Opinion

Lansing theater needs to embrace casting diversity

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I turned 29 a few days ago, I've lived here in Lansing since 2019, I'm a half white-half Latino male, and I’m writing about an article written by Todd Heywood about the challenges still faced in Lansing theater in regards to diversity and inclusion. 

One of those he interviewed for it is a dear friend of mine named Ny'Kieria. I've known her for several years as a promising actress, a powerful singer and a good woman that I’m humbled to be friends with. The fact that she and so many who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) are still overlooked within the Lansing theater community, such as at Riverwalk Theatre, is deeply concerning. This is somehow still happening even after the vibrant Black Lives Matter movement that was practically worldwide back in 2020, thus a prominent reason we ought to be outraged by the slow lack of progress of Lansing's theater community. 

In the past decade that I’ve seen plays and musicals here in Lansing, I’ve seen shows live at Lansing Community Community and at Riverwalk Theatre or I’ve read about them in articles.  What I’ve noticed are stark contrasts between the casting choices by LCC’s theater program and Riverwalk: That it’s sometimes easier to be cast by the former than the latter, which is sadly more true for those who are BIPOC. 

The earliest example of this that I’ve seen is the cast photo for Riverwalk's production of “RENT,” in which there was a young Caucasian lady in the role of Mimi. who ought to be played by someone of Latin(x) and/or African American descent. The second time I observed this was up close when a young Caucasian man was cast in “Sweat” as Oscar, a role for which I auditioned. I’m of Hispanic heritage on my mother's side. Mind you, I don’t like calling out either actors, both being good friends of mine. But the fact of the matter is that the veteran producers and promoters at Riverwalk are still racially biased when it comes to casting actors. 

In fact, when Riverwalk performed “Louder Than Words” back in 2021, the show was a musical cabaret reviewing how people felt during the start and middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I observed as an audience member that Riverwalk barely talked about the Black Lives Matter movement that arose during the exact same time. The closest they got to even mentioning it was when Ny'Kieria sang “I'm Here” from “The Color Purple,” but they clearly limited her from reminding us all of the reality of racial inequality we need to escape from. Worse, when Riverwalk did another musical cabaret, they titled it “All Together Now,” which seems questionable considering they cast more white actors who could sing and dance than they did actors who were BIPOC. Frankly, if they were going to put on a show they titled “All Together Now,” they should have considered who else might’ve wanted to be together on stage with their colleagues: in this case, more than the three or four wonderful actors and actresses who are BIPOC. 

Now, I find myself disappointed in Riverwalk Theatre for casting my dear friend Ny'Kieria as the witch in the musical adaptation of “Big Fish.” Knowing her vocal range and acting conviction, she rightfully deserves roles that allow her to be more than just a two-scene role or cast as a witch; the same for everyone either Latin(x), Black, Asian American Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, or of Indigenous descent who lives in Lansing. The worst is believing this to be true throughout the Lansing area besides Riverwalk Theatre (such as Peppermint Creek Theatre or the Ixion Acting Co.). If that's the case, then I strongly urge you to look into such a community issue that deserves to be addressed for the people of Lansing AND that you continue to report instances where there is indeed representation, diversity and inclusion within theater here in Lansing. 

In conclusion, I find it questionable that any “community” theaters here in Lansing still put on shows that barely reflect how the community appears or casts people who are BIPOC in roles that limits or stereotypes us, especially when we as human beings were given the biggest reality check in 2020 while facing a global pandemic. I speak this to you not as some “angry individual” but as someone whose dream is to live his life doing something that has given him a sense of purpose through the magic that is live theater. In fact, I would love to see diversity in theater discussed more from this point forward and hope to see more articles like the one Todd Heywood recently wrote. His attentive work and reporting is what I admired the most from his article about diversity and inclusion in theater. 

Anyone I mentioned in the letter, directly or indirectly, was not for the sake of offending them, as said people are good and close friends of mine. And that goes for any place mentioned, as I still wish to participate in my community, albeit with those who reflect ALL of the community as a whole. 

theater, diversity, representation, Lansing, casting, inclusion

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