those of racism and discrimination. The perfect medium for addressing the issue of neo-Nazism in Germany, right?
Unfortunately, the producer of the show is perpetuating discrimination with his own casting decisions. In an effort to remain loyal to the setting of the musical, he has refused to cast anyone in the piece who is obviously not white. Most of the participants are white and German, others are white foreigners, and there are a few less-white people who are hidden with wigs and costumes. The one Asian that he has agreed to put in the show has been relegated to a small, virtually hidden part, despite her dancing and performing skills. This young Japanese woman outperforms many people who have been cast as cabaret girls, yet she is hidden in the back due to her beautiful black hair and almond eyes.
Other people in the cast, such as myself, are also “auslander” in Deutschland. I am an American Catholic who would probably have faced barriers in getting hired as a cabaret girl during the Nazi regime, yet in this musical my true background is not seen in my white face and is easily ignored. One would think that the facts that my German is schieß and I’m one of the most junior members of the theater would prove a hindrance. In reality, these two details seem to be less problematic than skin color for the producer of the show. A black member of the opera choir has not been cast in the show despite his great German and 10 years of experience in the theater. Ditto for the Japanese woman and a number of other Asian members of the opera as well. A black or Asian’s foreignness stands out more visually than my own, so it is more immediately targeted. My whiteness helps me blend and means that I am a prominent member of the show because I’m white, regardless of my qualifications.
Some people argue that the blacks and Asians in the theater should take the decision “less personally.” How can they do so in the context of current issues of racism and discrimination? I know that they have experienced other instances of prejudice in their lives, and it is difficult to remain self-confident when you know your appearance is a hindrance to your career. It’s a terrible thing to realize that you are powerless to change what is seen as a “flaw” or “problem” through other people’s eyes. In effect, the producer made a number of people feel judged and uncomfortable due to unchangeable physical characteristics, all in the effort to please the audience and create an accurate setting onstage.
Is this just? Is the excuse of purity of setting justified? Would an audience member seriously object or stop believing in the magic of the musical because of a few nonwhites on stage? I seriously hope not, and if they do, they should learn to be a bit more imaginative and open-minded. Discrimination and racism are wrong in any context, and all efforts should be made to avoid them. The International Labour Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, states that discrimination in the workplace:
“entails treating people differently because of certain characteristics — such as race, color or sex — which results in the impairment of equality of opportunity and treatment. In other words, discrimination results in and reinforces inequalities. The freedom of human beings to develop their capabilities and to choose and pursue their professional and personal aspirations is restricted, without regard for ability. Skills and competencies cannot be developed; rewards to work are denied; and a sense of humiliation, frustration and powerlessness takes over.”
The “Cabaret” situation, along with innumerable others in the theater world, fits this description perfectly. The performing arts world is not exempt from these laws and should not be given leeway to violate them in the name of artistic liberties. It is better to sacrifice minor details in setting rather than judge people based on their race. The magic of the stage should be derived from the skills of experts in acting, singing, dancing, costume making and set building, not from the genes that make us a color, whether that means we’re white, black or purple.
Alissa Stover is an online student majoring in psychology. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.