Anjali Asokan Karia was a professional musical theater performer in Chicago and New York. She has been a K-5 music teacher for over 10 years and is an artistic associate with S.W.A.G. (Suburban West Actors Guild). S.W.A.G.'s Hamilton sing along event takes place on August 27th at Outtaspace in Berwyn. You can find more at https://www.facebook.com/swagtheater/
By Anjali Asokan Karia
I was walking down a quiet street on my way to grab a coffee, pick up my son, or another of the 100 menial tasks that fill my day in the summer when I saw a young tall African American man walking towards me on the sidewalk. And without hesitation, the first thought that came through my mind was, “He looks like a young George Washington”.
If you haven’t heard of HAMILTON this thought will make absolutely no sense to you, but if you’re reading an article called “How casting directors can change the world” you know HAMILTON However, I am not here to talk about the show of the century, though I could, for a really long time. Instead this thought, that came in an instant to my mind, made me reflect on how casting can affect a person, a community, and eventually the world.
My own feelings and thoughts about casting have been extremely varied during my years as a performer. I honestly think, that as a minority, I spent a lot of my time, trying not to think about it. I had a classically trained soprano voice with a look that directors would classify as “ethnic.” I was cast as Latina and African American (I’m South Asian-Sri Lankan to be specific) and in the ensembles of many excellent shows. I had to learn to belt and mix (which I don’t regret) because, especially early on, I was rarely cast in classical musical theater. Casting a South Asian as a Latina was about as far as most casting directors’ imaginations went. There aren’t many roles in musicals for South Asians specifically, so I resigned myself in the first stage of my career to playing “ethnic” roles.
When I was cast as Cinderella in INTO THE WOODS I was overjoyed. Not only for the role, but also that anyone could see me as Cinderella—why not? Cinderella isn’t even a real life person. Why can’t she be Sri Lankan or Kenyan or Chinese? A few years earlier, when I was the ugly stepsister in a children’s production of CINDERELLA, I was shocked that the kids would try to correct the Fairy Godmother when she said she was going to make Cinderella a pink dress (which was the color of the ballgown we had). The kids knew the dress was supposed to be blue because that’s all were exposed to—Disney’s Cinderella. I imagined a world where a casting director would purposely cast INTO THE WOODS with a globally diverse cast; where characters whose races weren’t specified in the script could be played by any race.
When I stopped performing as a career, I started teaching, and took a break from all my thoughts about casting…except that whenever I showed my students pictures of myself as Cinderella I marveled at the range of their reactions. Some students radiated pure joy seeing their teacher in a ball gown with a crown, while others simply said “You can’t be Cinderella.” Through the years, the “you can’t be Cinderellas” have become fewer and farther between. I thought my thoughts on casting were done…till I saw a young black boy and fashioned him to be George Washington.
This is the power of casting. Lin-Manuel Miranda and the creative team of HAMILTON’s purposeful casting has put the image of this wonderful group of minority actors in my mind as founding fathers. Stories have said that some students have thought, post-Hamilton, that Hamilton was Latino. Some are appalled by this thought, but not me. Is his race the most important thing we should remember about Hamilton? Miranda is saying emphatically “no!” If a student knows that Hamilton was the first Treasury Secretary of the United States, that he was the leader of the Federalist Party, that he wrote over half of the Federalist papers…aren’t these facts more important? Sure, knowing he was white would be a fact to know as well, but it would be maybe 100th on a list filled with other facts and ideas about him that shaped this nation. What is the essence of a character real or otherwise? Is it:
Male, Caucasian, 40-50, baritone/tenor, physically imposing figure
Male or Female, Authoritative, regal, aloof, aware of their place in history at all times…John Legend meets Mufasa…and like Aaliyah said [age] it’s nothing but a number
We have come to the point where there are token minorities in the ensembles of many more traditional musicals, but we can do better. RAGTIME is a story in the early 1900s steeped in race, so creative casting would not work. I think IN THE HEIGHTS should be cast with members of Latinx population because we are still at a time where opportunities for minorities are simply not there. I believe the controversy with Porchlight Theater occurred because of their desire to have “authentic casting”. A statement like this is a message to whatever community a show is featuring and cannot be taken lightly. But I feel HAMILTON brings us a different idea; one that can change the way we see our past, present and future.
Can casting directors change the world? Yes because they can change the way we look at the world. In this world of an “endless cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants” we need game changers. We need our minds expanded by casting—not our own narrow thinking confirmed. We need the “Alexander Hamiltons” of casting to “blow us all away.”