Racial Representation in Popular Culture
In January of 2020, I interviewed Mr. Eric L. Christian, a retired stage actor, to learn more about his outlook on and experience with racial representation in popular culture. As a person of color who has acted in several Broadway shows, he had a firm opinion on the need for racial diversity in representation and expressed excitement about changes happening in his field that allow more minorities to play important roles and tell unheard stories.
“In any situation where you see yourself represented in a way that you haven’t been represented[, it] is phenomenal,” he said. “It’s something we’ve missed for a long time…[Broadway] shows like Hamilton or The Color Purple have been able to represent People of Color in a way that is supportive and enlightening, and it educates people who are not having that experience in the same way.”
When People of Color are represented in cultural products, it allows for the empowerment of recognition both in performers and audiences. Moreover, it inspires audiences to ask important and challenging questions about the reality of life in America for all types of people. Unfortunately, however, 77% of American film roles are white, and the trend on Broadway has also historically slanted white, perhaps because up to 80% of all Broadway theater goers are white. An examination of three popular Broadway musicals – Wicked, Hamilton, and The Color Purple – provide illustrative examples.
Wicked, has a white cast with no depiction of minority experiences, and it ran on Broadway for 17 years and gained a total revenue of almost $1.4 billion. Comparatively, Hamilton has a very racially diverse cast with racial minorities even playing the parts of white historical figures. It ran on Broadway for only 5 years and gained a total revenue of $650,000,000, almost half that of Wicked’s revenue in less than one-third of Wicked’s time on Broadway. This suggests that the discernment of majority-white audiences and the popularity of a musical on Broadway have nothing to do with race. However, The Color Purple, a musical exclusively representative of Black experience with a cast exclusively consisting of People of Color, ran on Broadway for only 3 years and gained a total revenue of only $148,700,000, which is minute compared to that of Wicked and Hamilton. The main difference between the two musicals that represent racial minorities, Hamilton and The Color Purple, is that the former depicts race visually, using a cast of color in place of historically white figures, and the latter depicts minority experience.
This and the fact that Hamilton gained 6 times the revenue of The Color Purple with only 2 years longer on Broadway suggest that a white audience is less comfortable watching real minority experiences though they seem comfortable watching People of Color perform on stage. This is not to say that shows like Hamilton don’t benefit racial minorities, because, as Eric Christian said, they certainly do. However, for racial representation in America to truly evolve so that People of Color can be recognized and listened to in a way they haven’t been before, white Americans must be willing to listen to the voices of all our fellow citizens who want only to be seen and to have their stories heard.