As theatre buffs know, there are two major musicals drawn from Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party, which debuted in New York within months of one another: the Michael John LaChiusa-George C. Wolfe version which played on Broadway in the spring of 2000, and Andrew Lippa’s version, which played Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club from February to April of that year. Drawn from the same source material, they inevitably have many roles in common.
One of the many roles shared by both shows is “Black,” first played by Taye Diggs in Lippa’s retelling of the story (and by Yancey Arias in the LaChiusa-Wolfe version). So there was significant pushback earlier this month when the Yale Dramatic Association, widely known as the Dramat, announced the cast for their fall production of the Lippa’s Wild Party, where the character is specifically identified as black. A white woman had been cast as Black.
The Dramat should not be confused with the Yale Repertory Theatre. The Rep is a professional company that also includes the work of Yale School of Drama graduate students onstage and off. The Dramat is an undergraduate club which actually predates the Rep by more than 50 years. While there is a great deal of undergraduate theatre at Yale, with many of the residential colleges each fostering their own dramatic groups, the Dramat, so far as student-run theatre at Yale goes, is perceived as the major player school-wide.
As reported by Joey Ye writing in the Yale Daily News, approximately 75 students auditioned for the Dramat’s Wild Party, with only nine students of color trying out. Two students of color were cast. While the Dramat’s club leaders indicated that they had done outreach to the performing communities of color at Yale, their efforts had limited success. Ye quoted the student producer saying that the Dramat had decided to proceed with the show, with a white female student as Black, after the director “re-visioned the entire show with the people we had in the room.”
Ye noted that the Dramat has only produced two works by artists of color in its history, one earlier this year and one in 1995. While that doesn’t speak to roles specifically requiring performers of color, or productions which may have cast students of color in roles traditionally played by white performers, it suggests, as students did in Ye’s initial report, that the Dramat has not historically been perceived as a group that embraced students of color.
On Tuesday, Ye reported again for the Yale Daily News about The Wild Party, writing that the Dramat had made the decision to reopen auditions and to recast the role of Black. Two other roles will also be recast, because two students chose to leave the production as a result of the uproar.
In a statement on the Dramat’s website, the student leaders of the group wrote, in part:
We also know that the circumstances surrounding casting represent a much larger problem, extending beyond this particular production and the Dramat as an organization. There are serious, systemic challenges to meaningful progress toward diversity and inclusion. Over the past week, members of the community have raised questions about effective forms of outreach, the audition room environment, the balance between pre-professional and educational programs, and the dispensing of information about auditions and opportunities for those outside of the theater community. These are difficult questions, and each merits its own in-depth discussion, which we are committed to pursuing in collaboration with the larger Yale community, as we all strive for a better, more inclusive space.
The standard contracts provided to student productions, as well as amateur and professional companies, typically contains language about making no changes to the gender or race of characters without prior permission from the licensing house on behalf of the authors. Drew Cohen, president of Music Theatre International, which represents The Wild Party, responded to an inquiry from Arts Integrity as to whether the company had played a role in the Dramat’s decision. While citing MTI’s policy of confidentiality regarding its customer communications, Cohen noted, “I do not know what prompted the group to hold new auditions.”
Contacted separately, author Andrew Lippa responded:
“I have had no hand in the casting at Yale (other than being the playwright!). I applaud these student producers’ efforts to recast their production per the character description in the script. I have always, and will always, support and defend the rights of living dramatic writers (and all plays still protected by copyright) in all casting decisions.
“I look forward to seeing (and celebrating) these students and their production of my show.”
The Yale Dramat has announced that their spring ’17 show will be Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915. The original cast at Soho Rep in 2012 included three black actors and three white actors, in Sibblies’s backstage exploration of racial roles in the creation of a play drawn from African history.
Update, September 22, 11:45 am: This post has been edited to more clearly reflect Lippa’s intent that the role of Black in his version is to be played by a black actor, as it has been in its original production and in the Encores Off-Center concert.
This post will be updated should there be significant further developments.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative and interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.