Musicals, dramas suffer minority drought

A bad report card from Actors Equity regarding minority casting follows negative ones from SAG and AFTRA.

Broadway now joins film and TV in casting fewer Latino, African-American, American Indian and Asian-American performers in 1999 than in recent past seasons. The report by Actors Equity was made available to Daily Variety Wednesday.

In musical productions, ethnic minorities comprised 28.3% of Broadway casts in 1996. That figure has dropped to 19.3% in 1999. It stood at 31.2% in 1997 and 28.1% in 1998. Dramatic productions present a more dire situation, with only 7.18% of casts in 1999 comprising actors from ethnic minorities. Those figures were 10.3% in 1996, 11.0% in 1997 and 8.5% in 1998.

“When you break the figures between musicals and dramas, it is so clear what is going on,” said Alan Eisenberg, president of Actors Equity. “If (you) merge the figures, it eliminates the great disparity between musicals and plays.”

One play per season

As Eisenberg pointed out, figures for minority actors in dramas were generally supported by little more than one play per season, such as August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” in 1996 and Henry David Hwang’s “Golden Child” in 1998. Lisette Lecat Ross’ “Scent of the Roses” is the only drama with a significant number of minority actors yet to open on Broadway before the end of 1999. The nine-character play, which stars Julie Harris as a South African woman, features roles for four black actors.

Cheryl L. West’s play “Jar the Floor,” about four generations of an African-American family, may transfer to a Broadway theater from its recently shuttered production at Second Stage.

Minority casting in Broadway musicals may rebound in late 1999 and 2000. In a piece of nontraditional casting, Brian Stokes Mitchell of “Ragtime” will play Petruchio in the upcoming revival of “Kiss Me, Kate.” African-American actresses could well dominate the Tony’s best actress category next spring, with Audra McDonald headlining LCT’s “Marie Christine,” Heather Headley playing the title role in Disney’s “Aida” and Eartha Kitt starring in the Public Theater’s “The Wild Party.”

Vanessa Williams was also a possible contender, until she withdrew from the latter production a week ago. George C. Wolfe, who is directing and writing the book for the Michael John LaChiusa musical about jazz-era Manhattan, said he was looking at a number of actresses to replace Williams and would not confirm if the role would be written race-specific. “Certainly when Vanessa was playing the part of Queenie she was definitely a black woman,” Wolfe said.

Musical numbers

For Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native American, the casting situation at the top in musicals is much less high-profile. An exception is Tina Ou, who essays one of four leads in the upcoming revival of “Finian’s Rainbow.”

Minority casting in Broadway choruses has improved significantly since Actors Equity protested the all-white chorus of “Will Rogers Follies” in 1991. The nontraditional casting of LCT’s import of the National Theatre’s production of “Carousel” in 1994 is also seen as a watershed.

Sources close to the incoming productions of “Martin Guerre,” set in 16th century France, and “Saturday Night Fever,” set in Tony Manero’s Brooklyn, confirmed that there would be nontraditional casting in those respective casts.

At present, League of Regional Theaters (LORT) did not make available to Daily Variety its minority-casting report with regard to New York City’s not-for-profit theater companies. Eisenberg, however, confirmed that the figures would be an improvement over those of Broadway productions.

“With an institution like the not-for-profits, you can actually implement a (casting) policy,” said Sharon Jensen, executive director of the Nontraditional Casting Project. “On Broadway every production is an independent production, so continuity is more difficult.”

As head of casting at the Public Theatre in the 1970s and ’80s, Rosemary Tichler put together all-black productions of “The Cherry Orchard,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and a series of Shakespearean plays.Tichler, who is now artistic producer at the Public, said that casting for minorities hadn’t improved greatly, in part, due to the producers, casting directors and agents. “You can count with one hand the people of color who are in those jobs,” she said.

Lagging legit

One director who casts for film, TV and New York legit remarked that the theater was several steps behind TV and film when it came to nontraditional casting. “In the theater the writers contractually have full casting approval, which they never would have in film and TV, where the casting decision is spread out over more parties,” he said, adding that one studio worked very aggressively to persuade a screenwriter to reconceive ethnically a number of his characters.

“Theater is behind film and TV in minority casting, unbelievably so,” said George C. Wolfe, artistic director at the Public. “As far as film and TV goes, they have to deal with the demographics of people of color who see these shows. At the Public, we’ve tried to expand what the definition of our audience is to make the theater a vibrant part of the city.”

Besides Wolfe’s “The Wild Party,” the Public this season is presenting new works by Anna Deavere Smith (“House Arrest”) and Nilo Cruz (“Two Sisters and a Piano”). Regarding Latino playwrights, artistic director Bernard Telsey at MCC Theatre points to their upcoming production of Jose Rivera’s new play “Sueno.” There’s also the Signature Theatre’s season devoted to the works of Maria Irene Fornes.

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