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Color-Coded Language in Casting Calls

Theater is an institution long ensconced in the tradition of making the presence of whiteness hyper-visible and black representation invisible on stage. Most troubling is behind the curtain. Broadway theater claims to be inclusive of all racial and ethnic identities, but casting breakdowns for auditions continue to, albeit covertly, infer their preference to white over non-white actors. Color-coded casting is a restrictive measure to prevent actors of color from submitting for particular roles. Coding functions as a way to suggest age through descriptions like “classic-looking,” which means the actor auditioning should appear old, or level of attractiveness with descriptions like “approachable,” which means the actor should appear average-looking. Coding also functions as a double meaning- signally race or sexual orientation with descriptions like “street-wise female” or “strong female,” which means the character’s sexuality is non-heterosexual or the actor should appear Black or Latina. In casting, color-coded language must be covert.

Actors believe their job is to tell the stories of all humans, but why are white actors continually over-represented on stage? A study by Actor’s Equity (AEA), the national labor union representing professional stage actors and stage managers, found that diversity and inclusion are a problem in Broadway and production tours. Over three years, 77% of stage management contracts went to white AEA members, and only six contracts went to Black AEA members. Black stage managers who were women were paid 6% less than their white and Black male colleagues. White actors make up the majority of all onstage contracts-65% in plays and 67% in musicals. White actors receive higher pay in their contractual salaries, while Black actors report salaries 10% lower than the average principal in a play. Perhaps, these casting disparities are further driven by the fact that 79% of plays are written by white writers, and 85.5% of shows are directed by white directors. It seems raci