The Arena Stage in Washington DC’s 2013 production of My Fair Lady stars actress Manna Nichols as Eliza Doolitte.
For her production, director Molly Smith set out to cast actors of color for the role of Eliza Doolittle (and her father, Alfred) from the start—adding additional depth to the musical’s existing themes of classism and sexism. To do so, she had her literary team do some research on Edwardian London’s racial and ethnic demographics. This nontraditional casting is a perfect historical fit.
After researching London in the time Edwardian Era and discovering the large pockets of Asian immigrants, the director concentrated on casting Asian-American actors for the roles.
“Anytime casting is done in a different way, it confronts the audience. We want the theatre to grab us and make us question our preconceptions,” said Smith. [source]
Nichols is of mixed race; her mom is Chinese American and her dad is part Native American and part white; the role of Eliza, a cockney-accented flower seller, has been traditionally played by white actresses in hundreds of productions, including by Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn.To prepare for the role, Nichols researched the era the show is set in and also studied George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.
When asked by a journalist from Washington City Paper about a racial “double standard” in her casting, Nichols said:
“No one ever questions the logic or the reality of a group of people singing and tap-dancing in the rain, but if a director casts an Asian person in a [typically white] role, people automatically question that choice.”
The production also decided to incorporate elements of steampunk into the costuming. (Less historically accurate than an Asian Eliza, but also awesome.) All in all, a creative and innovative take on a musical classic that deserves kudos.