"Authorial intent wins. Period."
December 14, 2015 11:20 AM   Subscribe

In the wake of the recent casting controversies over Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop and Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India, there have been a number of online commenters who have cited Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton as a justification for their position in the debate. What’s intriguing is that Hamilton has been offered up both as evidence of why actors of color must have the opportunity to play both characters or color and characters not necessarily written as characters of color – but it has also been used to say that anything goes, and white actors should be able to play characters of color as well. What does Lin-Manuel Miranda have to say? After all, it's not like he hasn't been been very deliberate about his casting.
posted by sciatrix (62 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don’t know. If the author has gone as far as to specify ethnicity in the work, then I think that tends to carry enough weight that people abide by those wishes within the author’s lifetime — if only for fear of seeming gauche.

Once the author is dead, though, they’ve definitely lost any control they have over how their work is interpreted. (I’d argue they lose it far sooner, but not everyone would agree with that.) We don’t shy away from race-inverted stagings of Othello just because Shakespeare isn’t around to consult. At that point, I think the only controlling factor is whether there’s an audience for it.

I want to believe that people care about what the author would have wanted, but I also think that the work belongs to everyone once it’s released into the world. Stage shows especially, because the director and actors apply their own tiny prisms of interpretation whether they’re trying to or not.

If someone were to try to stage an all-white version of Hamilton not for art’s sake, but to prove some sort of political point, I know that I wouldn’t go see it. If, instead, I became convinced that they were doing it out of genuine love of the source material… well, hypothetically I’d still be on board, even though I’m having trouble picturing how that would play out in real life.
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:41 AM on December 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


I am knee deep in the Chernow book, and every time the words "Hercules Mulligan" appear on the page, I picture Okieriete Onaodowan. And like, a generation of kids is going to grow up doing the same thing. So that's a win. Miranda has opened up our minds to the possibility that actors of color can play any part. I don't think the reverse holds true.

To me, tweets like this one from The Wiz, live are so important. In order to have that "we WERE that kid" moment, you need to see it. You need to see it to be it.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:43 AM on December 14, 2015 [16 favorites]


“I don’t have the answer to that. I have to consult with the bookwriter, who is also me,” -Miranda
posted by honest knave at 11:53 AM on December 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


“So I have some time on that language and I will find the right language to make sure that the beautiful thing that people love about our show and allows them identification with the show is preserved when this goes out into the world.”

Miranda's on Tumblr, he's on Twitter, he does the social media thing, the immediacy of the way the modern world is, but this is something I've come to find very interesting. You don't see a lot of people today who know when to step back and say, you know, it's not that I'm not the one to make that decision? But I can't give you an off-the-cuff answer about how this works at this very moment and have that be the right thing. This stuff is important and it needs thinking about and it can't just be the first thing that comes to mind and work. Deliberate is the word. Thinking about things has to happen.

We don’t shy away from race-inverted stagings of Othello just because Shakespeare isn’t around to consult.

Again with the deliberate thing: I think time matters. Not necessarily just in the context of the author's life. A race-inverted staging of Othello requires people to be really incredibly familiar with Othello. It doesn't work if Othello isn't a huge fundamental part of the history of English literature and theater. We have to know Othello like the back of our hands before we can turn the hand around and draw on the front. We have to know what's back there the whole time. I don't think works generally get to that point within the lifetime of the author, usually, not as far as things for public consumption. AU stuff gets popular in fandom because for the fandom, they really do know it like that and it'll be meaningful to the intended readers. But with theater... it seems unlikely.
posted by Sequence at 12:05 PM on December 14, 2015 [16 favorites]


All I know is that the world needs an all-Japanese whiteface version of The Mikado set in Victorian England.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:07 PM on December 14, 2015 [16 favorites]


I don't understand why someone as brilliant as Miranda is saying this. I mean, I suppose I do--casting a white guy as MLK is tacky as hell. And it would be a shame and a betrayal if folks "reclaim" Hamilton with white actors playing the founding fathers. I'm sure that it's the fear of such a sad outcome that drove him to defend a concept like authorial intent, which I thought had been killed off in 1967.

Because in no way does the author get to dictate anything more than the text on the page. It's not their job. Samuel Beckett doesn't get to say that Vladimir and Estragon can't be women, and Shakespeare doesn't get to say that Juliet has to be played by a young man. They wrote it, it's brilliant, their job is done.

That's why plays have directors--people who understand the cultural and historical context and who use text in order to make original art.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 12:15 PM on December 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


That's why plays have directors--people who understand the cultural and historical context and who use text in order to make original art.

I can assure you, a vast majority of directors I have had experience with do not fit this description. I have seen more good plays ruined by self-appointed visionary directors than seen plays ruined by anything else.
posted by maxsparber at 12:25 PM on December 14, 2015 [11 favorites]


Because in no way does the author get to dictate anything more than the text on the page.

I do not believe this to be true. All scripts have character breakdowns. And any changes made have to be accepted by the author or the author's estate.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:25 PM on December 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


I am knee deep in the Chernow book, and every time the words "Hercules Mulligan" appear on the page, I picture Okieriete Onaodowan. And like, a generation of kids is going to grow up doing the same thing.

I saw a post on Tumblr by someone surprised to learn that Alexandre Dumas was black. Maybe years from now, someone will read about the historical Hercules Mulligan and be surprised that he was white. (Although his slave Cato was not.)
posted by Rangi at 12:26 PM on December 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


My husband found this article about casting for the opera Otello interesting, while it pissed me off because of Tommasini's remark about how maybe it's time to see what a white soprano could do with the role of Bess in Porgy & Bess. As i explained it to my sweetie (fortuitous timing, because shortly afterwards it became relevant for one of the MeTa racism threads):

It's a common experience for non-whites in our society to experience what WEB DuBois called a "double consciousness" -- key quote from this is " the reason why Blacks traditionally have a better understanding of whites than the reverse is because of this 'two-ness' lived and felt by Black Americans. In other words, upon coming to the realization of being Black and what that has historically meant in America (or arguably presently means in America), Black people have long known how to operate in two Americas— one that is white and one that is Black."

meaning that in many dimensions, we have a better understanding of white perspectives than whites do, because of our lower-status position in this society. it is a survival skill to understand and anticipate the assumptions, expectations, and needs of higher-status people (who, because of their higher status, can fuck your life up good if you make them mad). Same dynamic works for women (lower status, generally speaking) relating to men (higher status). Yes, this can get more complicated with eg wealthy white woman relating to poor black man, in which case you would look at context, because the power dynamics shift depending on context.

Conversely, most white people (or, men generally) have had no incentive WHATSOEVER to understand or anticipate the assumptions, expectations, or needs of non-white people (or, women generally).

So yeah, there's a good chance random Afr-American singers could play a "white" role, as far as having experience putting themselves, mentally and emotionally, into those varieties of shoes. A random white singer trying to play Porgy or Bess? .... The presumption, it burns. Jesus Christ. Yes, some individual white people are thoughtful and have read their Afr-Am history and listened for decades to a variety of non-white opinions on racial issues, and have learned how to put down their egos and defensiveness, enough to have spent a few years listening to how variety of African Americans experience the world, thinking on it, and empathizing with it. Some white singer like that, sure, they MIGHT be able to play Porgy or Bess. You know how rare they are? And someone like that would likely not be presumptuous enough to take away one of the few roles where being black would be normal, versus uncomfortably disruptive to the "normal character = white" mindset that your average white person doesn't even realize they have (white directors included).
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:36 PM on December 14, 2015 [22 favorites]


Sequence: "We have to know Othello like the back of our hands before we can turn the hand around and draw on the front."

^ I love this.
posted by jillithd at 12:43 PM on December 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


And, having read all the original links now, from the Jesus in India link,
At least 95% of the available roles in any given season are open to white people. It’s embarrassing to watch white people throw a tantrum over the remaining 5%. We’re not entitled to everything just because we want it.
A-fucking-men.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:49 PM on December 14, 2015 [30 favorites]


Because in no way does the author get to dictate anything more than the text on the page.

I do not believe this to be true. All scripts have character breakdowns.
Written in text. On a page.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:50 PM on December 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Written in text. On a page.

Sure, fine. I'm not sure what your point is though.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:52 PM on December 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


There are plenty of plays by long-dead playwrights whose work is in the public domain for all of us directors to futz with to our futzing hearts content. I've directed Shakespeare for years and, speaking only for myself, my work is better if I start from a point of "What was Shakespeare trying to say and who was he trying to say it to." Even if I end up going off on some creative tangent, I always try to come back to "what was he trying to communicate."

If I'm directing a play that's still under copyright, though, I have a legal responsibility to respect authorial intent as much as is possible. This means anything the playwright has specified, I need to do. I have freedom to make decisions within the boundaries created by the playwright - and sometimes those boundaries are broad and something they're specific. If I don't like it, I can do another play.

My take on being a director is that I'm the prism that focuses the work of all the other artists (actors, designers, crew, and even playwrights) at the same target and that that target is a shared understanding of how this particular play is going to be staged. I don't need to make huge creative changes to the play to show off my alleged brilliance - my creative work is almost always getting everyone to tell the same story.

...and that story was created by the playwright. If you want to overrule the writer and do your own thing, why not just write your own play?

tl;dr - Miranda, as usual, is right.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:55 PM on December 14, 2015 [13 favorites]


If for some reason you are feeling obliged to do a majority-white version of Hamilton (high school production in a very white school?), the clear solution is gender-swapping all the characters. I don't think that a professional production should go majority-white (though gender swapping along with the expected non-white leads would be neat), though.

(I can't offhand find the link, but Miranda has said he would not object to a gender-swapped version.)
posted by jeather at 12:58 PM on December 14, 2015 [7 favorites]


If you pay the filler, you call the tune. And if you are both the fiddler and the person paying, you sure can call the tune. But the real argument has to do with the past, when the writer is not alive to say what he wants.

You can make Othello white if you want. But then do you make all others Black? And, if not, it is Othello's difference that is important to understanding the play. note: he is not an African but a Moor, darker that white, but from north Africa. Eugene O'neil's Emperor Jones? Showboat? The blackness of the figure is important in the play, and the authors in each never suggested it could be otherwise.
As I understand Miranda's Hamilton, it is not key that actors be white and black but that good actors play roles. Ethnicity is unimportant in the play.
posted by Postroad at 12:59 PM on December 14, 2015


Sure, fine. I'm not sure what your point is though.
Authorial intent might win, lose, or not even play the game depending on what, exactly, you consider to be the "text" of the play. The argument will run in circles forever because no one can agree on this.
posted by LogicalDash at 1:07 PM on December 14, 2015


As I understand Miranda's Hamilton, it is not key that actors be white and black but that good actors play roles. Ethnicity is unimportant in the play.

It seemed to be important to the author, who specified that every role but King George be played by a non-white in the casting notice.
posted by maxsparber at 1:07 PM on December 14, 2015 [10 favorites]


There are ensemble members of Hamilton who are white. But I do not believe those actors understudy any of the named roles.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:11 PM on December 14, 2015


Especially as the portrayal of George III in Hamilton is a rare glaring weak point in Hamilton

Have you seen Hamilton?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:38 PM on December 14, 2015 [14 favorites]


So in specifying that George III must be Caucasian in the casting, Miranda is also showing that he think it's satisfying to associating Caucasians/whiteness symbolically with a simplistic cartoonish evil.

oh dear white men are being caricatured for the evil things we have done

how terrible a fate this is
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:42 PM on December 14, 2015 [43 favorites]


So in specifying that George III must be Caucasian in the casting, Miranda is also showing that he think it's satisfying to associating Caucasians/whiteness symbolically with a simplistic cartoonish evil.

I have no problem with that.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:42 PM on December 14, 2015 [9 favorites]


Actually, the fiendish scientist Yakub made us supremely satisfying to associate with simplistic cartoonish evil.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:58 PM on December 14, 2015 [7 favorites]


the colonists' struggle that led to the War of Independence was really with dominant factions in British Parliament rather than the King himself; obviously that makes the political storytelling more complex but, well, since Hamilton is meant to be so sophisticated... why not then a song or two for Lord North and Charles James Fox...?

It's a show about Alexander Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, American politics. If the show included a song (or two?) from every possibly relevant political figure it'd be 15 hours long. I can't even remember if there was much about these two in the 800 page book the musical is based on. A couple of funny songs from King George--and having him played by the only white actor--are a pretty brilliant shorthand.
posted by Mavri at 2:04 PM on December 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


I was taken aback by Miranda coming down so hard on the supremacy of authorial intent, since I'm usually a total "the author is dead" person. But yeah, in this case, it matters what you're considering part of the text. If casting notices/character breakdowns count as part of the text, then you can't "the author is dead" your way out of them. Words mean things. There's a certain amount of the author's intent that we all have to fundamentally accept in analysis and interpretation because words mean things.
posted by yasaman at 2:08 PM on December 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


The problem with ethnic casting in older plays is that the connotations of ethnicity aren't the same as when they were written. I think it would be interesting and perhaps useful to switch them out in some cases, to subvert the audience's understanding of the prejudice directed against them. For instance, you could have Othello played by an Orthodox Jew, and Shylock played by a Black actor. I don't know how you'd handle the forced conversion at the end, though.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:18 PM on December 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anyway, while it would be tempting to turn this into another thread about Hamilton, I thought what he said about the Dramatists Guild compared to other mediums was really interesting. It sounds like the strength of authorial intent depends on the union agreements, and I guess, the licensing agreements? I would be interested to know more about this if anyone here is knowledgeable.
posted by Mavri at 2:31 PM on December 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have a number of times seen authorial intent held up as very important in theater - of course that may be because it was a playwright speaking - which is rather contrary to what I would have expected to be the norm but seems (to me as somebody who doesn't know much about theater) like it may be? Or that the playwright actually has a great deal of legal say in adaptations during their lifetime? A white MLK is offensive for reasons that don't need to involve the author at all. The thing about Hamilton is that while it has a historical subject, the casting, choice of musical form, etc. *are* speaking to the present moment/other parts of American history. So I don't think you could do a*good* Hamilton - one that captures everything there - without a substantially non-white cast. Years from now maybe it will mean something different (or maybe not).
posted by atoxyl at 2:35 PM on December 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Here is the possible next Miranda musical, with Miranda and Colbert performing BUTTONS
posted by Postroad at 2:39 PM on December 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


the colonists' struggle that led to the War of Independence was really with dominant factions in British Parliament rather than the King himself; obviously that makes the political storytelling more complex but, well, since Hamilton is meant to be so sophisticated... why not then a song or two for Lord North and Charles James Fox...?

It's not meant to be a balanced history lesson, it's a musical primarily about Alexander Hamilton (hence the title). It also simplifies the debate over a national bank, ignores Aaron Burr's failed run for governor of New York that more closely led to his duel with Hamilton, and other such alterations of history. This is for dramatic effect, not out of some political agenda.

(I mean, there's definitely an anti-slavery agenda in its choice of what to emphasize, and details like King George's claimed ownership of his American subjects, but that's not a bad thing.)
posted by Rangi at 3:28 PM on December 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


It sounds like the strength of authorial intent depends on the union agreements, and I guess, the licensing agreements?

It's rooted in legal precedent. When you license a play for production, you're signing up to stage the whole thing as written—without alterations. If you want to cut a scene for time, cast against race, swap dialog, etc.*, you need to seek explicit permission from the playwright. If you don't seek permission, and the playwright finds out about your changes, then they're entirely within their rights to withdraw your license, which is what happened with the Jesus in India case.

(*In practice, directors do that shit all the time, while playwrights either don't find out or let it slide. But when disputes do happen, the writers have the final say.)
posted by Iridic at 3:33 PM on December 14, 2015 [4 favorites]




roomthreeseventeen: "And like, a generation of kids is going to grow up doing the same thing. So that's a win."

My four-year-old burst into tears when he found out historical Thomas Jefferson doesn't look like Daveed Diggs.

I thought LMM made some really perceptive points that we should think about it differently when it's a professional production, where the author's intent matters a lot and the pro theater has a responsibility to attempt a production that's faithful to the main ideas of the text (which may include the races of the cast); and when it's a high school production where kids are LEARNING and getting a chance to play characters they might not otherwise play and that young black actors get a shot at parts that would always (in the "real world") go to white actors and young white actors can play parts that are traditionally black and so forth, and that there is real educational value to that both dramatically and culturally. And that as you progress from high school to college to community theater to professional theater, you have more and more responsibility to present an artistically honest and coherent production that honors the authorial intent w/r/t race -- and certainly more and more capacity to do so when you're paying people.

Having gone to a high school where we put on Jesus Christ Superstar where Jesus was Jewish, Mary Magdalene was Korean, Peter was Indian, and Caiaphas was Chinese, this seems spot on. It'd be pretty strange as a major stage production in a professional market, and you'd have to raise a lot of questions about what you were trying to do with the casting, but in a high school production? You're just trying to give talented kids the chance to play showy parts and you're casting from among the 30 kids who can sing well enough to do it, and nobody cares, they're just there to see their kids!

Bwithh: "So in specifying that George III must be Caucasian in the casting, Miranda is also showing that he think it's satisfying to associating Caucasians/whiteness symbolically with a simplistic cartoonish evil."

I ... think it's more a comment about European colonialism, rather than white people being evil?

Joe in Australia: "Shylock played by a Black actor. I don't know how you'd handle the forced conversion at the end, though."

I saw Shylock played by a (Christian) German at the Globe, who was playing it "in light of the Holocaust," it said in his actor notes in the program, and OH GOD. Merchant of Venice is, IMHO, kind-of a bullshit play to put on in the modern era anyway because it depends on a) outdated stereotypes that modern audiences don't really get and b) Shylock being an over-the-top Bugs Bunny villain, and both of those things are problematic in a post-Holocaust world. But you know what REALLY ruins a play? Watching a dude try to work out his cultural guilt about Germans slaughtering Jews BY PLAYING SHYLOCK, mostly by the acting method of "crying while delivering lines so he could not be understood."

Also, is everyone else REALLY HOPING that Queen Elizabeth goes to see Hamilton when it goes to the West End, and offers her opinion on George III's numbers? I might literally die of joy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:16 PM on December 14, 2015 [8 favorites]


Having gone to a high school where we put on Jesus Christ Superstar where Jesus was Jewish, Mary Magdalene was Korean, Peter was Indian, and Caiaphas was Chinese, this seems spot on

uh but Jesus actually was Jewish so
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:21 PM on December 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


feckless fecal fear mongering: "uh but Jesus actually was Jewish so"

Yeah, I guess my point was more, some Jewish parents are gonna be cool with their sons playing Jesus Christ in a play, and others not so much, probably not too many Jewish high school students get cast as Jesus.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:39 PM on December 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


There is some interesting stuff being said about this question, and I think we also have a long way to go, to be sure.

To speak to the point about licensing, etc.—I want to quote a letter from the Dramatists Guild to the director in Texas who took it upon himself to rewrite parts of Hands on a Hardbody (rearranging scenes and songs, re-cutting the show):
Playwrights in America own their work. They have sacrificed much for this privilege, including the important right that directors enjoy, to unionize and collectively bargain for the terms of their employment. Dramatists have chosen, instead, to own their words and their music and to have approval over productions of their work. It is a right the Guild has maintained for theater writers since 1926. And it is a right that authors have incorporated into their contracts with publishers. As a consequence, all publishers license shows with a standard contractual prohibition that prevents producers and their employees (like directors) from changing the show without the author’s permission. [source]
I've had it described to me this way:

Think about TV writers or screenwriters. They work under terms which say, when you write a script for a studio, they own it, and they can do whatever they want with it. The hope is that you are also being paid fairly for your work as a writer. (And you can unionize; remember the Writer's Guild of America strikes?)

Theatre writers (playwrights, composers, lyricists, etc.) historically chose a different path: no union, a much smaller chance at financial/career stability, but we get to maintain ownership of our work.

For those reasons (and I will admit I am totally biased, being a dramatist myself) I don't get onboard with the "author is dead" argument when it comes to this stuff. A lot of playwrights don't specify race in their plays because they want to leave casting decisions open to their conversations with a director; but some do. I don't have a fully-formed position on this particular case—I want diversity! I want new perspectives on stories!— but I do feel fiercely, viscerally protective of the right for playwrights to dictate (at least SOME of) the terms on which their material will be shown.
posted by Zephyrial at 4:44 PM on December 14, 2015 [12 favorites]


Daveed Diggs has this really moving quote, I think it was from 60 Minutes, about how being in this play and playing Thomas Jefferson is the first time he's really felt ownership of American history, as an American. That is really powerful.

That said, it doesn't really sound here like Lin-Manuel is entirely ruling out the possibility of some white members of future professional production casts. I heard an interview with him where he basically said that anyone in a lead role (except King George) had to be able to rap really, really well. I do think it was really smart of him to make most of the original cast people of color, because it sends a strong message about what this show is, and because it's just so damn exciting and refreshing to see.

I also love what he said about kids in high school productions having a rare chance to play any kind of part, before the adult theater/show business world tries to slot them into narrow "types." As a former teen theater geek, this is what I love about him: he's here for the kids, and if Hamilton makes more kids interested in theater, and makes it so that kids who aren't white have more roles available to them, that's wonderful.

There are ensemble members of Hamilton who are white. But I do not believe those actors understudy any of the named roles.

According to this, several of the (seemingly) white ensemble members are understudies, but I know each of the main parts has several understudies and I have no idea how it's ordered.
posted by lunasol at 5:26 PM on December 14, 2015


Good for Lin-Manuel for being firm and thoughtful about this. The casting of POC in the roles of historical white figures is a HUGE part of the play, it's not an incidental nit-picky thing. Erasing that would significantly change the subtext of the entire piece; you might as well start inserting your own songs, and I bet most people would agree that would not be a okay.

Frankly I think we white people just need to get over it. The vast majority of roles in theater are given to us already. Once all the other plays on Broadway start using real color-blind casting, you can ask Hamilton about doing so. Until then we can all back off.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:43 PM on December 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


My four-year-old burst into tears when he found out historical Thomas Jefferson doesn't look like Daveed Diggs.

Oh man, he's going to have even more reasons to cry when he gets older and can actually read about some of Jefferson's shenanigans.

What it really boils down to is, white people have had more social power that they've used to basically mow over everyone else. It's been deemed Not Okay to have white people take over say, MLK in the theater, but it's okay to go the other way around so as to grant people of color more power for a change. Having white people stampede in and take over roles intended for people of color is just more white people being assholes, but the other way around is fighting the power and giving opportunities to people who had theirs limited solely based on race.

Hamilton is kind of a mindfuck in that regard since it's making sure that people who were historically all white can't be played by white people. And it would probably not go over well if any production did this for real because it'd be white people taking away power from people of color yet a-bloody-gain. Heck, I vaguely pondered doing a Hamilton costume and then thought, "I can't do that, I'm white and that would be evil of me," and then the irony of that kinda punched me in the face.

But the territory has been marked, specifically in the licensing, and people shouldn't mess with that. It doesn't go over well. Also, white people have been being assholes to everyone else for a billion years, so isn't it time to...you know, not do that?
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:43 PM on December 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


"Hamilton is kind of a mindfuck in that regard since it's making sure that people who were historically all white can't be played by white people."

One of the things Hamilton does, and does really well, is address the mythological, universal aspects of the Founding Fathers and the American story -- without losing sight of the specifics of history. Because the Founders were actual dudes who lived specific lives and had flaws as titanic as their gifts, but they are also mythological demigods who gave the world democratically-elected self-government of the people, by the people, for the people, who function within a mythological story of the founding of the United States that gives us a coherent self-understanding and continues to animate American politics, culture, and discourse. Casting Hamilton with minorities forcibly pushes the Founding Fathers into that universal, mythological space, which counterintuitively makes them more vibrant to modern audiences. While you could have a few white actors playing in a majority-minority cast without harming that (IMO), casting an all-white or majority-white Hamilton dramatically undermines the universality of the play and the universality of the Founding Fathers themselves, and what the play has to say about the universality of American ideals.

Which makes it sort-of ironic that I expect a lot of people whose objection would be, "But the Founding Fathers were white! They were historically white! They should be played by white guys!" would also be people who feel very strongly about the greatness and universality of American ideals. But a sort of privileged blindness to racial issues (ironically combined with a strong sense of the need for representation! -- of white people) prevents them from seeing how a majority-minority cast renders Hamilton's Founding Fathers FAR, FAR more universal than anything else could have.

(I have similar ideas about how the use of American vernacular music, specifically hip-hop but also including New Orleans jazz etc., gives the musical both specificity and universality by locating it within a living, evolving American experiment, but they're a bit off the main topic here and you can probably fill them in yourself.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:20 PM on December 14, 2015 [15 favorites]


Authorial intent wins. Period.

I have a hard time supporting that principal. To me, the situation of a hypothetical white author who insisted that his characters should be played by white actors of color is significantly different than an author who insists that some characters should be played by actors of color. In other words, authorial intent doesn't strike me as settling ethical issues without reference to other factors.
posted by layceepee at 7:34 PM on December 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Samuel Beckett doesn't get to say that Vladimir and Estragon can't be women

You say that, but the anime series Shirobako still had one episode pulled and altered to remove references to an all-woman version of Waiting for Godot (and not the references to classic robot show Space Runaway Ideon as is originally assumed in the article.)
posted by MartinWisse at 12:04 AM on December 15, 2015


Hamilton is a slang word for the male sex organ which is consistently used by a friend of mine, so the sentence 'online commenters who have cited Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton as a justification for their position in the debate' is probably a lot funnier to me than it aught to be.

Carry on.
posted by asok at 5:56 AM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


since Hamilton is meant to be so sophisticated... why not then a song or two for Lord North and Charles James Fox...?

You seem like a very smart dude, you should write those songs
posted by Greg Nog at 6:49 AM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


A white MLK is offensive for reasons that don't need to involve the author at all.

This came up when we talked about this before, but I think it's worth making sure it's mentioned here for posterity if for nothing else, so everybody's on the same page: The play where a white man was cast as MLK, that casting decision was made by a black director. That's not to say I agree with it, because I don't, but it wasn't some weird racism thing or "color-blind" casting. The role was dual cast and there were nights where the part was played by a black actor and nights where it was played by a white actor. It was an experiment. I don't think it was appropriate, but a lot of why I don't think it's appropriate is that it was using a play that wasn't intended or ready for that kind of experimentation.
posted by Sequence at 9:28 AM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


the Mountaintop link:
It’s true that Oatman only fell halfway off the "turn-up" truck; the white actor was indeed sharing the role with another black actor. But the fact that this mystery actor has remained nameless further demonstrates the erasure of the black body in this experiment. Even on the school newspaper’s website, only the white actor’s name is listed.
i don't think anyone brought it up yet but there ended up being zero black MLKs:
"At Kent State, Oatman originally double cast the King role, with white actor Robert Branch for three performances and a black actor for five shows. When more than one black actor dropped out due to family and other personal issues, Branch, whom Oatman described as one of the best actors he’s ever seen, assumed all eight performances."
katori hall's response:
"…When I spoke to Michael Oatman via phone October 27th, he never disclosed the fact that the black actor never went on, even when I questioned the validity of his social experiment of seeing if the 'words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds.'

I learned that the black actor never went on when Oatman was interviewed Friday night by Don Lemon on CNN. Surprise, surprise.

Many journalists in the media have portrayed me as outraged (The Wrap, NY Daily News, Washington Times, Playbill). I have supposedly 'fumed'. I have supposedly 'slammed.' Shout out to TIME and TheRoot.com who used much more honest language. Yes, I criticized the casting choice and yes I explained my position why….

Yes, it is unfortunate that in 2015, a young black female artist who demands that her work be respected and puts forth a valid and articulate response is characterized as merely throwing a temper tantrum."
(just so people don't make assumptions, oatman is black.)
posted by twist my arm at 9:30 AM on December 15, 2015


oh hai sequence!

That's not to say I agree with it, because I don't, but it wasn't some weird racism thing or "color-blind" casting.

yeah i think that's important to note as well. however, the fact that while talking to hall he didn't mention that the white actor played every show, he didn't get permission from her in the first place, and this is his response to the criticism:
"I think artists get too touchy about this kind of stuff," he said. "I think whenever you make a controversial decision like this you have to allow the audience their space to react as they’re going to react. That’s what theater is about."
i dunno. why did he stick to the experiment explanation when he spoke to hall? it ends up looking like he was trying to hide what actually happened and that's not cool. stand up for your controversial decision then, man. "touchy" isn't great either.
posted by twist my arm at 9:44 AM on December 15, 2015


it's an interesting quote because it's easy to read as him being touchy and not giving space for the audience to have their reaction...
posted by nadawi at 10:21 AM on December 15, 2015




I've been turning over a bunch of thoughts about one particular way that Hamilton's casting is significant, which basically boils down to: This is a play that uses history to talk about historiography, and one of its major themes is the idea that history is written by the victors. That recurring theme-- "who lives, who dies, who tells your story?" is a reminder that once we're gone, other people will take control of our narratives, our legacies, and change how history looks at us.

So we see Hamilton's enemies try to undo his work after his death; we see Eliza preserve his legacy in part because she outlives damn near everyone. And we see a cast of black and brown actors telling us this, and just by being on that stage they also tell us that they are the victors, because they are the ones writing the history. They're telling us that the America Hamilton tried to build has become an America where they can put themselves into the narrative. That subtext, for me, is a vital part of the show, and just as important as the actual text.
posted by nonasuch at 10:35 AM on December 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


To me, the situation of a hypothetical white author who insisted that his characters should be played by white actors of color is significantly different than an author who insists that some characters should be played by actors of color.

I don't really think it's that different. If our hypothetical white author is insisting that this character be played by a white actor, then he is insisting that the race of this character matters and that the character needs to be white. Much of the problem with diversity in casting isn't in these specified roles, but in a blanket assumption of white-as-default; we assume the whiteness of unspecified characters and that characters of color are of color on purpose, that you need a reason to make a character other than white. A script in which a character is white on purpose doesn't bug me at all, especially since the text is then going to be about that to some greater or lesser degree.

So, for example, it's important in Dances with Wolves that the main character be a white guy, because the movie's about a white guy doing some stuff with some people who aren't white. It's not important in Space Dances With Wolves Avatar for the main character to be a white guy, because the movie's about an unspecified human doing some stuff with some people who aren't humans, but the main character is a white guy anyway because aversive racism etc. The problem isn't when some characters need to be white because it's important to the story (although there is a parallel discussion about why we can't seem to get enough of white people stories), the problem is with all those nonspecific roles of fathers and daughters and down-and-out salespeople and whatever, where people go, "well, we cast a white guy for the husband, so we need a white lady for the wife" or "I didn't believe in the authority of the people of color who auditioned, so the warden's going to be played by some nondescript white dude, because he just has that je ne supremacy quoi about him".
posted by Errant at 2:31 PM on December 15, 2015 [11 favorites]


So, for example, it's important in Dances with Wolves that the main character be a white guy, because the movie's about a white guy doing some stuff with some people who aren't white.

Just because the character is a white guy doesn't mean the actor playing them needs to be a white guy.

Otherwise, you would need to have a white guy playing Hamilton.
posted by layceepee at 7:14 PM on December 15, 2015


You're missing the entire point of Hamilton's casting, there.

The lead in DWW needs to be white because otherwise the story makes no sense. Unless you were to do a remake wherein the race of the lead is other than white in order to make a really specific point about history. Which is what they're doing with Hamilton.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:24 PM on December 15, 2015


The lead in DWW needs to be white because otherwise the story makes no sense. .

AgaIn, the lead character in DWW may need to be white for the story to make sense. That doesn't mean the lead actor needs to be white. Would a re-make of Dances With Wolves with Vin Diesel cast in the Kevin Costner role be incoherent?
posted by layceepee at 9:02 PM on December 15, 2015


White or appear to be, yes. Again, unless there's a major point about history being made, yes that character needs to be a white man, played by a white man (or someone who reads as white to audiences), because there's an awful lot of baggage and subtext there. I really think you're not understanding why Hamilton is cast the way it is; several people in this thread have explained it much better than I possibly could.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:34 PM on December 15, 2015


White or appear to be, yes.

Well, that "or appear to be" could cover a lot of ground. While White Chicks is a loathsome movie, it demonstrates that makeup can go a long way in enabling portrayals of white people by people who do not ordinarily appear to be white.

I really think you're not understanding why Hamilton is cast the way it is

I don't think I'm missing what you think I'm missing. From my understanding, the casting in Hamilton is not to suggest that the character of Hamilton was African-American; the point is what happens when a person of color performs the role of a white person.

I agree that in Hamilton casting with a disparity between the ethnicity of the character and the actor is done for a very particular reason. I just think that's one of many different reasons someone might cast a person of color as a white character. In the other example, Diesel in Dances With Wolves, it's that a person of color could convincingly portray white person.

White actors have portrayed people of color routinely, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. It doesn't seem to me to be the case that there is something special about white people that suggests they can only be believably portrayed in movies and plays by people who are white.
posted by layceepee at 4:48 AM on December 16, 2015


I don't think I'm missing what you think I'm missing. From my understanding, the casting in Hamilton is not to suggest that the character of Hamilton was African-American; the point is what happens when a person of color performs the role of a white person.

It seems to me that maybe you are missing the point a little bit, that the point is instead to present people of color and their cultures as equally legitimate stakeholders in and generators of this country's origin story. Javier Munoz is performing the character of Hamilton, but he's fairly emphatically not "playing white".

It doesn't seem to me to be the case that there is something special about white people that suggests they can only be believably portrayed in movies and plays by people who are white.

That isn't the point I was making, and the career of Keanu Reeves suggests that it isn't a point which needs to be made in any event. If Dances with Wolves were a play, the playwright would have every legitimate right to insist on a racially-specific casting of the main character because it is important to their vision of the play, the metaplot, and the context. They would have that right even if you believe a passing actor of color would do just as well or would not materially change the imagery. You don't have to agree that the character's whiteness is as important as the playwright thinks it is, or that the playwright is accurate in their estimation of the need for a racially-specific actor, and those can be subjects for your equally legitimate criticism, but that playwright has the same right to intentionality as Lin-Manuel Miranda has when he insists that none of the main characters in Hamilton be played by white people.

Put another way, the lily-whiteness of Kevin Costner contributes to the overall effect of a "white savior among the noble savages" story. Now, to address your question, maybe if Vin Diesel or Keanu Reeves had played that part originally, that wouldn't be as strong a subtext, and it may be that that subtext is an unintentional emergence of the casting as it happened. It might not have mattered to them whether the actor was white or white-passing. They might not have meant to make a white man's burden movie, in which case, oopsie. But if that subtext is intentional, if it did matter to them, then the creators have the authority to make choices which best develop their vision, and they have that authority even if you think, as I do, that that vision sucks. This question isn't about whether people of color can play white roles, it's about whether it's legitimate or ethical for a playwright to insist on a specific presentation of their work, and yeah, I think it is. If the writer only ever writes roles for white people, never writes people of color, and insists that only white people can ever appear in their things, they're probably making pretty garbage art, but it's still their art to throw in the trash if they want.

This scenario is very, very rarely the problem when it comes to representational diversity. "That character has to be white because the story needs it" is a different statement than "That character has to be white because otherwise there will be too many people of color in the show and no one will watch it". The latter is not a statement of authorial intent.
posted by Errant at 1:21 PM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Javier Munoz is performing the character of Hamilton, but he's fairly emphatically not "playing white".

He's not "playing white," but he's playing a white character , as I understand it. The play is based on a (non-fiction) biography of an actual historic figure. Manuel could have written a play based on the life of an African-American from the Revolutionary War era, but I think his choice to use a white character as the subject was as considered as his choice to use a person of color as the actor.

That character has to be white because the story needs it" is a different statement than "That character has to be white because otherwise there will be too many people of color in the show and no one will watch it". The latter is not a statement of authorial intent.

Well, the former may or may not be a statement of authorial intent, depending on whether it's the author making that argument. And I have a hard time understanding how the latter is not a statement of authorial intent if the author says it is, which is why I have a hard time accepting authorial intent as an ethical standard. If the author says "My intention is to perpetuate the racist standards of casting which have been the status quo for many years in American theater," I don't see any ethically compelling reason to accept that.
posted by layceepee at 3:22 PM on December 16, 2015


I wasn't really sold at first but actually I think I would kill for a Dances With Wolves remake featuring Marlon Wayans in his White Chicks makeup playing Lieutenant Dunbar
posted by Greg Nog at 5:45 AM on December 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


The author of this piece, Howard Sherman, has become sort of an unofficial videographer of the Ham4Ham shows, which he discusses here.
posted by Mavri at 8:43 AM on December 21, 2015


Thanks, Mavri! I have wondered about Howard Sherman but didn't even make the connection between the Ham4Ham guy and this essay. What a mensch.

Also, his favorite Ham4Ham is also mine. I sometimes watch that one just to perk up my mood, it is so delightful.
posted by lunasol at 5:56 AM on December 22, 2015


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