Diversity Works, and Broadway's Groundhog Day is Proof!

06/09/2017 01:42 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2017

I feel like all we (Actors of Color) ever do is bitch about the lack of diversity on the Great White Way. Key word white. Obviously, we should bitch and continue to do so till change happens. #ChangeTheStage.

Although as much as I love a good bitch fest, I think it is important to note and applaud shows that are inclusive. We need to talk about shows that do promote diversity, and that are breaking down barriers for actors of color. Shows like Groundhog Day - which is up for seven Tony Nominations and winner of the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Musical. Diversity works, bitches!

Six actors of color from Groundhog Day took the time to discuss the audition process for this show, and what needs to be done to make shows that include diversity the norm.

Camden Gonzales - Dance Captain/Swing

Raymond Lee - Ralph

Vishal Vaidya - Larry

Barrett Doss - Rita Hanson

Taylor Iman Jones - Lady Storm Catcher

Rheaume Crenshaw - Doris

Left to right - Rheaume Crenshaw, Camden Gonzales, Taylor Iman Jones, Barrett Doss, Vishal Vaidya, and Raymond Lee
Left to right - Rheaume Crenshaw, Camden Gonzales, Taylor Iman Jones, Barrett Doss, Vishal Vaidya, and Raymond Lee

Diversity and Inclusion have become a very "in" thing right now. Yet, less than half of Broadway shows have barely any people of color, and one person of color does not count. Groundhog Day is currently one of the rare few that can boast a diverse cast. With that being said, can you discuss the audition process? On the breakdown for the role you currently are playing, did it specify casting was seeking diverse actors of color? 

Camden - I can't recall the breakdown listing any specific ethnicities or racial qualifications. But I think it is worth noting that as one of the female swings in the show, a big part of my job is covering everyone in the female ensemble, regardless of their race or mine. And it's exciting (though not surprising) that the team didn't seem to bat an eyelash at that reality. 

Raymond - This creative team ROCKS when it comes to Diversity. I have to give them a friggin' shoutout because they cast Groundhog Day right, when it comes to diversity on Broadway. When I first auditioned for the show I got the breakdown for either Gus or Ralph and it stated “all ethnicities." There was no specific ethnic requirement involved for my character, and I believe there weren't any specific ethnic requirements for any of the characters. All they asked was to pick which role, prepare them, and come in. In fact, when I first went to the dance call and saw Vishal there, I immediately assumed we were going in for the same track but lo and behold, we were going in for different roles!  They were truly trying to find the right people for the right roles.  After the initial singing call, I went in for a few rounds of dance auditions, and then found out a few months later I'd be getting an offer to play Ralph in Groundhog Day.

Vishal - I am always aware of how diverse a theatrical space is, whether it's an audition, a cast of a show, or if I'm in an audience. I distinctly remember my first audition for this show because of the diversity of the people auditioning. Every type of person seemed to be reading for every type of role, and that was the case throughout the audition process. I remember Ray Lee being surprised that we were auditioning for different roles because, as Asian-American actors, we're accustomed to vie for one token role. The only other guy I knew was reading for Larry was a tall, thin white guy, which was very cool. Race and body type didn't (as it shouldn't) matter. 

Barrett - When I first auditioned for this show, I went in for the part of Nancy Taylor (the sexy, but much misunderstood conquest of Phil’s, who gets a song to open Act 2 that really fills out the character).  There was no specification for either role of a race, but when I got called back for Rita, I was totally thrilled. I saw a few other people at callbacks of all races, so I knew they were open to the idea of a non-white Rita, but I assumed that this would go as it typically does: they would call back a group that included more than just white women, but then would inevitably cast one of the white woman. I'm so glad they didn't. 

Taylor - I was one of the last people to be cast in the show. They were specifically looking for a cover for Barrett and one more ensemble member. So, I went in once to sing, once to dance, and then one more time and danced all by myself with the Associate Choreographer for two hours. I can't remember if it said anything about certain types in the breakdown, but when I got my offer I was told I'd be covering two roles. When I found out who I'd be covering I was very excited to see one was someone who looked similar to me, and one who looked I nothing like me (white and blonde)! I felt very much seen for who I am rather than what I look like. 

Rheaume - I attended both an open Equity singers call and dancer call. The casting breakdown stated that the production was seeking all ethnicities but more specifically "seeking great character actors with a strong pop/rock sound and good movement skills."

One thing I loved so much about Groundhog Day is that the aspect of race was not brought into the dramaturgy. You were just "normal" people (God forbid). Do you feel this is a rarity in most theatrical presentations? And how can we make Groundhog Day the norm for theatre being produced? 

Camden - It’s hard to say, I think the theater community more and more are striving for that to be the norm. Striving to normalize any person playing any role if they're the best person for the job. I can only hope with all optimism that as new works continue to be produced that a show like ours does become the standard. But I also think a huge part of creating work for all ethnicities is producing work created by people of diverse backgrounds. We need to continue to give voice to diverse playwrights, composers, directors, and choreographers too. 

Raymond -  I totally feel this is a rarity! None of us ever have our ethnicities mentioned in our characters or our lines. We just get to be regular Americans without having our skin color mentioned or the butt of a joke. It's been an amazing experience and a liberating one because it makes me feel like they cast me for me and not just for my skin tone.  I hope this casting becomes a norm. I think so many people thought Hamilton solved all of Broadway's diversity problems but it was just a step in the right direction, just like Groundhog Day is. There's so much more work to do and we are getting there, but the more people come to see the Hamiltons and Groundhog Days, the better cases we can make for diversity everywhere. Look at what happened with the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf casting scandal in Portland, or the constant whitewashing of Asian-American roles on film. There's still so much work to do! 

 Vishal - Riz Ahmed wrote an amazing piece for The Guardian where he called this type of casting "The Promised Land", when race isn't linked to the character at all. It's a rarity for sure but there are amazing examples of this on Broadway right now. School of Rock and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 are coming to mind specifically because they are the other shows with actors of South Asian descent (Hey Shoba Narayan, Nick Choksi, and Nehal Joshi!). It could be a new norm of diversity or it could be a fad. To make this the norm,  I'd hope to see more diversity behind the table, from casting to direction to management and producers. If racial diversity is rare onstage, it's even rarer offstage. 

Barrett - I think this rarely happens, unfortunately.  But actually, I'm so happy to see that there are several shows doing this, this season, like Natasha, Pierre, etc., A Dolls House, Part 2.  And then of course, there are the shows that are deliberately cast with actors of color (i.e. Hamilton, or the "black version" of some revived play).  It's so often that people of color in theater are stuck doing the same shows in rep all over the country, or alternately, want to stay with one show for a long time for fear of being out of work because there simply aren't enough opportunities. Casting directors, directors, playwrights and producers all have to be open to the idea of "colorblind" casting if we want to see people of color truly "normalized" onstage, instead of being, for lack of a better term, used for their (or the stereotypes of their) color.  I would like to add that this goes for size diversity as well.  Additionally, I say "colorblind" in quotations because I don't believe that colorblindness exists. People of color bring their life experiences into their preparation for a role - I certainly do - and if we draw from our life experiences, some of our characters' qualities that the "powers that be" are witnessing in the audition room will have been determined by our race. We know what color we are, even if they pretend not to. Much of Rita's strength comes from the fact that she is not only smart and capable, but she's also a 36 year old black woman! 

Taylor - I can easily say that at least half (if not more) of the auditions I go to specifically ask for an African-American or mixed-race girl. Even when there is no commentary on that persons race in the show and it's an attempt to make the show more diverse, but then I know I'm only being considered for the role they decided should be black. When I know I'm capable of playing other parts, but probably won't be considered for them. I do believe theater is beginning to open its mind more, but there is still a long way to go. It should start at initial castings, but the openness should continue as they replace actors too. I've known shows to not see actors because they're trying to stick the original cast types, when there really is no reason for it. 

Rheaume - I do feel it is a rarity. Make them the norm by financially supporting them.

As working actors of color do you feel it is your responsibility to further the cause of Diversity and Inclusion on stage? It has been said that just by showing up to an audition is a form of protest as a POC, do you agree? 

Camden - Unfortunately as an actor, I feel we don't always have much power in the way of forcing inclusion onstage. I think our responsibility to ourselves and the community is to show up for the audition, even if it feels like role they wouldn't cast "ethnic", and do our best. Do I think of it as a protest? Not really. All I can do is bring my best version of that role and hopefully change some minds about what she's "supposed" to look like in the process. What is in our control as actors and members of the community though, is supporting diverse theater and entertainment. If we can prove that the audience is there for people of all races, genders, shapes, and sizes, the work will continue to get made and that would be a real victory. 

Raymond - I totally feel it is my responsibility to further diversity wherever I can: on stage, on screen, in everyday life. When I first moved here I made sure I went to as many EPAs [Equity Principal Audtions] and ECCs [Equity Chrous Calls] as I could. Sometimes I was the only Asian-American face there. Sometimes I was one of many. It depended on the day and the project but I made sure to be seen and to show people in that audition room that Asian-American actors were out there and ready to play parts. I felt like creative teams needed to know that there were fully capable Asian-American actors ready to work and create. One of the most rewarding things that anyone can say to me via social media or at the stage door, is that it meant so much to see an Asian face on that stage being a regular American. I've had several Asian-Americans say that to me at the stage door and it means the absolute world to me. It means our show is doing something right and inspiring the next generation of Actors of Color and Artists of Color out there. 

Vishal - It’s absolutely necessary to further the cause of Diversity and Inclusion. Awareness is key, and I feel it's my duty to point out when there's a lack of diversity, racial or otherwise. Showing up is the most important way to further the cause. As an actor, that means auditioning, advocating for myself, and most importantly, continuing my training and education.

Barrett - Yes, I do. I'm so glad this interview is happening! I'd hoped that more people would credit our show with the diversity that our cast has been so excited about since we started rehearsals. But we also need to see more shows like ours. Like actually go buy tickets. Be in the audience. That's the best way to normalize the experience for the audience too.  Diversity within audiences and onstage is what we should be aiming for! And supporting writers and directors of color, because they are often in the same boat as we are as actors- and frankly I think it may be even harder for them to break through and be seen by this industry. 

Taylor - I can easily say that at least half (if not more) of the auditions I go to specifically ask for an African-American or mixed-race girl. Even when there is no commentary on that persons race in the show and it's an attempt to make the show more diverse, but then I know I'm only being considered for the role they decided should be black. When I know I'm capable of playing other parts, but probably won't be considered for them. I do believe theater is beginning to open its mind more, but there is still a long way to go. It should start at initial castings, but the openness should continue as they replace actors too. I've known shows to not see actors because they're trying to stick the original cast types, when there really is no reason for it. 

 Rheaume - Yes. And I do agree. 

Do you have any future projects lined up? 

Raymond Lee - Right now my full time job is Daddy to my beautiful 3 year old daughter. Besides Disney dance parties and marker board coloring sessions, I'll also be playing a small town drunk 8 times a week at the August Wilson as my other full time job. I would LOVE to do more television in the future, in addition to working on stage. 

Vishal - Nothing right now, but every October I do Rifftober, a month long Instagram singing series that is foolish and joyous. If you're interested you can find me at @vishgram or #Rifftober. 

Barrett - Not yet…

Taylor - Right now I'm in rehearsal for a new musical called Independence, and after that I'll be doing another workshop for a new musical called Intermission! I couldn't be more excited and feel so lucky to get to be a part of these families, perform, and create in New York. 

Rheaume - There maybe something in the works… But right now I'm thoroughly enjoying being a part of Groundhog Day!

One of the easiest ways you can help make diversity the norm on Broadway, is by going to see shows that include a diverse cast. Go see Groundhog Day. Support the arts and the actors of color that are making theatre so freaking awesome. www.groundhogdaymusical.com

Follow Alex Chester on Twitter and Instagram @AlexFChester

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