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‘Little Shop of Horrors’ fails to reflect traditional black roles

The UTC Tympanium Euphorium production of “Little Shop of Horrors” premiered the same weekend as the Ford Hall 2015 sit-in began. It seemed almost ironic that a whitewashed production shared the weekend spotlight with a protest advocating for racial inclusion.

Although “Little Shop” was met with rave reviews, something seemed a little off to me. The cast was extremely talented, but white actors played the roles traditionally reserved for black actors. These roles included the three main narrators, Chiffon, Ronette and Crystal, along with the voice of the plant, Audrey II.

It occurred to me that black actors may have not auditioned for these roles, but I think the production staff should have held an additional round of auditions and reached out to actors of color in order to avoid this. This semester, the UTC worked to produce plays that fostered inclusion, such as “The Love of The Nightingale” and “Ruined.” Many black actors auditioned for those shows, and the production team on “Little Shop of Horrors” could have easily reached out to these actors. It is common for actors to perform in two UTC shows in one semester.

I understand that some people want to be colorblind in casting and make roles available to all actors. While the use of white actors in these roles did not change the nature of the story or characters, for those of us who know the show well, it felt out of place. And from an activist standpoint, it actively removed the opportunity for people of color to participate in theater, which is, like most professions, white dominated. Colorblind casting should be used for original work in order to nurture diversity, like in Shonda Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy,” or when the role being cast is not rooted in culture and history. Although the use of white actors did not confuse the storyline, this did take away from the history of the production.

Here are some facts about the production history and design of the show as originally written. The three narrators, Chiffon, Ronette and Crystal, are meant to act as a sort of Greek chorus and perform in the style of ’50s and ’60s pop. These decades were when black women’s pop groups surfaced. Women’s groups like The Supremes and The Marvelettes gained recognition for their R&B style, and the trio is meant to be a tribute to that style. Additionally, the show’s setting is New York, which is known to be multiracial and multicultural; the use of a diverse cast could have enhanced this detail. The musical premiered in 1982 when Broadway was even more white-dominated than it is now; the three narrators were originated to provide roles to people of color, especially women of color. In Hollywood productions, actors of color are woefully underrepresented, and when race is unspecified, roles usually go to white actors. It just seems as if, however unintentionally, the casting of this show reinforced the marginalization that black actors face.

I am not implying anything about the skill of the actors in these roles and the direction of the production, I just think that this detail needs to be recognized and considered.

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