in casting, diversity, race and representation

At North Shore Music Theatre, An Absence of Race, Ethnicity and Understanding Prevails

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It’s a bit hard to follow the thinking of Bill Hanney, the owner and producer at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts. Initially, it was hard because Hanney was silent, not responding to complaints – initiated by Lauren Villegas of Project Am I Right? – over the lack of Latinx casting in the company’s production Evita, which has no Latinx performers in principal roles and seemingly few in the entire cast.

The theatre’s first response came on the personal Facebook page of Kevin P. Hill, producing artistic director at North Shore, who wrote, in part:

North Shore Music Theatre understands that there has been concern expressed over the casting of our production of Evita. As the recipient of the Rosetta LeNoire Award for non-traditional casting, NSMT has always encouraged performers of all ethnicities to audition for our productions. The cast process for Evita was no different. We made extensive efforts to see as many diverse performers as possible and contracts were offered to many performers of diverse ethnicities, including Latino. Some contract offers were accepted, and others were not. Our talented cast and crew of Evita include professionals from diverse backgrounds – a reflection of NSMT’s vision.

In attempting a defense, Hill brandished an award from Actors Equity with which the theatre was honored in 2003 – under entirely different management. In fact, since NSMT had gone bankrupt in 2009, and Hanney’s ownership began only in 2010, Hill’s citing of an award received by a prior regime, one which carries the outdated terminology of “non-traditional” casting, was a weak public relations move.

Subsequently, in a Boston Globe feature on Constantine Maroulis, who was cast in the role of Che, we got some of the American Idol runner-up’s thoughts on race and ethnicity in casting. Maroulis declared that as part of a Greek American family, he had experienced racial bias, saying, “Even in the late ’70s, moving to an incredibly white suburb and affluent area, we were treated like terrorists at first . . . so I’m not exactly a loaf of Wonder Bread, either.” He went on to declare his thoughts on race in casting, saying, “I don’t think it’s an issue; I think people are trying to make it an issue.”

People were trying to make it an issue because of the long-standing exclusionary patterns when it comes to opportunities for people of color in theatre, film and television. People were making it an issue because while the original Evita in New York, 38 years ago, cast an Italian and a Jew in the roles of Latin Argentinians, the most recent revival featured Latinx actors in the two principal roles, demonstrating that the world has moved forward. North Shore’s casting of the production demonstrates that there’s still a way to go.

In an article in the Globe on September 11, Hanney spoke out for the first time regarding the casting issue. He told reporter Don Aucoin:

“I do colorblind casting,’’ said Hanney. “You have to be able to sing, dance, and act. That’s the criteria.’’

“If a Latino person came in and they were the best, they’d be in my show,’’ he asserted. “We found the right people. Our focus was not to find a Latino. It was to find the right Eva, Che, Peron, etc.”

Of course if the casting was, to use another phrase no longer in favor, truly color blind, then why didn’t Hanney manage to cast any actors of color in the few leading roles Evita offers. Shouldn’t the law of averages have managed to yield even one?  Is it possible that not a single talented person who is Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native or Latinx could possibly measure up to the white actors Hanney favored?

But as he followed up in conversation with the Boston public radio station WBUR, Hanney started to trip over his own reasoning:

“I don’t even — I never even thought about that — that type of casting.”

Unless a show calls for a specific ethnicity as in “Miss Saigon” or “Dreamgirls,” Hanney says, he doesn’t consider ethnicity at all.

“If it’s a dance show, which ‘Evita’ is, they have to dance it, they have to sing it, they act it. Those are the three most important things,” he says.

Well, despite its earliest casting, Evita does call for specific ethnicity. While Argentina’s current population is heavily influenced by Europeans who immigrated there a century ago, mixing with the indigenous population, Argentina is a Latinx country. So why wasn’t that taken into consideration? Some color conscious casting seemed called for – by the setting and text, even if it is a show created by two Englishmen who knew little of the actual locale of their show.

Hanney told Playbill that ethnicity in Evita is, as far as he is concerned, irrelevant. “There is no part of the story that speaks to events happening to her or not happening to her because of her race, nor are her actions motivated by her race.”

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Taking a deeper dive into the North Shore website, it’s possible to take a closer look at their pattern of casting, albeit on a limited basis. The site shows cast bios and headshots for the current and immediate past season – EvitaMary Poppins, West Side Story, Spamalot, Funny Girl, A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast, Young Frankenstein and The Music Man (bios and headshots aren’t available for tenth show, Singin’ in the Rain).

With the caveat that race and ethnicity aren’t possible to fully assess based solely on names, professional bios and images, a review of NSMT shows reveals that of 320 performers, including children, it appears that just 21 roles were played by people of color. That’s a total of 6.5% of all actors hired this year and last, a number that would drop by more than half were it not for West Side Story and Evita.

Compare this with the demographics of the area in which North Shore produces. According to data from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the city of Boston itself has a population that is 47% White, 22% Black, 18% Latinx, 9% Asian, 2% Mixed Race and 2% Other. Expand out to the greater Boston metro area, as defined by The Boston Foundation, and the population is 77% White, 10.1% Latinx, 8.3% Black and 7.2% Asian. Zoom in on Beverly itself, the community where NSMT is located – per, it is 90% White, 3.7% Latinx, 2% Asian, 1.3% Black, 1.3% Mixed Race, and less than 1% Other.

So no matter what yardstick one uses, North Shore Music Theatre only manages to achieve only slightly better than half of the racial mix in its overwhelmingly white town, let alone represent the greater Boston area from which it draws its audience. If NSMT was indeed blind to color, then it would at least match its own community, since presumably talent is distributed equally throughout all racial and ethnic communities. But North Shore, while it does do local casting, also casts out of New York, where there is no shortage of racially and ethnically diverse talent. So are their numbers a result of bias on the part of the theatre or an utter failure of their casting mechanisms? That’s a question with which one hopes they’re willing to grapple. But the only explanation for the failure to match up to their color blind rhetoric lies in there somewhere.

If North Shore were a not-for-profit, the pressures of granting bodies – foundations, corporations and government agencies – might force their hand. But presumably so long as they’re selling sufficient tickets to operate, owner and producer Bill Hanney only answers to the box office. Consequently, he might do well to look at the some of the demographic studies linked earlier, because they show the same story that’s happening in metropolitan areas around the country: whites do not represent the majority of most major cities and soon will not represent the majority of the population of America overall. If he hides behind vague commitments to colorblind casting which aren’t even borne out in his actual casting, then perhaps he’ll gain his awakening on a wholly economic basis. After all, in order to sustain a theatregoing audience for his venue he needs to demonstrate that his seats are open and welcoming to all by proving it through the artists he puts on stage.

Note: because of the limited information on the North Shore website, fuller information on their casting during the Hanney era may yield different results. If North Shore wishes to share that information, data will be recalculated and this post will be revised accordingly.