"Don't think you'll ever be cast as Eponine or Cosette."
July 5, 2011 7:29 PM   Subscribe

Patrina Miller sings "Random Black Girl", a song about the one black girl in the musical's chorus.

From Kooman and Dimond's Homemade Fusion; via Sociological Images.
posted by NoraReed (21 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoyed that.
posted by sweetkid at 7:47 PM on July 5, 2011

Related: Nobody's Asian In The Movies.
posted by NoraReed at 7:52 PM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm reminded of Audra McDonald's dry assessment of why she wasn't cast in the ensemble of Beauty and the Beast: "No black forks!"
posted by thomas j wise at 7:57 PM on July 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Similarly, A Big Black Lady Stops the Show. audio only, with pictures. the ones with video were crappy quality.
posted by booksherpa at 8:44 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh man, this just made me feel really guilty for loving Lillias White in the Matthew Broderick version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. In fact, when I saw Daniel Radcliffe's Brotherhood of Man on the Tonys, I was thinking, "You know what this needs? Some Lillias White."
posted by spec80 at 8:59 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Patina Miller is great. I saw her in Hair when it was still at Central Park.
posted by cazoo at 9:33 PM on July 5, 2011

Not too long ago, I was cast at the last minute in a small but significant 'random black girl singing soul' role. The previous actress quit less than two weeks before the show opened, so the director sent out a call for black women who could act, dance, and sing. Somehow, my name came up and the director called me and invited me to join the cast, sans audition. The first day of rehearsal, I thought I kicked ass. I picked up the dance routines quickly and already had some of the chorus parts committed to memory. The cast members welcomed me with open arms, relieved that their ensemble was once again complete.

The first time I sang the quintessential 'random black girl singing soul' solo, the cast's relief turned to horror before I'd even finished 8 bars of the song.

When I opened my mouth, everyone expected a big, soulful Aretha Franklin voice.
The reality was quite different. Imagine Julie Andrews trying to sing 'Respect'. Yep. Weird as shit.

Here's the thing: When the director sent out the call for a black girl who could act/dance/sing, he assumed that sing = sing soulfully.
He didn't expect a black girl who could act and dance and sing in a style more suited for moody piano chick rock and sacred choral texts than R&B classics. I threw a major wrench in his plans.

I tried to soul-ify my voice. I worked with the musical director before and after rehearsal, I practiced at home and in my car. I stretched and strained my vocal chords until I was sore. But the truth was clear:

I couldn't belt to save my life, or, as it turns out, my role.

I was allowed to stay in the cast, but my solo was turned over to a white actress (who, incidentally, didn't sing any more soulfully than I did). This move caused a ridiculous amount of drama. People threatened to quit. One (white) actor pitched a fit backstage, declaring "That role is supposed to be played by a black woman, and if there's not a black actress singing that part, I'm not going out there!"

I was racked with guilt, and felt that I'd let down the entire cast. The show turned out fine and we received good reviews, but after that experience, I decided that this, my first foray into semi-professional musical theater, would also be my last, at least for a while.

Now that I look back on my amateur acting career, I realize that I've been typecast in almost* all of the roles I've played: either the role specifically called for a black actress or the director cast me specifically because it would be interesting/controversial/game-changing to have a black actress in a traditionally white role.

On the one hand, I am thankful for the work and the experience, but I often wonder, "Did I get this part because I'm good or because no other black girls auditioned?". When directors command me to "act blacker", I am both amused and confused. I am black. I'm the descendent of African slaves. As far as I've been able to trace back, there is barely a hint of European blood in my lineage. But I grew up in the middle of a white suburban wasteland in the heartland of the US, far from my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents in the south. There was no one, save my parents, to teach me how to be "black". But what does that even mean? Do all black female characters have to speak Black Vernacular English and sing soulfully and whip out sassy 'ooooh girrrrrrl!' lines with lightening speed in order for audiences to accept them?
posted by chara at 10:33 PM on July 5, 2011 [233 favorites]

That was hilarious!! Thanks for posting.

I'm not a theater geek, so I wasn't really paying attention, but it's always slightly disappointing to note that yet another form of media has the same problems as, well, all the other forms of media. Somehow, my particular biases had led me to believe theater was more progressive than that.
posted by lesli212 at 11:58 PM on July 5, 2011

Funny as hell! And so true. This is up there with the near-ubiquitous black gospel choir in full robes backing-up the white rocker trying to be a soul singer.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:24 AM on July 6, 2011

So I looked at their website and found out that Kooman and Dimond are Michael Kooman and Chris Dimond. They are song/musical writers.

The song Random Black Girl is on their album (funded via kickstarter)Out of Our Heads.

They thoughtfully included headshots of the 10 singers on the album. There is only one singer who is not white. Guess who that is? One wonders - if they didn't have Random Black Girl on this album, would any non-white singers would be on it?

So, one the one hand, props for recognizing racism in musicals. On the other, way to perpetuate the same problem you are fighting against.
posted by nooneyouknow at 5:01 AM on July 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

That was great. Started off kind of weak, but got better and better.
posted by rakim at 7:26 AM on July 6, 2011

The problem reminds me, perhaps strangely, of this scene from the movie Reality Bites. About a minute in, the Vicky character starts complaining that if she tests positive for HIV she's going to feel like a stereotype on TV -- "Like it's not even happening to me". (Might not make sense if you don't remember the 90's.)
posted by Net Prophet at 7:59 AM on July 6, 2011

Oh man, this just made me feel really guilty for loving Lillias White

There is no guilt in loving Lillias White! She's a goddess and should be worshiped as such!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:29 PM on July 6, 2011

Diversity in the arts is a big weird question. Our grantmaking org is all over everyone about being more diverse, from the NBAF to sub 10K/year orgs.

Hilariously (or not) -- and I realize this is community theater not like, ZOMG SERIOUS THEATER, but whatever, we're seriously trying to be excellent -- we have the WORST time trying to get people of color to come out to audition. It drives me especially crazy when we get a few people who aren't white to come out (I mean, it's an overwhelmingly white area and there are a few really good black performance groups so I'm not 100% surprised but . .it's discouraging when you want to do better) and those that show up cannot compete with the balance of everyone else who comes out and we can't cast anybody. Or when we lose someone we really really want to work with to a "better" gig (which I understand but, again, drives me nuts).

We're currently throwing darts at the board trying to improve this - stating "we are very interested in a diverse cast, come as you are" hasn't worked, but in (I assume) typical white guilt over all this we've avoided saying, "African American and Hispanic actors especially encouraged" because that seems weird. Is it weird? I don't know. But I guess that's the next thing to try. How do we get our teenytiny theater more diverse? How can the larger theater community do better than this? I have no idea. But we're trying.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:44 PM on July 6, 2011

I don't want to be one of "those people," but "Les Miz" has been one of the few big musicals that has been open to color-blind casting. I'm particularly thinking about Felicia Curry as Eponine and Norm Lewis as Javert. There were a lot more over the years, not only in the Broadway casts, but the touring companies as well.

As for Medieval Maven's casting problem, I can assure you that that happens in professional theatre as well. I used to work for a casting director who cast a lot of stage productions in New York and around the country. When we specified that roles were open to "all ethnicities" (which should go without saying, but our clients sometimes wanted to make a point of it), we'd still get very Caucasian-heavy submissions from agents and individuals. I feel like a big part of the problem (from the casting side) is that there are fewer minorities getting the professional training that agents like to see on resumes. So they, in turn, end up representing fewer minorities. And then the minorities that are out there thus get fewer opportunities to work professionally because they're not represented by agents/managers. Meanwhile, the ones who do have the fancy training and good representation still have to contend with playing a stereotype for most of the span of their careers. Because, as much as clients wanted the tangential characters to be played by minorities, they rarely wanted Macbeth himself to be a Chinese-American, for example...unless this was part of some "concept" that they were going for.
posted by zerbinetta at 2:21 PM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

:: Medieval Maven: take a look at the race & film casting discussions on Racebending.com and Racialicious (here's one casting call of note). Maybe they could run a request for suggestions from actors of color among their readership.
posted by nicebookrack at 5:38 PM on July 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

That's actually a very cool set of links. Thanks, nicebookrack.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:46 PM on July 6, 2011

That is a great performance. I was just thinking the other day that I saw three musicals in the Philadelphia area with color blind casting in major parts this year. Though in one the actress was the understudy.

But of course the point is, it is unusual enough that I noticed.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:17 AM on July 7, 2011

This is great! Patina Miller is quite a talent- I worked on a show with her a few years back (where thankfully she wasn't cast as a token black girl) and found her to be charming and personable as well.
posted by stagewhisper at 12:32 PM on July 8, 2011

This is very cool. My son just finished acting in his first high school musical: Grease. Danny was black and the T-Birds were 2 black/2 white kids. Sandy was white and the Pink Ladies were 1 hispanic/1 asian/1 black/1 white. The supporting players were equally mixed. It was a fantastic show. There are real (insurmountable, I fear) problems with urban public schools, but diversity is not one of them.
posted by headnsouth at 12:28 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

It was, however, a little odd to see the recent Met production of John Adams' Nixon in China. There were white actors playing the vast majority of the Chinese roles (including that of Chairman Mao).

It was almost as weird as seeing Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
posted by pjdoland at 3:20 PM on July 13, 2011

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