The Diversity Myth by Arielle Isack
In 2016, I had the privilege of seeing Ali Ewoldt perform the role of Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera. She was the first Asian-American actress to portray Christine, and as a Phantom fan of many years, I was especially excited by the diversity of its casting. I am by no means a musical theatre critic, but I thought Ewoldt did a wonderful job. She was an eminently convincing Christine, masterfully navigating her duality as an impressionable ingénue as well as a dramatic primadonna.
Having an Asian woman play Christine on musical theatre’s most esteemed stage was precisely the type of social justice that 2016 was comfortable with. We now refer to this time as the heyday of “identity politics,” a time when diversity was the banner of change, and casting an Asian woman to play Christine was remarkable because she was an Asian woman playing Christine.
Now it’s 2020, and the country has undergone a racial reckoning that vastly supersedes what happened in 2016. The threat of racism and police brutality has remained the same throughout all of American history, yet the tenor of the 2020 Black Lives Matter unrest evinces a sharp departure from the days of “identity politics”. This wave of civil disobedience has no interest in reforming extant structures. It advocates vigorously for more radical measures of restructuring. The more radical bent of our present day discourse is tantamount to a new envisioning of what equity might look like, beyond the narrow confines of identity politics and lukewarm diversity initiatives. Our theatres are closed and the crucial reflections happening in this strange interim should serve as a reminder that diversity in casting was never enough.
In September 2015, playwright Michael R. Jackson wrote an essay called “Unpacking “Diversity” in Musical Theatre. He saw that casting was the locus for all diversity efforts, noting that The Phantom of the Opera had also cast its first non-white Phantom ever just the year before. Like the logic of identity politics, the musical theatre world was only able to conceive of progress in terms of white roles and stories featuring more non-white people, citing the commercial payout the non-whites would receive as signals of their liberation. “[Diversity] assumes that nonwhite bodies need only be able to convincingly occupy traditionally white spaces without upsetting a carefully calibrated system of white supremacy. Or to put it in cruder terms, those nonwhite bodies need to be able to pass.”
Indeed, Ali Ewoldt passed fabulously as Christine Daae, a white woman whose character is basically a homage to white femininity. Christine moves through Phantom’s plot as a vessel of good intention and submissiveness, and only ever encounters the Phantom and his lustiness via his kidnapping and duplicity. Meanwhile, she is written to think he is her “angel of music,” never the murderous, shadowy figure that he is. Though Ewoldt’s accomplishment in landing this role is enormous and historical, the role she was put in as an Asian-American female soprano bears scrutiny. It signals that the apex of a non white person’s career, especially in entertainment, is the opportunity to perpetuate white people’s stories. Sitting in the audience, I remember thinking - Ali Ewoldt’s Asian features were hardly detectable under the wig of heavy brunette curls and light foundation which signaled Christine’s innocence, her inoffensiveness, her whiteness.
Diversity in musical theatre literally involves allowing non white people to play white roles. It is the “carefully calibrated system of white supremacy” that ultimately decides who is worthy of that ultimate privilege, the ability to inhabit a character unmarked by race for however many hours the production is.
Diversity has spun many myths in its seductive promises of equal opportunity: that racism ends as soon as there are fewer white people in the room, that approximating whiteness is the only vector for social progress, that an Asian woman getting to be white for a few hours is empowering. Buying into these myths has allowed an illusion of progress to conceal the steady pulse of racism that still girds all industries. Stories give us empathy and empathy changes people. Musical theatre is an exuberant and dramatic medium that exists to convey stories. It is in these stories that diversity is most sorely lacking. This particular junction of so many art forms—singing, dancing, acting—has immense potential for the narratives waiting to be brought to life. Only a radical expansion of the types of stories that are brought to the stage can hinder white supremacy in musical theatre. The next time you stand to applaud a white story with a diverse cast, ask yourself, what is this representation actually representing?
Arielle Isack is a recent graduate of Columbia University. She majored in English and is trying to write for the rest of her life.