Back in January, the Plano Children’s Theatre in Plano, TX decided to put on a production of Hairspray. The decided to do it however without any black children. None. Not one. Their explanation for doing a play whose main premise is about racism and segregation without any black children?
At intermission, I spoke to Darrell Rodenbaugh, president of PCT’s board of directors. My question was “Why do you have white kids playing black characters?”
“Well, should we deny these kids the opportunity to do a fun show?” he said. “We’d paid for the rights to the show six months in advance. We couldn’t cancel it.”
Didn’t any black kids audition? No, said Rodenbaugh, it’s hard to recruit black kids to PCT because there aren’t that many in Plano. (African-Americans make up less than 8 percent of the Plano, Texas, population of 259,841, according to the most recent census numbers.)
So why do a show with black characters in it if you know going in that you won’t have any black kids to play them?Rodenbaugh had several answers about how much the kids wanted to do Hairspray, how they weren’t going to bow to “political correctness” and how “the parents expect this.”
They expect to see white kids playing black characters? “Yes,” said Rodenbaugh, who has kids in the cast of Hairspray, one of them playing Little Inez. He said PCT also did the musical Once on This Island with an all-white cast. (It’s an Ahrens and Flaherty show that’s basically Romeo and Juliet set in the French Antilles. It’s usually cast along racial lines, with black actors playing the peasants and Anglos playing the upper classes. There is a version of the show that removes references to skin color and makes the story about class differences. I don’t know if PCT did the latter.)
Rodenbaugh said they might do To Kill a Mockingbird with an all-white cast or Othello or The Wiz (three shows I mentioned to him that feature African-Americans either in prominent roles or as a majority of the cast). He said he saw nothing offensive or amiss about having no black actors in a show about racial segregation. I had to ask: Doesn’t having an all-white cast ignore the core message of Hairspray - you know, the message about how the black kids weren’t allowed to be on a show with white kids until brave little Tracy took a stand?
Rodenbaugh told me each young member of the PCT Hairspray cast had been asked to write a “report” about what the plot was about. “They’re learning a good lesson in this show,” he said.
I’m sure they are. I’m just not sure it’s the right lesson.
Now, I know a lot of y’all are gonna say “but he said no black kids auditioned!” Well, it’s interesting you bring that up. A little later in the article, we get this quote.
Later, I spoke by phone with Hairspray’s choreographer Darius-Anthony Robinson, an African-American who’s well known in the DFW professional musical theater community. He’s currently working in Casa Manana’s upcoming production of Rent. Robinson said when he went into rehearsals for PCT’s Hairspray, there were several black kids in the ensemble, but after a few days, they all dropped out for various reasons.
Hmmm… so we went from “no black kids auditioned” to “there were several black kids but they all dropped out.” Now isn’t that interesting. I’d really love to hear some of the reasons every single black child had to drop out. I’m sure it’d be very enlightening.
In order to put on an all white production of Hairspray they had to contact the rights holders, Musical Theatre International, and ask for permission. The one “good” thing about this was the use of blackface was strictly forbidden. If anyone puts on a production of Hairspray that features a white person in blackface MTI will fine them $13,000. (Oh and before you ask, yes, people have asked MTI if they could have white folks in blackface in the play. The answer has always been no.)
This definitely ranks on the top 15 list of the most egregious, unrepentant, and just straight up insulting displays of whitewashing I have ever seen. Here’s a protip for the masses, if your cast is all white, don’t do a play about racial segregation. You’ll never be able to pull it off in a “not racist” way.