“Emma” Mia! Why’s your cast all white?

SR Digest #25–January 7, 2020

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a Teen Vogue essay floating around social media about the all-white casting of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. The author argued that Gerwig’s new film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel missed an opportunity for positive racebending, suggesting the role of Laurie (played by Timothée Chalamet) could have been given to an actor of color.

I found the author’s case a little weak—which isn’t to say there’s not an argument to be made for diversifying period pieces on screen, just that this writer didn’t make it very well. But I took the opportunity to reflect on how much better theater has become on this front than film and television.

And it was true! It may have been a long, slow process going back to Greg Mosher’s Goodman Theatre casting Black actors in Ibsen in the late ’70s and losing subscribers over a Black Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol 1984 (a development that rated a story in The New York Times!). But I would really have to sit and think and comb through my archives to remember the last time I saw a stage production of Shakespeare, or Dickens, or any of the Greeks, or Thornton Wilder, or Jane Austen, or any so-called classic in which race wasn’t a central theme, that didn’t have an intentionally multiracial cast. It had become a matter of course in the theater, I thought.

And then I took a closer look at the casting announcement for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s upcoming production of Emma.

What a way to kick off 2020.

I swear that I do not get any great enjoyment out of ragging on Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s casting issues. I was actually proud of the company a few months ago for giving a title role in a mainstage Shakespeare production to a Chicago-based actor for the first time in three and a half years. (It was just one of the two title roles in Romeo and Juliet, lest you get too excited; Juliet was from out of town.)

But I truly cannot understand how an institution the size of Chicago Shakes could, in this day and age and in this climate, assemble an all-white cast of 14 for a musical adaptation of a Jane Austen novel—to be helmed by the company’s founding artistic director!—without anyone at any point saying, “This looks weird.”

It’s a talented collection of actors, to be sure. (At least the 11 out of 14 I’m familiar with. The requisite three leads cast out of New York, of course, I have zero knowledge of.) But looked at as a whole, this is a bizarrely retrograde way to kick off a brand-new decade in Chicago theater.

And the icing on this particular cake, which I discovered only as I’m writing this newsletter: CST’s website features Founders Brewing as the “official beverage partner” for this all-white production of Emma.

Which, just, seriously, you have to be putting me on.


I was in such a crunch to get my best of the 2010s list out last week before the decade actually ended that I forgot to include links to my recent Sun-Times reviews, so here you go:

Photograph: Austin D. Oie

Theo Ubique’s revival of Working, based on the Studs Terkel book, can’t help but feel dated, but I admire Christopher Chase Carter’s staging and his excellent cast. Read the full review here.

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

I loved Clare Barron’s Dance Nation at Steppenwolf so much that I nearly cleared a space on last week’s best-of-the-decade list for it. It’s an uproarious, irreverent, and insightful look at American adolescence that surprised me at every turn.

And despite what other reviewers might tell you, it is not a play about life in East Liverpool, Ohio, nor does it ever suggest that it intends to be! I’d also suggest that when you see someone tell you that “Steppenwolf used to be about something different,” you ask them to be specific about what they think Steppenwolf used to be about. Misogyny? Toxic masculinity? All-white casts?

Happy new decade, y’all!

Questions or feedback for me? Reply to this email, or if you’re reading this on the web, hit me at kris@krisvire.com or find me on Twitter @krisvire. You can also leave public comments on the web version of the newsletter; click the headline above or the links at the bottom of this post.