As a child I loved to act and took lessons. One of my teachers told me that the goal of every actor is not to play someone they are like, but someone who is very different from them, and to do it successfully. Considering some actors prefer niche roles I don’t think this is true for all, but I do think it holds true for a lot. It’s something I keep in mind when debates rage over whitewashing and the casting of people with disabilities in roles where a character has a disability.
Let me make one thing clear. Hollywood has, and continues to, white wash. This is a problem, especially since they overlook talented people of color for non-white and white roles. And until Hollywood does a better job of giving people of color access to roles it will not be appropriate to cast white people as people of color.
That said, I do not think the end goal should be white people playing white people, people of color playing people of color, and disabled people playing disabled people, but an end goal where a black person can play a white person and a disabled person can play someone who isn’t disabled. But we are not there yet. Heck, just look at the uproar over the casting of John Boyega as a storm trooper!
In some ways Broadway seems to be doing a better job. Recently the first black Jean Valjean performed on Broadway (and tragically Kyle Jean-Baptiste has also died shortly after being cast).Brian Stokes Mitchell, who is black, had a run on Broadway as Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha,” and I must say he is my favorite baritone!
And this, to me, is where the ideal it. Black people can play roles written with white people in mind and vice versa, and actors can achieve their goals of playing roles that are vastly different from who they are.
This is also true with actors who are differently abled. I hate the argument that only actors who are deaf/missing limbs/etc can play characters who are deaf/missing limbs, etc, because it also limits those actors only to those roles. I would like to see people who are differently abled have the opportunity to play characters who are not.
Which was why I was pleasantly surprised to see Jamie Brewer, an actress with Down Syndrome, cast as a character without Down Syndrome in the fourth season of American Horror Story, Freak Show. Ms. Brewer has appeared in two other seasons of the show, and both times portrayed a character with Down Syndrome. And now she’s portrayed one that doesn’t, AND she did it successfully.
I want to take a moment to highlight the importance of what Ms. Brewer did. Ever since Chris Burke portrayed Corky in “Life Goes On” we’ve known that people with Down Syndrome can act, but their roles have been limited to characters with Down Syndrome. Jamie Brewer expanded that playing field. An actor with Down Syndrome can play characters who don’t have Down Syndrome now. They don’t have to be type cast.
Slowly Hollywood is becoming more diverse and expanding roles to talented individuals who used to be shut out. In the meantime, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but seeing Jamie Brewer in a non-Down Syndrome role and hearing about Kyle Jean-Baptiste is encouraging, and shows we’re making steps in the right direction.