by Eva Branson (Contributing Writer)
The Yale Dramatic Association (the Dramat) faced controversy recently over their casting of Sarah Chapin ’17, a white woman, in the role of Mr. Black, traditionally played by a Black man, in their fall mainstage The Wild Party. Because this decision was met with anger, on September 16th the Dramat announced their intention to recast the role of Mr. Black, as well as the roles of two other actors who had since left the show. The final casting decision, released on the morning of September 20th, casts Kenyon Duncan ’18, a Black man, as Mr. Black.
According to his character description, Mr. Black is, “Strong, handsome,and poised without being posed. An enigmatic loner. Protective…. African-American.” Of all the characters, Mr. Black is the only one for whom a race is specified. In the Off-Broadway premiere, Taye Diggs, a Black man, was cast to play the role.
The show’s producer, Jill Carrera ’17, has stated that the Dramat chose Wild Party because of all shows nominated, it had the most potential for diverse casting in respect to race, gender, and sexuality. The Dramat also hoped that the show would allow the Yale community to discuss sex, party culture, and relationships.
For both their fall and spring mainstages, the Dramat brings in a professional team of designers to conceptualize the show. This year’s director, Zi Alikhan, initially wanted to cast entirely people of color except for a single white woman. Zi is the founder of the BASiC Theatre Project, a NY-based organization that works to foster the use of theater as a tool for social change, and much of his work has looked to reinterpret classic texts to make them relevant to today’s audience.
Carrera reached out to 30 people of color in a cappella groups or whom she’d seen in previous musical productions—or who were just friends of friends—and asked them to audition for the show. Despite this outreach, Carrera noted she was not “able to get the number of people in the room to realize the director’s first vision.” After the initial auditions in which 9 actors of color auditioned (and 7 were called back) out of a total of 75 auditionees, Zi went back to New York to re-conceive the show. His new conception focused on love between two women, and thus, Chapin was cast as the show’s lead love interest, Mr. Black. Two people of color were cast in the original decision: Nickolas Brooks ’17 as Eddie the Thug and Madison Cupp-Enyard ’20 as Jackie.
Hershel Holiday ’18, reflected that, after casting Chapin in the role, there was, “no easy way out of the situation short of an honest reflection. The only [response that could] show the Dramat’s ‘commitment’ to racially cognizant theater-making [would be] a recasting or a cancellation of the show.” In an interview via email, Holiday also commented on his own experiences being tokenized as a black actor in his first show with the Dramat, Rocky Horror Picture Show. In Rocky, Holiday was one of two black performers among a cast of 16, who were asked to operate as a single unit, twins, despite the rest of the ensemble having unique personalities. Because of this experience Holiday (along with other Dramat members) was unsurprised when the Dramat initially made its casting decision. He didn’t, however, realize that “it would [become] as visible and widely-discussed as this present scandal.”
After discussions on campus, the Dramat announced its decision to recast the role of Mr. Black, pushing rehearsals and design schedules back two weeks. According to the statement, released on Friday, September 16th, the choice was “made in an effort to continue to promote progress towards a more diverse and inclusive theater community.” The statement also draws attention to the systematic problems within the theater community at Yale, which resulted in few Black men auditioning for the show in the first place, ostensibly leading to the Dramat’s original casting decision.
The recast only considered Black performers for the role of Mr. Black, so to encourage more Black actors to audition, Carrera said the Dramat board reached out to dance groups and non-Singing Group Council singing groups and choirs, and to freshmen through their Freshman Counselors. In addition to Chapin, two other actors stepped down from their roles, which were recast as well.
According to Carrera, efforts for future shows will be more widespread and will occur much earlier in the process to avoid last-minute cast changes. When asked what efforts the Dramat will make in the future to encourage diversity in casting, Hannah Worscheh ‘17, said the first priority is in selecting inclusive shows but, “beyond show selection, [the Dramat plans] to start conversations with the larger Yale theater community and the University about what more can be done to provide opportunities for artistic training and growth generally. Ultimately, while [the Dramat] may not have all of the answers now, we are constantly striving toward a more diverse, inclusive community, and we hope that others will join us in trying to get closer to that goal.”
Assistant Director for The Wild Party Isabel Mendia ’18 remarked that, “when [she] applied to work on [The] Wild Party, it was because [she] was inspired by Zi and his vision for a show about chaos, love, and diversity. But, it’s an unfortunate fact that the mainstream theater scene is not the one in which most performers of color feel like they have a space, and one thoughtfully chosen mainstage is not going to change that.”
Haley Mitchell-Adams ’18, was called back for the role of Mr. Black in the initial cycle of auditions, and similarly commented that “the recasting felt like the Dramat was walking a fine line between representation and tokenization.”
The final casting decision, released on the morning of September 20th, casts Kenyon Duncan ’18, a black man, as Mr. Black. David Townley ’20 and Jillian Kravatz ’17 have been cast as the missing roles of Oscar and Nadine, respectively.
The Dramat’s statement also includes a reminder about their other shows featuring writers, directors, and casts of color, namely the two Fall Exes, The Colored Museum and Architecture of Rain. The mainstage, The Wild Party, will go up November 9th-12th.