‘Hamilton’ Producers Aren’t Discriminating — They’re More Honest Than Hollywood

A month ago, Workforce employment law columnist and blogger Jon Hyman wrote in his “Practical Employer” blog that the producers for Broadway’s “Hamilton” could not claim race as a “bona fide occupational qualification” when sending a casting call out for nonwhite actors. He was right that they can’t claim race as a BFOQ, but he neglected the reason they should be praised, not condemned, for their practice.

I read the post after seeing the show at Richard Rodgers Theater in New York. Hyman admitted in his first paragraph that he doesn’t get the show or why it’s the “greatest thing to come to Broadway in the last few decades,” but I can declare right now: I’m a Hamilhead and have been since the album dropped last September. I’m also a theater geek, so when I say it really is the greatest thing to come to Broadway in the last few decades, I recognize that iconic musicals like “Rent,” “Avenue Q,” “Wicked”and “Hamilton”writer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s own “In the Heights” are included in that timeframe.

But don’t take my word for it — just look at the show’s record-breaking 16 Tony nominations.

Although I’m consciously biased, my “Hamilton” love is based on the very practice for which it’s being condemned. Miranda explained in a CBS Sunday Morning interview: It’s “the story of America ‘then’ told by America ‘now.’ It looks like America now.”

As a member of America “now,” I’m all in favor of seeing our population’s diversity echoed on the stage.

The lawyer who originally critiqued the show’s requirements, Randolph McLaughlin, said, “What if they put an ad out that said, ‘Whites only need apply? Why, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians would be outraged.’ ”

But show business has always said “Whites only need apply,” just not in so many words.

In February, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies’ 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report stated that people of color play only 8.1 percent of TV lead characters and 12.8 percent of film leads.

Even the legal precedent Hyman referred to, Ferrill v. Parker Group, Inc. (11th Cir. 1999), was a court decision that gave white actors more opportunity by prohibiting their exclusion from auditioning for African slave roles.

Hyman’s and McLaughlin’s arguments assume that the casting ad excluded white actors outright. It didn’t. It declared it was looking for nonwhite actors but never excluded white actors from auditioning.

Some of the ensemble cast I saw two weeks ago was white, as are two named characters: King George III and Samuel Seabury. They had to get the roles somehow, right?

Where the producers made their mistake was claiming race as a BFOQ instead of just handing casting critics a ticket to the show so they can see for themselves that there’s nothing illegal going on — though even the producers can’t score seats these days.

So forgive the producers’ legalese gaff, but don’t neglect the fact that they’re being more honest than whitewashed Hollywood has ever been. After all, as Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Hamilton’s rival and eventual killer (spoiler alert) Aaron Burr, said in an interview with Buzzfeed:

Theatre “is malleable. It is strong. It is sturdy. … We can make it whatever we want it to be. Kids can play adults. And old people can play young people. And black people can play white people, and Asian people can play black people. If it’s done with a thoughtfulness and a care and a reason, we can do anything.”
AUTHOR:  Kate Everson is a former Workforce associate editor. Follow Everson on Twitter at @EversonKate. You can also follow her on Google Plus.

Reprinted from WORKFORCE

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