Hamilton's Casting Controversy
This is a repost from BCTR’s blog on April 13, 2016. Live & In Color used to be named Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat (BCTR).
by Nandita Shenoy
When Devanand Janki, Artistic Director of Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat, heard about the controversy surrounding the casting notice for Broadway hit “Hamilton,” he felt excited. Excited the uproar might start a conversation that he felt needed to be had. As social media lit up with opinions, he hoped event would energize the theater community to speak up about the tremendous inequity in casting along racial lines. As a seasoned Broadway performer himself, he has experienced first-hand how closed certain roles can be to actors of color. Even in 2016, there are unspoken understandings that certain leading roles on Broadway will never go to an actor of color, even when race is not germaine to the story. This understanding was one of the many reasons he started BCTR.
The “Hamilton” controversy did make him question how blatant he can be in the mission of his organization. When a show that champions multi-cultural actors to tell a quintessentially American story is taken to task for exclusion, he wonders how he can promote his vision of inclusion. When talking about BCTR with other theater people, he has been asked why he would want to “limit himself” to working only with artists of color. His answer is, “Why wouldn’t I want to engage with a segment of the population that is virtually ignored?” Janki’s dream is to have a company that is 80 to 90 percent comprised of people of color, but the recent hullabaloo does beg the question of whether diversity can legally be part of the mission?
In spite of the runaway success of “Hamilton,” the next Broadway season does not look particularly diverse. In fact, Forbes Magazine recently reported that the Tonys are even less diverse than the Oscars which were slammed for being #sowhite this year. Janki feels this homogeneity points to the obvious need for companies like the Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat. Its mission to develop new work for the stage that promotes and celebrates diversity is his personal way of giving back to his community of artists. While he may have felt powerless to create change as a performer, Janki does feel an obligation to create opportunities for other artists of color as a director and producer. For him, a diverse Broadway would look like what America looks like, with a wide range of ethnicities and races onstage and off and telling stories that move beyond the identity politics that seem to be required for stories of color to be produced. He also thinks that BCTR is only one aspect of a larger conversation about diversity. There may be no silver bullet to change the make-up of Broadway casting, but if BCTR can push the needle towards a more inclusive atmosphere, then he feels his mission will have been achieved.