Actors of color in lead roles help Broadway shows like ‘Oklahoma!’ reflect reality
The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is among the productions coming to Philadelphia featuring actors of color in roles typically played by white actors.
In a Tony Award-winning reimagining of the classic musical Oklahoma!, now playing at the Forrest Theatre, two of its leading roles, Laurie and Ado Annie, are played by Black women.
That’s different, given the original Rodgers and Hammerstein production is set in 1906 at the dawn of the territory’s statehood and centers on the lives of people who made their fortunes displacing Black and Indigenous people.
There are other twists, too. Daniel Fish’s production is set in modern times. Actors wear jeans and minidresses instead of opulent ball gowns and 19th-century menswear complete with tasseled ties. The extravagant farm-country backdrops are replaced with wooden fold-up chairs, and lots of guns.
But it’s Fish’s choice to cast Black, brown, trans, and disabled people, in roles typically cast with white, able-bodied people, that makes this old-school story relevant and interesting to people who, not long ago, might never have bought tickets to Oklahoma!
“It’s been hugely gratifying to hear people say, ‘I saw myself represented,’ " Fish said. “It’s more than a plus, it’s important. It’s essential.”
Oklahoma! is among the productions arriving in the region that feature thespians of color in roles originated by white actors. Rent,which had a brief run at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Merriam Theater, stars J.T. Wood, the first Black man to play the lead character, Mark, in a Broadway production. Jisel Soleil Ayon — who identifies as a Black Latina — stars as Jenna in Waitress, scheduled to open March 29, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Academy of Music. Riverdance is on tour with its first Black, Irish-style dancer, that production arrives in Pittsburgh, Lancaster and Easton in April.
After years of fighting for the same opportunities as white actors, coupled with a 2020 list of demands from theater workers of color, many Black thespians are seeing changes on and off Broadway stages.
“I’m a plus-size, dark-skinned trans woman,” said Sis, the Black woman who stars as Oklahoma!’s flirtatious, Southern belle, Ado Annie. “I’m everything the world tries to hide. And here I am, taking a classic piece of text — that is just so white — and I’m doing it with ease. I can be the star of the show and change the narrative. Just by being here, I’m showing that Black women can be flirty. We can have autonomy of our lives and we don’t have to be forced to take what life gives us.”
From vaudeville to color-conscious casting
Black people have been a part of the American theater since the days of Blackface and vaudeville. But whether we appeared on Broadway or in regional repertory theater, we were most often cast in roles that were explicitly Black.
The Black Arts movement of the 1970s and 1980s advocated for Black actors to have an equal shot at roles typically cast with white actors. This kind of color-blind casting, however, fell out of favor quickly because those same actors, activists, and playwrights — including the late August Wilson — realized that the “I don’t see color” sentiment further marginalized Black actors.
Over the decades, progressive directors would replace all-white casts with all-Black ones, such as the 2012 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Blair Underwood as Stanley Kowalski. But that move wouldn’t have worked with classic repertoire with Black characters, such as A Raisin in the Sun, or Wilson’s Fences, suggesting that only white characters can be relatable to society.
“There is no such thing as color-blind casting because I’m not seeing-impaired,” Fish said to me in a Zoom interview. “So much of what we are trying to do is make things visible, and make people visible. And who they are, their personality, gender, their voices, their body is all a part of the production. We have to be conscious of that. I think it would be fair to say the actors would be disappointed in me if I was blind to their color.”
The theater world now refers to color-blind casting as nontraditional or color-conscious casting. Hit Broadway shows and advocacy from theater artists have helped make this inclusive hiring a norm.
Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s production starring Black, Asian American, and Latino actors as America’s founding fathers in 2015 made way for other multiracial productions on and off stage, including Netflix’s drama, Bridgerton and AMC’s Anne Boleyn, starring Jodie Turner-Smith, a Black woman, as the 16th-century Queen of England.
And in response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed, a coalition of BIPOC theater artists authored a 29-page manifesto, We See You, White American Theater, demanding the industry ensure 50% of its programming and personnel on and off stage are people of color.
“It forced some places to realize they needed to start being conscious of the way race intersects with the material of the show, how it illuminates the script and how it transforms the work,” said James Ijames, co-artistic director of the Wilma Theater, and a theater professor at Villanova University.
Characters with new perspectives
J.T. Wood, the actor playing Mark in Rent, says he brings a different perspective to the role of the filmmaker who chronicles a year in the life of his HIV-positive friends struggling to pay rent.
“I’m able to add a level of knowledge to my role as the observer,” Wood said. “Mark is always checking himself. You can tell he’s always wondering if he belongs. My Mark knows this is where he belongs.”
Earlier this year, Black actress Kyla Stone was cast as the leading lady in Anastasia at the Merriam Theater. The musical, based on the Russian legend and 1997 animated film, is about a poor girl who realizes she’s a duchess. Race is not a part of the story line.
This also holds true for Waitress.
“The fact that I can play this role and not think about my race makes me happy,” said Ayon, who is starring in the traveling production. “I really have the chance to believe that I’m the best person for the job.”
In turning Oklahoma! into a modern-day soap opera, Fish, the director, said he was able to create a world that he wanted to live in. Oklahoma! he said, is not just a love story; it’s about an outsider, who in this case is the odd farmhand Judd (Christopher Bannow), who is killed by Laurie’s suitor, Curly (Sean Grandillo). In this staging of the rural Western town, Black people are not outsiders. What if this was the case in the real Oklahoma territory of 1906? Perhaps there wouldn’t have been the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 in which a mob of white Oklahomans burned down the city’s affluent Black community known as the Greenwood District.
Sasha Hutchings, the Black woman who plays Laurie, thinks so.
“I lean into the words,” Hutchings says of her performance. “These words may not be written for a Black woman, but they make sense to me. They make sense when I say them because they are human. I am human.”
During rehearsals, Sis said she talked to Fish about her portrayal of Annie. Sis’ Annie would not be a dim-witted, corseted Southern belle, but a sister girl with an attitude and spunk who saw herself as beautiful.
“There is a line in the play where my character asks her friend if she’s going to get married and I said, ‘Being together all night means he wants a wedding, don’t he?’ ” Sis said. “That’s in the script, but how I said it was more like Mo’Nique,” she said, referring to the comedian.
Then she added: “I’m always in character, but my acting comes from my experience. I tap into my existence of a Black, trans woman. That influences my words and my entire experience on stage.”
And it is that very experience that enriches ours.
Through March 20; Forrest Theatre; 1114 Walnut St. Tickets: $47-132; telecharge.com
March 29-April 3; Kimmel Cultural Campus’ Academy of Music; 240 S. Broad Street. Tickets: $20-$119 kimmelculturalcampus.org
April 3, State Theatre, 453 Northampton St., Easton, Pa.; Tickets: Sold out. https://statetheatre.org/events/riverdance-25th-anniversary-show-2
April 26-28; Benedum Center; 237 7th St., Pittsburgh, Pa.; Tickets: $36.50-$71.50; https://trustarts.org/production/77477/riverdance
April 29-May 1; American Music Theatre; 2425 Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster, Pa.; Tickets: $49-$69 https://amtshows.com/riverdance/