Casting call raises questions on racism in theatre

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Illustration by Meher Yeda

A recent casting call from the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts prompted discussion surrounding racism in casting.

Rebecca Aizin, Senior Staffer


A&E


On April 28, the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts sent out a casting call for an outside production to their email list. The call listed 15 available roles, but only one, at the very bottom, was for a woman of color — who the call noted had to be “sensual.”

This casting call is neither atypical for the theatre industry as a whole, nor at Northwestern. The Wirtz Center sends out casting calls for both theatrical and outside films or projects nearly every other week. 

When Communication senior Alessandra Hernández received the April 28 call, she said she scanned the email for a role she could fill when she saw the listing for any woman of color who is “fiery.” For Hernández, the casting call suggested Wirtz didn’t care whether she was Black or Latinx, because they just needed their “token person of color.”. 

Hernández, who is Puerto Rican and Mexican, has received callbacks for Middle Eastern and Black roles, despite not holding those identities. She said this might have to do with casting directors having to “ration” people of color because there are so few of them.

“I can understand how a White student who has never had problems getting roles might think we are overreacting, and there’s a silent sentiment of ‘Well, you’re just not good enough,’” Hernández said. “But there is a reality that there are simply less roles for non-White actors, and even then, we are grouped in all the time with each other.”

Closed doors

Communication junior Kandace Mack has had similar experiences to Hernández in the theatre world at NU. The casting calls rarely work out for her, Mack said, since many are specifically for “male” or “caucasian” people. 

“As someone who wants to make it into the industry, it feels like opportunities are already not great for people of color at Northwestern, but a little better than the real world,” Mack said. “It seems like what they are communicating to us as a school is the industry is not accepting of us, so it’s like the doors are already closing before we get into the real world.”

Al Heartley, the managing director at Wirtz, said the theatre attempts to put on shows the industry may not offer as often, including those that feature a large number of people of color. 

However, he said Wirtz still has a long way to go.

“We have places we need to push and we need to continue our drive toward racially- and gender-inclusive productions,” Heartley said. “I’ve always come from a philosophy to produce and make work that perhaps the industry wouldn’t be able to offer otherwise — that’s the purpose of higher education.”

Addressing the root of the problem

Despite efforts Wirtz has made, Mack said the issue may lie in the very beginning of the college student experience at NU: admissions. 

Mack said there are students and administrators who want to put on plays that center people of color, but there are not enough students of color to fill the roles. That leads the very few actors of color on campus to be pigeonholed, she said. 

“If I auditioned for multiple shows, I have to get cast in the show that is designated for a Black character, because there simply aren’t enough Black people,” Mack said. “I feel like I’m just a body that’s fulfilling the role, instead of doing a show that I think would actually help me and fulfill me.”

According to Hernández, the only way to improve these systemic issues is to make more efforts to diversify NU’s theatre program. That can be hard to do, however, when current students are unhappy and take to Twitter to vent their frustrations — which prospective students of color may see, she added. 

“The problem is people who come to tour see the same old White musicals and shows, like ‘Legally Blonde,’ and they see on Twitter none of us are happy, and they are like ‘Why even bother applying?’” Hernández said. 

While Mack said NU is more inclusive than the theatre industry at large, the Wirtz audience still disproportionately consists of White Evanston residents. Many of the shows chosen that do have roles for Black people are often about the Civil War or slavery, which she said makes White people feel “better about themselves.” 

Hernández and Mack both said they can’t envision that change, since Wirtz needs the money from the shows to survive. Heartley said he hopes Wirtz can continue to make strong strides in terms of play selection, doing the work to be better.

“Statements can only do so much. You actually have to take things back to, for instance, my staff and say, ‘How can we address this problem in a way that’s meaningful to our values, authentic to who we are and uplifts diversity and inclusion in a way that we wish to see in the world?’” Heartley said. 

Until real change occurs, students like Hernández and Mack will continue voicing their opinions on how the department and Wirtz could improve. At the end of the day, Hernández said, students of color are paying the same amount of money to receive less of an education, and that needs to change.

“The same rich, White students are getting the same roles over and over again and are getting exposure to the public and support from professors,” Hernández said. “But we get less education because there is less opportunity for us, and no one is sticking their neck out for us.”

A previous version of this story misstated who issued the casting call. The Daily regrets the error.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @rebecca_aizin

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