We are producing Little Shop of Horrors in the spring. Despite working with the potential vocal director who helped select the show, the same vocal director has decided not to work on the show because of the potential of casting non-black students in the roles of the street urchins.
Our school's population is predominantly white (60%), hispanic (28%) with a minority of Asian/Pacific islanders and multiracial students.
Earlier, a white student challenged me on how I would choose to cast the roles of the urchins. I spoke honestly and stated that I would consider students of color first. The student angrily shot back that the roles had to be black students. As noted, we have a diverse population, but very few students who identify as black.
I understand that the roles have traditionally been played by black women. I also understand that white students who may be cast in these roles should not sing in a way that reflects or imitates black singers.
Despite this, I'm expecting challenges from both the student, the vocal director, and the activities director.
I'm curious to know how other high schools have navigated this. Your ideas, suggestions, and thoughts are welcomed. Thank you.
I have done this show twice over the years. Both stage directors agreed with me in casting color blind as we teacher/directors are allowed to do with this show title. We would have liked to have that "Motown look and feel", but concentrated on the telling of the story. Both sets of urchins and vocal directors worked together to create an attitude within the girl groups that reflected the feel of the story line. Both shows were received very well at school and in the community.
I also have done this show twice (at two different, not ethnically diverse schools). Before selecting the show, I scoured the text to see if there was any textual reference to color. I could not find any. The exploration of musical style and acting attitude was an educational experience for all. Color blind casting would seem to be appropriate.
The description of the set and characters in the front of the libretto-vocal book for Little Shop of Horrors were derived from the original 1982 production's Stage Manager's script and are not meant to restrict the way in which licensees stage or cast their productions of the show. Rather, they are an insight into how that production was presented.
In casting your show, an inclusive approach is suggested. While any actor can play any role in the show (i.e., there are no requirements or restrictions other than to perform the book, music and lyrics as written), it is encouraged that the roles of Crystal, Ronnette, and Chiffon be played by actors of color. There is no such suggestion with regard to any of the other characters, regardless of how those characters have been cast in other productions. The gender of the characters, however, must remain as written in the script."
I have seen several productions of Little Shop in both schools and community theatres, and I've never seen a show with all three urchins played by Black females. You can do your best to recruit Black girls to audition, but I think the description above covers you if you need to cast non-black students who can both sing and act those parts.
Perhaps, by assuring students that all of the other roles are also open to students of color, as well as talking about the huge variety of humans under the description "of color," you can lower the temperature and have a good experience with the show.
"And I've said this a million times, but it bears repeating: high school's the ONE CHANCE YOU GET, as an actor, to play any role you want, before the world tells you what 'type' you are. The audience is going to suspend disbelief: they're there to see their kids, whom they already love, in a play. Honor that sacred time as educators, and use it change their lives. You'll be glad you did." *Lin Manuel Miranda
Given that you went through this exact situation a few months ago-a professional collaborator leaving the show due to issues with representation in casting and student pushback-with Peter and the Starcatcher, I think you need to help yourself and your team by zeroing in on shows that you can put on without having to work so hard to convince everyone that your choice is a suitable production for your group. It will improve everyone's experience and reduce your stress.
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