Previously it was announced that three-time Tony nominee Condola Rashad would star on Broadway in Saint Joan, playing the iconic role of “Joan of Arc.” However, it was the first look photo, released this weekend by Manhattan Theatre Club, that caused quite the stir. Broadway is no stranger to rolling the dice with shaking up the race and gender of a role, yet this time the response was immediate and toxic, and even racist at times. As commentary flooded social media, people questioned the appropriateness of changing the race of the 15th-century heroine from white to black, and if changing historical black characters to white would ever be acceptable. According to Shadow and Act, Rashad is only the second black actress to play Saint Joan on Broadway, the first being Diana Sands (the original Beneatha Younger in the stage and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun) in the 1968 Broadway revival.
— MTC (@MTC_NYC) February 2, 2018
The Maid of Orleans was an African-American?
So school lied to us about this famous historical, non-fictional character.
Now, thanks to the MTC, I know the truth.
We should burn all those misleading paintings of the lass promoting the false White version of world history. pic.twitter.com/fAa3WUweuJ
— Jim Hawkins (@scotbot) February 3, 2018
Why would you cast someone who looks nothing like the character unless you had a serious anti white hatred? pic.twitter.com/Kiz9WDUmh3
— John Sposato (@MemeAlertNews) February 3, 2018
Let’s cast MLK as a white male and see what happens 🤔
— Tanner Zimmerman (@Zimmerman44) February 3, 2018
Drumroll please, for another case of flagrant blackwashing of European heritage. Funny that my opinion is a hate crime but porpousedly eliminating white characters from casts about white history is not.
— Kizay Yazik (@Alonso_Smiley) February 3, 2018
…and these are just a few reactions, some receiving more attention than the original post.
The theatre has always been a place of challenging the status quo across gender, sex, and race, changing the identity of characters to create new storylines and ways of thought around lived experiences. Broadway has long stood as one of the first places where social change can take place in a more radical sense to be dispersed to the masses, and appreciated.
In response to some of the “outrage”, Manhattan Theatre Club released this statement to Broadway Black:
“Manhattan Theatre Club is proud to be producing Bernard Shaw’s timeless and powerful play SAINT JOAN on Broadway at our Friedman Theatre starting performances April 3rd.
The role of Joan has been played on Broadway by some of the finest actresses of their generation and we are thrilled that Condola Rashad will continue that tradition and star in our production directed by Daniel Sullivan.”
This is not the first instance of a show changing the race of a cast to present historical figures in a different light. In 2016, the musical Hamilton took the history of the founding fathers and flipped it entirely on its head. Rather than cast white actors, historical figures like Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and others were played by African Americans and Latino’s; using rap as the vessel of dialogue in the play discussing the birth of America, and life of Alexander Hamilton after the revolutionary war. The play took home 11 Tony Awards and was the first sign of a noted shift in how actors of color could play roles traditionally meant for white actors, and excel.
In 2017, Once on This Island debuted with a spin on traditionally hetero black characters, bringing in Tony Award winner for Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga to play Erzulie, and Alex Newell of Glee fame to play Mother Nature. They also decided to take the role of Papa Ge, traditionally played by a black man and cast Merle Dandridge. Director Michael Arden stated “In casting the Gods that inhabit our island, it became imperative for me to break expectations and stretch beyond the bounds in which Gods are traditionally represented. It felt important that young people watching our production see themselves reflected back from the stage at them. The Gods are simply that: Gods. They are not bound by gender, race, sexuality or being human at all. I’m so very pleased to be collaborating with these four artists exploring the important and timely themes of this musical through their unique and incredible abilities.”
It is necessary for Broadway to continue to show representation and visibility in a new light, continuing to break barriers and stereotypes in an effort to create change in the way we see one another in society. As roles for actors of color are limited, they are often placed in situations where they must audition for characters traditionally played by white actors and actresses. Furthermore, Broadway continues to struggle with green lighting new productions that call for casting that requires actors of color. As diverse as the 2016 Tony Awards was, 2017 reverted back to the “Great White Way” seeing James Earl Jones received an untelevised lifetime achievement award, and August Wilson’s Jitney take home Best Revival of a Play.
Sunday evening, the incredibly brilliant multi-talented Mr. James Earl Jones, received the Special Tony Award for his lifetime achievements on the Broadway Stage. Unfortunately, the Tony Awards decided to air only a taped portion of Mr. Jones speech rather than allowing him to speak live, …
Condola Rashad continues to wow audiences in every role she has ever tackled, and this will be no different. Broadway Black is excited to see Ms. Rashad take on the lead role of heroine Joan of Arc, where her performance and not her race will be the main talk of the town.
Saint Joan is set to begin previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway April 3, 2018, ahead of an April 25 opening. The show will complete MTC’s 2017–2018 season lineup.