Kelsey is a Chicago based producer, actor, writer, critic, and mixologist. An alum of Black Box Acting’s ACADEMY Program, Kelsey curates “The Newness,” a monthly salon of new work. They also work closely with Trans Voices Cabaret Chicago as well as Chicago Theatre Access Auditions. Follow them on Insta! @playsandpours, @kelseylooks
Pictured: Will Lidke and Kelly Felthous. Photo by Brett Beiner.
By Kelsey McGrath
Drury Lane has a casting problem.
And no matter how many times it’s pointed out, nothing is done about it.
Take LITTLE SHOPS OF HORRORS. *Ahem* For example.
It’s a musical that, in most productions, relegates actors of color to the stereotypical secondary roles of the doo-wop trio of street urchins and the off-stage voice of the singing plant. Does Drury Lane take advantage of the fact that it exists in a CHICAGO suburb and defy this questionable trope? Engaging with a community that advocates for inclusive and representative casting? A rich, theatrical hub FILLED with TALENTED and EXPERIENCED musical theatre actors of color?!
NOPE. NO, THEY DON’T.
Chiffon, Crystal, and Ronnette are played by the only performers of color seen on stage with another performer of color singing off stage for the voice of Audrey II. Yep. That’s what they decided to do.
To make matters worse, accomplished actor Stephen Allen Jr, seen multiple times on Porchlight, Paramount, and Griffin’s stages, is Seymour’s understudy. Even though Drury Lane had the resources to make a mindful, progressive decision with their casting, they elected to stick to questionable tradition, making their choices even more difficult for me to understand. Not to reduce Will Lidke, who is extremely talented and accomplished in his own right. That’s not this conversation.
While this may be considered “traditional” casting for LITTLE SHOP, it’s 2018. As a theatre community, Chicago is known to challenge casting conventions; if we’re telling a story that’s been done before and race isn’t a pivotal plot point, let’s advocate for inclusivity. Let’s defy “tradition.” There’s no reason for a LITTLE SHOP production to be cast along racial lines. Drury Lane’s recent production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” featured (again) a primarily white cast, with black bodies relegated to servitude. And again with “Crazy for You” in their 16/17 season – in an ensemble of twenty-seven, there were no black bodies on stage. Classic texts should not be cast “traditionally.” If anything, this is an opportunity to breathe new life into a well-known story, lifting up and reflecting on the intrinsic similarities of the human condition as theatre is meant to do.
As a critic, I’m tired of seeing primarily white bodies on the Drury Lane stage. When this playhouse is many folks’ only exposure to theatre, it consistently perpetuates ideas of “The Great White Way” and engages in polarized storytelling. Drury Lane is so close to Chicago and has the clout to spearhead change in musical theatre casting conventions. There is no excuse.
Theatre is LITERALLY fake. Cast INCLUSIVELY.
I’m tired of seeing these choices “justified” with the occasional “non traditionally cast” show (ie. 42nd Street in the 17/18 season) as a means to make amends. As an avid Chicago theatregoer, I’m tired of supporting an institution that refuses to advocate for its community’s talent and values.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is another excellently produced, yet entirely disappointing Drury Lane production. If you want to see the same old tired tropes, watch the movie instead; talk about why we need to defy “tradition.”