Putting the POC in the Period Drama: From ‘Hamilton’ to ‘Six’

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr and Anthony Ramos in “Hamilton.” (Photo: Disney+)

Here’s something you might not know about me: I’m crazy about period dramas. Next to musical theater, it’s a favorite form of escapism to me: people in gorgeous gowns having problems with a sweeping string quartet score (and probably starring Keira Knightley)…hand me my wine and snuggie, I’m about to treat myself.  

But here’s the thing about being a person of color who loves historical dramas: you rarely ever see yourself represented. I mean, you rarely see yourself represented in ANY form of American entertainment, but the period drama has the biggest gap. That’s because they’re usually about white people who are friends with other white people. If there’s a Black body, they’re probably playing a slave. If there’s an Asian body, it’s probably set in China or Japan (though the last period drama set in Asia, before Disney’s live-action Mulan was Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005, which was based on a book by a white man, which…we’ll get to the authorship question later). 

So to put an actor of color in a ballgown? Other than the 2013 film Belle starring a luminous Gugu Mbatha-Raw, that’s an incredibly rare occurrence, you might as well wait for a solar eclipse. Even post-2010, you still can’t cast an actor of color in a period role without someone crying out, “historical inaccuracy!” 

When I first saw Hamilton in 2015 during its Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater, it was a revelation. By having actors of color portray the Founding Fathers, it seemed like the world of period dresses and waistcoats had finally opened up to include BIPOC folks. As Lin-Manuel Miranda told the New York Times around then, “Our goal was: This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance — our story should look the way our country looks.” The two-song sequence of “Helpless” and “Satisfied” remains one of my favorite sequences in musical theater.

Hamilton used casting to make the point that the Founders were forward-thinkers and revolutionaries of their time, and that their legacy is one that encompasses all Americans, not just white people. It also used a rap and hip-hop score to make the connection between then and now even clearer. When Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson argue, they do so via a rap battle. 

Said Miranda: “We have deified them so much; they’re on rocks in South Dakota. But they were people, and the flaws they had creep into everything we have now. The fights Jefferson and Hamilton have in the show are the fights we are still having.”

A Very Short, And Not Comprehensive, History of Colorblind Casting

Hamilton was not the first popular period piece that used anachronism to make the case for modern relevance. The 2001 film A Knight’s Tale starring Heath Ledger used rock music to show how knights were the rockstar of their days. Modern music as the soundscape for period films were also present in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette and Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 Moulin Rouge! and 2013 The Great Gatsby (where the music was produced by Jay-Z). Not that critics took well to anachronism; Marie Antoinette was booed at Cannes and criticized for not being historically accurate. “I wanted to make a personal story and not a big epic historical biopic,” said Coppola to The New York Times. “I didn’t want to get bogged down with history.”

Anachronism in style is one thing. Casting has been another battle. Hamilton was not the first piece of theater to have actors of color in period wear. Colorblind casting, aka casting with no thought about race, was first revolutionized in the 1950s by Joseph Papp, the founder of the Public Theater, where Hamilton debuted. For instance, he cast James Earl Jones as the lead in Shakespeare’s King Lear.

“His vision was initially that you should not notice race at all, and that, you know, this was going to be the transformative event for people then to not notice race in the rest of their lives,” said Ayanna Thompson, a Shakespeare scholar and the editor of the book Colorblind Shakespeare, in an interview with NPR. That production of Lear was an example of colorblind casting, where “[Jones’] race wasn’t supposed to impact the production.” 

For most ’90s kids, the most vivid example of colorblind casting is probably the television movie adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Brandy, and her fairy godmother was played by Whitney Houston (making both of them the first to play those roles in any medium). Though the 2013 Broadway revival of the same musical went back to having all-white leads, showing you that progress is not linear.

Not all artists were a fan of colorblind casting. In 1996, August Wilson delivered a speech where he talked about how colorblind casting is a tool of white supremacy: “To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans.”

Indeed, colorblind casting was not without its flaws, most noticeably when it’s been used as an excuse to cast white actors as characters of color (which I’ve written about extensively because there’s been so much of it). More recently, a bunch of white actors have committed to no longer voicing characters of colors in cartoons, though colorblindness was an excuse when they were first cast years ago

But as racial discourse in America has evolved from an “I don’t see race” approach to one that now acknowledges how proximity to whiteness (or lack thereof) affects every racial group differently, colorblind casting has evolved into color-conscious casting. It’s a way of saying that bodies are not interchangeable, that every person brings an ethnic specificity to their role that can affect how that role is played and how audiences read it. And it’s a way of acknowledging that not all bodies have equal access to opportunities.

Said director Lavina Jadhwani in a 2014 HowlRound article: “I’ve got a big fat opinion on the term ‘color-blind casting,’ which is that it doesn’t exist. I can’t think of an environment, in real life, where race doesn’t factor into relationship dynamics. And if it doesn’t exist offstage—why do we think we can (or should) create that scenario? I prefer the term ‘color-conscious casting,’ by which I mean that race is acknowledged in, and ideally deepens, theatrical conversations.”

Hamilton was not the first work I saw that took the color-conscious casting approach. The first was actually the Dave Malloy musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which I first saw in 2013 (it would later have a Broadway run in 2016). The musical, based on War & Peace, was not historically accurate, at all. It had an Asian-American actor named Phillipa Soo playing the 19th-century Russian aristocrat, Natasha (Soo would later originate the role of Eliza in Hamilton). The music was a mix of electronica, house and pop. Like Hamilton, the music and casting was used to make a point: these characters are not stodgy and removed, they’re vivid and modern, and their emotions are the same as yours, the audience. If you want to make a case for color-conscious casting, just look up a video of Amber Gray singing “Charming.” 

But it was Hamilton’s success at the box office and critically, that helped popularize casting as anachronism—using bodies of color to make historical dramas more relevant to modern audiences. After all, it’s no accident that even though it was produced first, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 went to Broadway a year after Hamilton and was compared to the latter musical for its entire too-short run. Miranda’s musical made historical anachronism cool. 

As actor Heath Saunders (who was in The Great Comet) said on the Token Theatre Friends podcast: “The importance of the shift that Hamilton did…was about divorcing character from body, which was a defense of white American theater. That for decades, as long as white American theater has been around, they’ve been defending the fact that these characters would never look like XYZ. So Hamilton did an amazing scalpel-like attack on that particular institution of white supremacy.” 

Recently, the Hulu television show The Great also used anachronism in style and casting to make a point about how revolutionary Catherine the Great and her followers were. Uber historically accurate dramas have gone out the window, it seems. 

How Six Succeeds Where Hamilton Falls Short

With its release on Disney+, there has been a criticism of Hamilton that has come up periodically in the five years since its Broadway premiere, but is even louder now: Hamilton uses bodies of color to put white, slave-owning men and their accomplishments at the center of the narrative. Though Hamilton ends with the phrase “who tells your story,” history is more about who gets to tell the story, something the musical doesn’t interrogate.

“By telling a curated version of events, Hamilton acts as an ad for racial diversity in history and on Broadway while masking the more violent aspects of the past, a dangerous message for a largely white audience, already used to hearing white narratives,” writes Larry Dang on Medium.

Miranda has called such criticisms “valid.” And invites other creators to take over from the space Hamilton helped open. Which is where Six comes in. I saw Six back in March, right before COVID-19 shut down New York. It was created by two young white people: Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss. Like Hamilton, Six uses modern music idioms (in this case pop songs) to tell the story of the six wives of Henry VIII. 

Anna Uzele, center, surrounded by Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Abby Mueller, Brittney Mack and Samantha Pauly in “Six.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Six builds on what Hamilton was trying to do through casting. In Hamilton, bodies of color was used to make the Founders seem like outcasts and rebels who were going up against a patriarchal and regressive system. But what Six does with its casting is arguably more powerful. Six uses mostly women of color to portray historical white women who were marginalized, victimized, villainized and erased—thus tying in that historical pain to the pain that women of color feel today. And at the same time, it finally gives these women agency over their own story, letting them choose how they want to tell it. 

Said Moss to the Telegraph: “We’re at a time when we’re culturally thinking and talking a lot more about who’s been neglected from spaces, and what equality really means. It’s absolutely no coincidence that our two musicals and lots and lots of other things people are writing are about addressing stories that haven’t been told from the perspective of people who haven’t had their voices heard.” 

Granted, if you say one of your music inspirations for the show is Beyoncé, it would be inappropriate to not cast a Black woman.

Unlike Hamilton, Six gives us a side of history that we did not know about, from voices that were kept out of the room. It challenges us to look for the voices that are not in the history books, and to take what was in those books with a grain of salt. Was Katherine Howard a slutty temptress who deserved to get her head chopped off? Or was she a 17-year-old girl, a child, who was continually assaulted and victimized throughout her painfully short life? Six argues the latter. 

History is written by white men, thus making it biased and incomplete. Six asks us to imagine what history would be like if women told the tale, while commentating on modern feminism, which should be about collaboration, not competition. 

But at the end of the day, it all still comes back to white people, Six including. Next year, 1776 is coming back to Broadway, with a mostly BIPOC (and predominantly female, trans, gender-nonconforming cast), and directed by Diane Paulus. Also written by white people, 1776’s treatment of the Founding Fathers is rosy-eyed, to say the least. It idolizes and celebrates them, which seems tone-deaf considering the current moment. What does casting it with people who are not white men say about American history right now? Will it defy what we know of history? Or will it do what Hamilton has been criticized for doing: using bodies of color to make the story of white male accomplishments palatable to today’s audience; to make America cool again. 

I don’t think that’s what’s going to be needed in 2021. Despite the success of Hamilton, creators of color, as well as actors, are still underrepresented on Broadway. The season after Hamilton won 11 Tony Awards was another season dominated by white voices. Until that changes, no amount of diverse casting attempts will make up for the gap in agency. It’s not enough for bodies of color to be on the stage, we need to be in positions of power, in the room where it happens. 

What’s going to be needed are original stories, that celebrate the accomplishments of people of color, that look at us independent of whiteness—that positions us not as victims, but as heroes. For Hamilton to truly be revolutionary, it needs to lead to BIPOC folks being able to tell our own story, our way. 

Or to quote August Wilson’s timeless words: “We do not need colorblind casting; we need theaters. We need theaters to develop our playwrights. We need those misguided financial resources to be put to better use. Without theaters we cannot develop our talents.”

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