There is an interesting controversy surrounding the hit musical “Hamilton” on Broadway. I have not yet seen the play on a trip to New York but I have been told by friends that it is terrific. Frankly, as a constitutional law professor, any play based on the Framers is a must-see. However, the play now has a more contemporary legal character after a complaint about its casting call. The casting notice put out by the play tells white actors that they need not apply.
The posted casting notice stated that the producers were “seeking NON-WHITE men and women, ages 20s to 30s, for Broadway and upcoming Tours.”
None of the principal roles — Hamilton, George Washington, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison — are played by white actors. However, Hollywood and Broadway have moved away from type casting and profess to select actors solely on their ability. This was a policy ironically advocated by African-American actors and groups. Thus, it is not strange to have a black actor play Hamlet or other traditionally white acting roles.
While the posting would seem to rollback on this progress, “Hamilton” producer said he would “stand by” the notice.
I happen to believe that artists should be able to limit their subjects or casting in this way as a matter of free speech and artistic expression. The producers insisted that the barring of whites is a necessary condition:
“It is essential to the storytelling of “Hamilton” that the principal roles — which were written for non-white characters (excepting King George) — be performed by non-white actors . . . This adheres to the accepted practice that certain characteristics in certain roles constitute a ‘bona fide occupational qualification’ that is legal. This also follows in the tradition of many shows that call for race, ethnicity or age specific casting, whether it’s “The Color Purple” or “Porgy & Bess” or “Matilda.”
The question that we have previously discussed is whether other businesses should have the right to tailor their image or services by selecting only certain types of workers based on age or looks from Hooters to Abercrombie and Fitch. If racial casting is permitted for plays, can other businesses claim that same right to discriminate as necessary to maintain an image or tradition? Even among acting positions, how do we draw this line? Here the producers are claiming that it is an “accepted practice that certain characteristics in certain roles constitute a ‘bona fide occupational qualification.” That would seem to suggest that black actors could be barred from leading roles that are historically white or based on white characters in literary works.