by Mo Brady
As diversity of Broadway casting ebbs and flows towards the eventual industry standard, ensemblists are finding themselves at the forefront of the conversation. One of the least controversial (but most effective ways) of seeing people of color in roles traditionally played by white actors is by seeing them as understudies. From South Asian-American actress Shoba Narayan covering Deneé Benton in The Great Comet to Marisha Wallace understudying Heidi Blickenstaff in Something Rotten!, Broadway casts are dotted with actors breaking color barriers with their skill and talents.
Here are five actors paving the way for color blind casting this season on Broadway:
Josh Breckenridge and Tamika Lawrence (Come From Away)
These two Broadway standbys cover ten of the twelve roles in Come From Away between them. Each covers multiple residents of Gander, Newfoundland, where the actual population is more than 96% white. They also cover the breadth of “plane people, from Lawrence as first-day reporter Janice to Breckenridge as Muslim chef Ali.. As each actor plays multiple character throughout the show, their performances allow audiences to see a truer diversity of the 7,000 passengers of descended on Gander, Newfoundland in 2001.
Ericka Hunter (Miss Saigon)
This Broadway stalwart covers not two principal roles in this revival of beloved megamusical. Not only does Ericka Hunter understudy Gigi, the beltress bargirl who solos “The Movie In My Mind,” but she also covers Chris’ wife, Ellen (traditionally played by a white actor).
I had the opportunity to see a fantastic production of Miss Saigon at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. In that production, the role of Ellen was cast with an Asian-American actor, Candice Donehoo. Seeing an Asian actor in the role of Ellen made the conflict between her character and Kim even more complicated. Last week, Hunter went on as Ellen for first time, allowing audiences to grapple with similar questions.
Aisha Jackson (Frozen)
Aisha Jackson quickly bound her way through Broadway. Since making her debut in early 2015, she has been seen in both Beautiful: the Carole King Musical and in the original company of Waitress. This Spring, Jackson will be the standby for young princess Anna in Disney’s new Broadway venture, Frozen.
When she performs, audiences young and old will get a chance to forgo their expectations of what the princesses of Arendelle look like and focus on the musical's enchanting story.
Christian Dante White (Hello, Dolly!)
It’s no surprise that Christian Dante White is covering Gavin Creel in his Tony award-winning performance as Hello, Dolly! Cornelius Hackl. This silver-tongued vocalist was warbled with way through a wide variety of musical styles, from pop hits like Jersey Boys and Hairspray to the classic score of last season’s Shuffle Along. Bette Midler famously gave her final bow to Christian when he went on for two performances during the show’s previews.
In his time offstage, White is passionate about giving his fellow African-American performers a chance to shine. From the prolific photography series Broadway Legacy to the Turning the Page video performance series, he has a keen eye towards the future of Broadway.
Listen to our episode of Broadway understudies here.