In light of the ongoing #OscarsSoWhite conversation, we sometimes forget that diversity issues affect more than film and television. For example, 2016 was a groundbreaking one for black actors on Broadway (more black actors won Tonys this year than won Oscars in the past nine), but that doesn’t mean that theater doesn't suffer from the very same dire race problem pretty much all forms of media do.
Since its inception in 2011, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) has been collecting data on the racial breakdown of actors hired for Broadway plays and musicals—an effort that was launched after Pun Bandhu, an award-winning actor, vented his frustration over constantly being denied stage roles. The AAPAC teamed up with Quartz this week to give us an in-depth report on just how much Broadway is dominated by white actors.
When it came to plays (which aren’t usually as successful as musicals), in the 2014-2015 season, white actors had 84.5% of the roles. Black actors had 11.8%, Asians took 4.5%, Latinx actors took 3.5 percent and the remaining .2 percent were played by “Other,” referring to Native American and Middle Eastern actors. Musicals were marginally better specifically for black actors—while white actors took 74% of the roles, black actors scored 17.7%. The rates of Asian, Latinx, and Other actors in musicals were the exact same as they were in plays.
Interestingly enough, there was a big uptick in Asian actors in the 2014-2015 season—but that was almost entirely based on the run of The King and I, which given that it’s about a woman living in Thailand, contained a lot of Asian actors. Of course the main character, Anna, is a white lady.
The report also includes a section about non-traditional casting—that is, the casting of women, POC, senior, and disabled actors in roles that are “neutral,” where race, gender, age, ability, etc. has no impact on the role. While it’s definitely part of the solution for this huge racial gap, non-traditional castings have actually dropped in recent years. In the 2011-2012 season, 12.22% of roles were cast non-traditionally. But last season, only 5.92% were.
In May 2016, Pun Bandhu, along with a handful of other influential Asian playwrights and actors, came together for a AAPAC-hosted forum Beyond Orientalism, discussing the need for the inclusion of Asian actors in stage productions as well as the discontinuation of whitewashing Asian roles. While the problem will certainly persist on stage and on the screen so long as white folks are the only people making casting decisions, tracking data like this helps move things forward.