February 1, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Being an Actor of Color at Cornell

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I’m confused. Why is a decidedly white English man portraying Michael Jackson in a new television movie entitled Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon later this month? Can anyone provide any insight? Maybe this is where you stop reading. Haven’t I been subjected to enough media about #Oscarssowhite, #Cornellsowhite, #WorldSOGODDAMNwhite already? you ask yourself. I understand; I’m tired of hearing about the ongoing whitewashing and racial inequity that unfurls itself in every sector of our society too. Thus, my plea is an honest one: Someone please tell me why Joseph Fiennes is playing Michael Jackson. Jackson had vitiligo, a chronic skin disorder that causes skin to lose its pigment. He wore makeup to even out his skin tone and may have undergone some procedures to lighten his skin. Appearance-wise, he looked somewhat white towards the end of his life. Maybe his looks were too confusing for the casting director of the film? After all, every single member of the same racial background should share the exact same skin tone, right? If this were indeed the case, any confusion one might have over the race Jackson identified as would be mollified by his own words. In a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Jackson stated: “Why would I want a white child to play me? I’m a black American. I’m proud to be a black American. I am proud of my race.  I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride in who I am, and dignity.” His thoughts on being cast by a white male were stated explicitly; yet, here we are.

Casting a white actor as a minority character is obviously not an isolated, or even infrequent, occurrence. But as much as we hear about this happening on a macro level, discussions about this and other racial contentions occurring at a micro level are rare. Thus, I began to wonder: What exactly is the racial climate in our own backyard? Namely, in Cornell University’s very own Theater community? I began to ask friends who identified as POC and are involved in Theater in some capacity at Cornell. Their names have been changed so as not to affect their future casting and theater experiences in the department.

My own theater experience at Cornell has luckily not been overshadowed by my race (at least to my knowledge), despite my ethnic diversity. Still, as a Puerto Rican, Lebanese and Irish actor, I know race and its external footprint on my face do have an impact on the roles I am considered for. Once at a summer acting program, my race was used to determine how “marketable” I would be in the entertainment industry. It was determined that I would be “hard to place” given I didn’t look like a “real, exotic Hispanic” or a  “typical white ingenue.” One of my peers has expressed similar frustrations, commenting that she is “used to typecast an ‘ethnic’ role only when there aren’t enough students of color in a cast to represent certain demographics.” She has been told she can “pass” for Caucasian because she looks just “‘other’ enough.” These observations culminate in her not usually being a primary choice in performances about Latinas. As a result, she faces an inner conflict of wanting “to be able to provide representation for other Latin Americans on stage,” but at the same time knowing that she’s “not necessarily the most capable of achieving that because of not looking like a traditional Latina.”

What happens to those actors of color whose race might seem less ambiguous? Ben expressed that minority representation at Cornell can go “one of two ways. When including POC in theater, the plays performed are either written specifically about the experience of being a POC and don’t extend far beyond that or tend to appropriate and make fun of race.” Kylie substantiates this claim by recounting her own experiences in a show a few years ago. The directors of the show were explicit that they were casting according to race. Kylie, an Asian female, was asked in a “coded” way to “be quieter,” and consequently, she felt that she was being asked to play the “stereotypical, token Asian.” She saw the character she was playing as one that transcends race, a fighter that strives to get what she wants by the end of the play. The director’s instructions for this strong-willed character to be played quietly simply because the actor portraying the character was Asian did not fit and eventually even the director realized this. Another actor currently feels that he “can’t ever be cast as major character in a Schwartz production that doesn’t resort to making caricatures or stereotypes of non-white people.” He attributes his feelings to “color conscious casting” and felt “strange watching a peer of his last semester succumb to a director’s instruction to become a parodied version of a Latino.”

Multiple students were uncomfortable with the Schwartz Center’s production of  Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding in Spring 2015. The play, written by a Spanish playwright, doesn’t necessarily call for Spanish actors. Nonetheless, the majority of its cast was white. Nick says that he “did not feel POC were represented in the play or that they were even reached out to before the casting decisions occurred,” and that it should have been a play where POC are “specifically called upon and wanted.” Matt remarked that, “In Blood Wedding, a play set in Spain, the Schwartz Center failed to point out that Spaniards don’t wear sombreros and that flamenco shouldn’t be bastardized or butchered. An effort should have been made to consider the authenticity of the culture presented on stage.”

Where does that leave us? First, with the knowledge that our very own theater community is far from post-racial. Not only do more diverse stories need to be told with proper dramaturgy and cultural sensitivity, but more diverse casting liberties need to be taken. While the reasoning behind certain casting decisions are never disclosed and therefore cannot be completely attributed to race, there should be an acknowledgement that race is a factor in them. As Kylie admitted, “If you were to tell me what someone who played Elizabeth Bennett looked like, I probably wouldn’t pick an Asian girl. That’s on me too.” Many of us are in fact guilty of picturing our heros and heroines canonically, but the importance of minority representation in theater and film goes beyond giving minorities the chance to perform. Art has the ability to change lives, to pave the way for social change and self-acceptance. Madison recalls watching Cinderella as a young girl and thinking, “Cinderella’s beautiful. I don’t look like her. I’m not pretty.” We all need people we can relate to, if only to discover that we belong. What a colossal feeling to think that a POC actor at Cornell could be the reason someone feels worthy or that their story and they themselves matter.


Gwen Aviles is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached [email protected].