This year was a monumental one for the Tony Awards in many ways. Broadway’s biggest night celebrated 70 years, and also made history in the best way possible.
Earlier this year, the Oscars faced international backlash for the complete lack of diversity in its acting categories. There was not a single person of color nominated in any of those categories. This caused a massive uproar in Hollywood and sparked a discussion among those in the industry, as well as viewers. The “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy was indicative of the bigger picture: Hollywood has a whitewashing problem. It’s an issue that dates back to the earliest days of the industry, when characters of Asian or African ethnicity were portrayed by white actors. Recent examples of whitewashing include the casting of Christian Bale and much of the cast of “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, Scarlett Johansson being cast as the lead in “Ghost In The Shell“ (a popular Japanese anime), and Rooney Mara being cast as Tiger Lily in “Pan”, among many others.
Another controversial example comes from the upcoming Marvel film “Doctor Strange”. The character of “The Ancient One” is an old man from the fictional Himalayan kingdom of ‘Kamar-Taj’, but white actress Tilda Swinton was cast in the role instead. Upon hearing the casting news, one would assume that the film would use prosthetics to make Swinton resemble the original character, as she is known for being a chameleon in her films. This would of course be practicing yellow face, a form of using makeup to make an actor look like someone of Asian descent, prominently used by Mickey Rooney in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. It also caused the Oscars to initiate radical reorganization of its voting body, the majority of which is made up of older white men.
Over on Broadway, things are drastically different. One great example is no less than 11-time Tony Award-winning musical HAMILTON. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda actively cast actors of color to play America’s founding fathers, because having a cast that reflects what America looks like today makes the story more relatable to viewers. And it’s true. In fact, what theatrical productions are doing with casting is far more than political correctness. Last year, the late Kyle Jean Baptiste was the first black actor to ever play Jean Valjean on Broadway, Norm Lewis also played the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, and Filipino-American actress Ali Ewoldt joins the cast of Phantom as Christine today.
In the West End, J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ cast black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger, which caused outrage among some fans. Rowling herself came to the defense of Dumezweni, stating that nowhere in the books is the character’s race mentioned. These productions aren’t only casting properly in terms of the character’s race, but they are pushing the envelope and casting actors of different races and sometimes, even different genders. Properly casting actors based on race when it is essential to the story, and casting actors based solely on talent when it is not, reflected back on the Tony Awards this year when, for the first time in seventy years, all four musical acting awards went to actors of color. Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. took home Leading Actor, while The Color Purple’s Cynthia Erivo bagged Leading Actress. Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs and Renée Elise Goldsberry were awarded with Featured Actor and Featured Actress, respectively.
History was made the other night, and while the theater continues to change the game, it also raises the stakes for Hollywood.