Earth to white prep schools: Black plays are for Black people

Photo+by+Margaret+Heffernan

Photo by Margaret Heffernan

Ayomi Wolff

Recently, I attended Maret School’s spring musical, “Once On This Island.”

After the show, I was left with an uncomfortable pit in my stomach due to the racial boundaries that are drawn in the score and script. “Once On This Island” is historically done by a majority, if not all-Black cast. At Maret, out of a cast of 50, only four were Black.

The musical is about a girl named Ti Moune and her trials against the forces of racism and classism. Her island is Haiti-esque, colonized by the French who had a habit of taking “peasant girls” (enslaved women) as their mistresses. As a result, half of the island is wealthy and light-skinned and the other poor and Black. 

The problem with Maret doing a show with such a heavy stake in race is that—in their efforts to try to make Maret theater more diverse—they are forcing white people to tell Black stories and typecasting the Black students. Some of the few Black students that were cast were put into the traditionally Black roles (e.g. Ti Moune) and into traditionally Black stereotypes (e.g. the mother, mother earth, etc.) But if they had cast white people, their portrayal of Black struggle would be offensive. Do you see the dilemma? Cast white people: blatant racism. Cast Black people: typecasting.

Of course, I cannot speak for every cast member of color nor can I claim my opinion as fact. However, based on my knowledge of the racial makeup of Maret’s theater department faculty, the choice of “Once On This Island” did little to diversify the department and only placed Black people in the role of token. Ironic how a story that condemns the villainy of imperialism is played by a majority white cast.

After the performance, I talked with some cast members and learned that the script contains optional modifications that omit some of the original racial language. These changes attempt to accommodate production with white casts by focusing on class rather than race issues, but many lines still allude to the racial themes. And even with the modifications, it is impossible to address class without race, especially when the play is supposed to be making commentary on current issues, specifically our ever-gentrifying DC. The show loses all thematic integrity when told through white lips and white voices. 

Maret’s choice to do “Once On This Island” is evidence of a deeper issue: white people often try to tell stories that they have no business telling. Black stories should be told by Black people. For example, Fences would require Black actors because its story hinges upon the characters being Black. If done by any other race the play would be insensitive, especially when the n-word is featured so heavily. As such, schools that don’t have the people for a show like “Once On This Island,” shouldn’t be doing it at all.

This is not to say that every play must be set in its historical period with the appropriate genders and races for each character because that would defeat the purpose of acting as a medium of storytelling. Actors, of course, should be chosen based on ability. For example, the characters of Wilson’s production of “Metamorphoses did not have to be all Greek people because the race was not pivotal to the storytelling.

In the wake of Maret’s failure there lies a kernel of truth: many schools, like Maret and Wilson, are trying to take steps towards racially diverse theater departments. However, forcing diversity by producing shows that force Black students into token roles or attempting to tell racialized stories without the appropriate demographics, is a step backward.

I am certainly not saying that Wilson is perfect because we are not. We are far from it. However, I want to praise our theater department for the strides it has made. Despite the harsh criticisms that I had given Maret, it is not out of disdain but a critique for us and them to learn from to ensure that theater at DC high schools exemplify equality. •