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Color-Coded Language in Casting Calls

Art: Olive Barros 2018/19

Theater is an institution long ensconced in the tradition of making the presence of whiteness hyper-visible and black representation invisible on stage. Most troubling is behind the curtain. Broadway theater claims to be inclusive of all racial and ethnic identities, but casting breakdowns for auditions continue to, albeit covertly, infer their preference to white over non-white actors. Color-coded casting is a restrictive measure to prevent actors of color from submitting for particular roles. Coding functions as a way to suggest age through descriptions like “classic-looking,” which means the actor auditioning should appear old, or level of attractiveness with descriptions like “approachable,” which means the actor should appear average-looking. Coding also functions as a double meaning- signally race or sexual orientation with descriptions like “street-wise female” or “strong female,” which means the character’s sexuality is non-heterosexual or the actor should appear Black or Latina. In casting, color-coded language must be covert.

Actors believe their job is to tell the stories of all humans, but why are white actors continually over-represented on stage? A study by Actor’s Equity (AEA), the national labor union representing professional stage actors and stage managers, found that diversity and inclusion are a problem in Broadway and production tours. Over three years, 77% of stage management contracts went to white AEA members, and only six contracts went to Black AEA members. Black stage managers who were women were paid 6% less than their white and Black male colleagues. White actors make up the majority of all onstage contracts-65% in plays and 67% in musicals. White actors receive higher pay in their contractual salaries, while Black actors report salaries 10% lower than the average principal in a play. Perhaps, these casting disparities are further driven by the fact that 79% of plays are written by white writers, and 85.5% of shows are directed by white directors. It seems racism corrodes the actor’s chances from the start when they attempt to submit for work on casting call sites like Actor’s Access. Color-coded language is foundational in the acting industry to restrict choice for non-white actors and to maintain its preference for white actors.

Ethnicity serves as the first filter when an actor is choosing parts for which to audition. Actor’s Access is an online portal where talent agents, managers, and actors submit headshots and resumes for auditions and casting calls. From a drop-down list, one must choose “all that apply” to their ethnic identity before receiving character descriptions filtered to match them. In my own Actor’s Access profile, blue check marks appear next to “white,” “Hispanic,” and “Mediterranean” under the header: Ethnic Appearance. The number of castings an actor receives each day are based on these blue checkmarks. According to old emails, I received 18 notifications in one day for casting calls, of which the majority wrote “open to all ethnicities.” Some wrote “Hispanic-looking (light-complected),” “blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian,” “brunette or dark-haired,” and “Jewish woman.” I would then choose headshots to submit for each project that I felt highlighted these ethnic or appearance-specific descriptions.

One casting that I received in 2017 was for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s production of Grease. The same cast of 16 actors would double for the cruise line’s original production, Columbus, The Musical. This casting is significant because it represents the type of castings that white actors, like myself, submit to without question but give non-white actors pause. Upon further inspection, the color-coded language in the Grease and Columbus, The Musical casting works to include white actors and exclude non-white actors, unless subtle descriptions suggest an exception. As I clicked through these old email notifications from Actor’s Access, it seems the demands and descriptions in the casting call for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s productions of these two productions have stayed the same over the years.

We can assume that the Grease cast is majority white because of the imagery from the famous film. A light blond and blue-eyed Olivia Newton-John pressing her school books against her pastel cardigan as Sandy or John Travolta combing his hair as Danny Zuko or the pink ladies who don blond wigs as Rizzo belts “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee.” We can also assume this by using Richard Dyer’s notion that the absence of race represents whiteness. In “The Matter of Whiteness,” Dyer writes, “As long as race is something only applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people." Because race is rendered invisible in the Grease casting, and white actors are conditioned to believe that race is delineated only for non-white roles, white actors are more likely to submit.

It seems that not only should Black characters in all-white casts arrive in the story as magical, but their talent must be exemplary...

We can also assume that this cast will be majority white because the breakdown explicitly states that all principles and ensemble members from Grease will double as the cast of the cruise’s original production of Columbus, The Musical. For example, the casting call states that the actor cast in the role of Sonny in Grease will need to play the characters Christopher Columbus, Pirate King, and Lead Shark in Columbus, The Musical. The actor cast as Kenickie will need to serve as that actor’s understudy and reproduce the same “punk” look and “rock star” vocal style of Sonny. In turn, he will also need to understudy the same three roles in Columbus, The Musical. The actor cast as Roger in Grease will play Marvin Columbus, and the actor cast as Doody will need to serve as his understudy as Marvin Columbus, the cousin of Christopher, who we know to be white. The constant replication of whiteness through the methods of casting gives white actors more opportunities to work.

White people get to be represented in ways beyond race; whiteness gets to be gendered, sexualized, and classed. In other words, those in the position of whiteness get to be made fully human. The absence of a specification of whiteness indicates that white is the race as opposed to a race. We see this in the contrasting language for Patty's role and beneath her in the casting call, Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama, which typifies the ways invisible whiteness and visible blackness in character breakdowns appear. Patty receives a robust description where we learn that she is “catty,” “sure of herself,” “athletic,” “attractive,” and full of “enthusiasm,” but Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama are not afforded the same kind of character description. Instead, we learn about the demands of the role. Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama must be able to “sing and command the stage,” perform a “20-minute self-contained cabaret act,” and possess a voice that can both be “soulful” and “over-the-top Jamaican.” Instead of receiving insight into her character, Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama is raced and therefore made less human.

Linda Waugh studies the nature of marked-unmarked relations in phonology and semantics in “Marked and unmarked: the choice between unequal in a semiotic structure” and distinguishes what makes something “marked” or narrowly specified to something and “unmarked” or nonspecific. Waugh examines the complexity of the subset of unmarked terms through a dialectic between the ‘zero interpretation’ and the ‘minus interpretation’. She describes the ‘zero interpretation’ or non-signalization of x as the “interpretation that is the most general, widest, and most broad (…) where the presence or absence of the unit of information is for the most part irrelevant” to the ‘minus interpretation’ or signalization of x as the “interpretation that signals the absence of the unit of information associated with the marked term; it is the direct contradictory of the marked term." Waugh’s characterizations of both interpretations offer us insight into understanding the racial coding of the Grease casting.

Black actors have a small pool of musicals from which they can choose, and they are often songs about the hardship of Black life.

In this instance, the unmarked ‘zero interpretation’ of the casting is the absence of race because it is neither suggested nor assigned to each character. “Caucasian” or otherwise is usually demarcated next to the character name on castings, but there is no specific race for characters like Danny Zuko or Sandy. Waugh writes that the ‘zero-interpretation’ neither affirms nor denies the marked term but is simply non-focused and nonspecialized, giving little reference to the marked term (the character). Therefore, we can believe at first glance that this casting call is open to all races because it is missing general information. The ‘minus interpretation”, however, directly contrasts with the marked term (the character), and it is the coded descriptors that signal the absence of information in relation to the marked term.

Sandy is described as “like Sandra Dee of the Gidget movies,” who is famously known for her blond hair. Vince is described as a “typical ‘teen audience’ disc jockey,’ and Patty is described as a ‘typical cheerleader at a middle-class American high school” who can be “catty, but in an all-American Girl sort of way.” These descriptions fill in the marked term's missing information because their coded descriptions indicate specific white ethnic identities. We can infer that Sandy is white and blond if she is based on Sandra Dee- a famous blond, white actress. We can infer that both Vince and Patty are white based on words like “typical” and “all-American” and “middle-class”- based on our knowledge of race during the 1950s when Grease takes place. We know that whites predominantly made up the middle class, disc jockeys hired to play at schools would play for white teen audiences because schools were likely segregated and that the term "all-American" has the subtext that one is free of ethnic or racial mixing. In the 1950s, to be “all-American” meant to be non-raced and, therefore, white.

We can also infer that Patty and others are “all-American” white because only three characters' ethnicity types are delineated: Sonny and Rizzo in Grease and Bahama Mama in Columbus, The Musical. Sonny is described as “Italian-looking” with “shiny black hair and dark, oily skin,” and Rizzo is described as, a “thin Italian” who is “tough” and “outspoken.” Bahama Mama is described as “soulful” and needs to perform an “over-the-top Jamaican accent.” By delineating Sonny and Rizzo’s ethnicity and its stereotypes and Bahama Mama’s specific dialect as Jamaican, the casting call highlights, in subtext, the characters’ differences from “all-American” whiteness. By inspecting both unmarked interpretations related to the marked term (the character), we can see how people of color would hesitate to submit for any role other than those clearly marked as appropriate for someone non-white or less-white. The language is color-coded in that it indicates a preference for white performers.

The white actor has only seen their race as invisible and is focused on what parts are suited for them.

White actors feel they can submit to all roles. They are more likely to submit to roles that are “marked,” “unmarked,” or those for which the casting call notes “open to all ethnicities.” This particular coding suggests that non-white actors will be considered, but “all”-means any white actor can also submit. “Open to all ethnicities” is a catch-all that encourages white actors to explore the diversity of their appearance and appropriate race-specific characteristics. At theatre conservatory, my acting teachers and mentors, most of whom were white, encouraged me to think broadly in terms of my ethnic identity so that a white Italian girl like me with dark hair and a Latin name might be considered for more than just “white” roles. I was told that I appeared ethnically ambiguous, which gave me the confidence to choose not only my own ethnic identity: white and Mediterranean, but Hispanic, Mixed Ethnicity, Eastern European, etc. I was told to add ethnic monologues to my repertoire, learn Spanish, and choose Puerto-Rican in my dialect class. I willingly abided until Latino dramas, and musicals eventually dwindled, and productions were back to casting mostly white-specific roles. With a change of hair color and a few adjustments to my repertoire, I was now re-branding myself as white, and if I was lucky, I could be seen as WASP white.

As a white actress, I never felt that any role was outside of my reach. I believed I was special and could safely perform songs as Maria, a Puerto-Rican, in West Side Story, and the following week as Clara Johnson, a southern WASP, in The Light in the Piazza. For example, the casting call I mentioned above that called for a “Hispanic-looking (light-complected)” woman also called for the “blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian” woman in the same casting call notification. I submitted to both. Because of my proximity to whiteness, I felt comfortable submitting for the Scandinavian, and because the Hispanic role was delineated as “light-complected.” Whiteness gave me status, and I benefitted from its accompanying privilege.

In “Whiteness as Property,” Cheryl Harris writes of her Black grandmother’s “passing” or presenting herself as white at her retail job in 1930’s Chicago. She describes her grandmother’s experience as “self-annihilation” in order to survive among the white employees and her constant shift from invisibility (as a passing white woman) to visibility (a Black woman living the black experience at home) each day. Crossing the color line was one way to gain upward mobility for Black people and is a well-known feature of the United States, which is structured on white supremacy and racial subordination. For Hariss’ grandmother, “Becoming white meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges” and “the status of being white [has] become a valuable asset that whites sought to protect and that those who passed sought to attain”. By including whites in the “open to all ethnicities'' category, whiteness remains included and therefore protected. Because an overwhelming number of casting directors, writers, directors, and producers are white, they are more likely to privilege white actors. My whiteness was indeed a way to access privileges and, therefore, allowed me the ability to pass as ethnicities different from my own. Unlike Harris' grandmother, I never had to defend my whiteness or racial performance.

White actors make up the majority of all onstage contracts-65% in plays and 67% in musicals. White actors receive higher pay in their contractual salaries, while Black actors report salaries 10% lower than the average principal in a play.

Harris writes, “the fundamental precept of whiteness-the core of its value- is its exclusivity,” and the concept of affirmative action could challenge the “protectable property interest in whiteness”, which allows for identity and property to allow for the right to exclude. I viewed these roles-white or non-white- as my property, and the system, invested in whiteness, protected me from the consequences of performing race. My decision to make my whiteness visible or invisible was a method to thrive in a business where very few make it, but Harris' grandmother's decision to make her blackness visible or invisible was a method of survival. By allowing white actors to engage in racial performance through casting calls, the message to non-white actors is that their race is no match to whiteness. “Open to all ethnicities” casting calls make non-white actors barely visible.

In her book, White Fragility, Robin D’Angelo writes about her experience helping corporations address privilege and racism through diversity training. In the chapter ‘Racial Triggers for White people,” she suggests that the workplace may be one of the few spaces where white people are forced to examine their racial realities, and their whiteness is challenged. Similar to casting calls, what helps to insulate whiteness in corporate culture is the color-coded language in multicultural training courses. They use descriptors like “urban” and “disadvantaged” to denote black people but omit words like “over-advantaged’ or “privileged” for white people.

D’Angelo argues that by making whiteness invisible, racist perspectives and images are reinscribed and, as a result, support “the comfortable illusion that race and its problems are what “they” have, not us." The actress hired to play Miss Lynch will also play the role of Bahama Mama in Columbus, The Musical, both of whom are meant to be ethnic. D’Angelo might interpret the descriptions of Miss Lynch as “old maid,” her name Bahama Mama, her “Over-the-top Jamaican accent’ and “soulful” sound as a reinforcement of racist images and perspectives through language. Together these words that describe a woman of older age, of African descent, and a soulful singing voice, represent a Mammy-like figure from the Jim Crow era. Mammy was a popular anti-black caricature who was often depicted as the source of comfort to the white family and cared for the family’s children.

The Mammy stereotype has transmuted into the “Magical Negro” trope or “Black Magical Character” in literature, film, and theatre. We can identify this trope through famous characters like Morpheus in The Matrix, Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, or John Coffey in The Green Mile- all of whom exhibit magical powers and support the white protagonist. In “The Power of Black Magic: The Magical Negro and White Salvation in Film,” Cerise L. Glenn and Landra J. Cunningham describe the magical negro’s role: to assist the white character, help them to discover their spirituality, and offer them wisdom to solve their dilemma. The magical negro often appears as the only lead Black character in a predominately white cast and uses their magic to help guide the white character, not to help themselves.

“Open to all ethnicities” casting calls make non-white actors barely visible.

This winter, Dolly Parton’s holiday Netflix musical, Christmas on the Square, portrayed two magical negro characters to support the lead played by a white actor, Christine Baranski. I couldn’t help but see the symmetry between Parton’s story and the roles of Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama. In Parton’s film, Jenifer Lewis, who is Black, tries to knock sense into the Scrooge-like Baranski while styling her hair. In the song “Queen of Mean,” Lewis tells Baranski she can relax and let her hair down because they are girlfriends but scolds her to “stop being so greedy.” In another scene, Baranski’s character is soothed by a little Black girl behind a bar who offers her whiskey and listens to her problems. Baranski says she’s too young to work behind the bar, to which the little girl responds, “I’m an old soul.” The two then break into a duet where they sing the line “Life is not a fairytale.” The little Black girl not only gives space to Baranski’s white woman’s struggle, but she comforts her and, in turn, softens her. I can’t remember seeing Lewis or the little girl again with Baranski.

It appears Bahama Mama meets all the criteria that Glenn and Cunningham enunciate in their study on the magical negro. She seems to be the only Black character in an all-white cast, and her soulful voice, like the little girl behind the bar, suggests she is there to offer wisdom. Like Lewis, who is the only Black female soloist with her song “Queen of Mean,” Miss Lynch must “command the stage” performing a “20-minute self-contained cabaret act.” It seems that not only should Black characters in all-white casts arrive in the story as magical, but their talent must be exemplary as if they must earn their right to take up space on the stage. In this way, D’Angelo would likely interpret the color-coded language of Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama as a way to underline racist stereotypes: making non-white people visible, which further distances them from whiteness. The consistent use of white characters healing through their “magical negro” in film and theater reinforces D’Angelo’s idea that race is an issue for “them” (Black people), not “us” (white people). For white people, this enshrouds them further in the mystery of their own whiteness.

In “Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination,” bell hooks writes about the long history of white minds expressing interest in representations of blackness but little interest in how their whiteness is perceived by the black imagination- by “the other.” She calls this the “absence of recognition," which is a way to continue white imperialist racial domination. She describes discussions in her classroom, which bring to light the disparity between the black and white experience. Her white students are left in disbelief that black students have observed representations of whiteness with a critical eye. White students are amazed by this because they subscribe to the universal subjectivity that we’re all alike and have “deep emotional investment in the myth of “sameness”. As mentioned earlier, the Grease casting call has remained unchanged. hooks might argue that the reason for leaving the call unmodified for so long is a symptom of the “absence of recognition.” The white actor has only seen their race as invisible and is focused on what parts are suited for them. Therefore, characters like Patty and others who are white and Miss Lynch / Bahama Mama, who is the only character delineated by race-after all, Bahama is in her name-fail to recognize that these descriptions might be limiting to actors of color. The white actor orients their perspective through the white gaze, while the black actor may not bring this to casting’s attention because they have learned it is best not to challenge but accept the white gaze.

The white actor understands "typical" to mean themselves, and because they have always been "typical" in spaces, they assume they are included.

Similarly, in the “Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Sarah Ahmed examines the function of whiteness in institutions and how spaces are oriented around white bodies. White actors connect to language like “typical” and “all-American” to describe Patty’s overall disposition. It is also this same language that discourages non-white actors from submitting. Ahmed writes that comfort in space orients white bodies, but comfort in language has the same effect. Yes, it is the white body’s ease in space that gives them the ability “to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape," but in the case of the casting, words like “typical” and “all-American” give the white body permission to extend spaces because these words confirm Patty’s whiteness.

In Amira Rose Davis’ essay “Black Cheerleaders and a Long History of Protest,” it’s clear that who was once considered a “typical cheerleader” was white. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black girls fought to join cheerleading teams and challenged integration by criticizing the all-white squads' cheer styles. To join “typical” white cheer teams, Black girls had to assimilate- abandoning the Black cheer aesthetic that included stomping, clapping, and rhythmic movements. What makes Patty white is her extending white spaces (like her high school or cheer team), which have already taken shape. What makes Patty white to the auditioning white actor is in the meaning of “typical." The white actor understands "typical" to mean themselves, and because they have always been "typical" in spaces, they assume they are included.

Color-coded language is foundational in the acting industry to restrict choice for non-white actors and to maintain its preference for white actors.

Conversely, as Ahmed points out, Black bodies inhabit white spaces too but are often made invisible. But when the non-white body stands out, it becomes hyper-visible and disorients these white institutional worlds. It is the black body when it is viewed out of place that reconfirms a space's whiteness. As stated earlier, the demands on the actor and the descriptions of the character auditioning for Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama differ from Patty because her ethnicity is delineated, her character description is limited, and she is the only actor who should possess a “soulful” voice. Because the casting breakdown’s descriptions of Miss Lynch/Bahama Mama contrast with Patty-whose white body helps to orient and extend white spaces, the actor submitting for the role can infer Miss Lynch/ Bahama Mama is the only non-white character. If Bahama Mama were described like Patty as a “typical cheerleader” or like Sandy as “Sandra Dee from the Gidget movies” or like Rizzo as a “thin Italian”-which is a white ethnicity that shows up more than once in the cruise line’s breakdown-she would extend space. Her unique character descriptions make her hyper-visible and out of place and, therefore, for the non-white actor looking to submit for the role, excluded.

Last month, on a car ride home from seeing a socially distant movie in New Jersey with my friend, we reminisced about what we could or could not perform in our conservatory training. I laughed about being forced to perform “Mambo Italiano” in our class on standards from the 1930s and 1940s and often being asked to sing “Unusual Way” as the lovelorn Italian actress, Claudia Nardi, from Maury Yeston’s Nine. But then I remembered all the music from West Side Story and Carousel and Les Miserables that had helped me develop my soprano despite some parts deviating from my ethnicity. My friend, who is Black, reminded me that he was often kept from singing parts because they had always been resigned for white actors. There would be no need to learn the music because he wouldn’t be able to audition for them. Black actors have a small pool of musicals from which they can choose, and they are often songs about the hardship of Black life. These are the reasons my friend, who is an extraordinarily talented tap dancer and singer, left theater behind.

White people get to be represented in ways beyond race; whiteness gets to be gendered, sexualized, and classed.

I ask my question again: if actors believe their job is to tell the stories of all humans, why are white actors continually over-represented on stage? Color-coded language is an effect of power structures put into place by casting directors, stage directors, and producers who have found covert ways to communicate what roles are accessible to whom and which are not. The creative team listed on the 2017 Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s casting call for Grease is entirely white. Grease's casting call has remained unchanged because the language continues to be framed through the white gaze- the absence of recognition allows for exclusionary language to continue and maintain white dominance in the theater. Who is responsible for fixing this problem? It may be young people who have helped sites like Actor’s Access improve their use of gender-inclusive language. However, who is responsible for eliminating the limitations that color-coded language creates and the careers it ultimately helps to suppress seems obvious but uncertain.

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