Whitewashing ‘Rent’: A look at the 20th anniversary UK tour’s controversial casting decision

The cast of "RENT."

The cast of “RENT.”

It’s easy to see why RENT has become a worldwide phenomenon, with fans being known as ‘RENTheads’, and “Seasons of Love” being sung regularly by choirs in voice competitions. ‘No day but today’ has become the motto for many, including myself. Most recently, the show has undertaken a 20th Anniversary UK tour, with names such as Kerry Ellis and Nikki Davis-Jones drawing in new audiences, however, the casting has also caused quite a stir amongst fans of the musical, and not in a good way.

Jonathan Larson’s rock musical, which is based upon the opera La Bohème, is a musical about acceptance, living for today and equality. The show has drawn fans from all backgrounds, and the casting for the UK tour has caused more than a little discomfort amongst fans. Mimi, an exotic dancer of Hispanic background was played by Rosario Dawson in the 2005 movie. Similarly, Tracie Thoms played the lawyer Joanne, who was also written in the musical as being a woman of color. However, in the UK tour, Kerry Ellis takes on the role of Mimi, with Jemma Alexander as Joanne. What you may have noticed, is a difference of race between the characters and the actresses playing them.

Many fans are unhappy with this casting, and feel as though a musical about equality in all forms should be properly represented as such. Personally, I have always thought that Kerry would make an absolutely fantastic Maureen, and was quite surprised to hear that she’d been cast as Mimi instead. Some, however, feel that both women are talented enough to take on the roles, and that their race does not matter, so long as they perform well.

When I went to see a production of RENT in Manchester, many of the characters were portrayed as you’d expect, with the exception of Joanne and Collins, who were played by white actors. For me, this took nothing away from the characters, as they performed exceptionally well. The fact that they were able to get the emotional core of the characters across to me was enough at that moment in time.  However, I can definitely understand the emotions around the casting in a tour that will be seen by audiences across the country. Surely, the UK contains a wide enough range of talent to choose from so that the full range of diversity called for in the characters can be represented in the show. For example, Alexia Khadime, currently Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon would make a brilliant Joanne.

It’s completely unfair that the musical has been whitewashed, and that the opportunities for actors of color have been taken away. When actors of color are cast in a role originally written as a white person, there is a massive outcry – for example, the controversy that surrounded the casting of Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in CBS’ Elementary – so why doesn’t the same happen when it is the other way around? RENT talks about bending rules and breaking boundaries, but here it seems to have conformed to the same whitewashing norms to which many Hollywood movies have taken.

RENT has always showcased talent from all backgrounds, from the original Broadway cast, to the film, to the RENT: Filmed Live on Broadway DVD. For a concert tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of a musical which has had the nerve to stand out and push boundaries, it seems understandable that fans are disappointed that this same tradition of diversity is not represented by its cast.

What do you think of this casting? Let me know in the comments!

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4 Responses

  1. I disagree with what you are saying. It’s ironic that you say that RENT is a show about ‘bending rules and breaking boundaries’, because is that not exactly what the casting crew of the 20th anniversary tour have done? The tradition of diversity you say this tour lacks is exactly what it excels in. By opening the casting out to people of other ethnicities and race, they are giving certain performers the chance to act in a role they would otherwise not be able to play. When Kerry Ellis was first announced as Mimi there was an outstanding uproar about ethnic difference, but it was clear once she was on stage that she really worked the role (vocally and physically), portraying the same story and emotion that a Latino actress would. The exact same goes for Jemma Alexander as Joanne. Saying ‘the opportunities for actors of colour have been taken away’ is a lie as the likes of Leon Lopez and Kenny Thompson have been cast as the two coloured leads (Collins and Benny). The idea of acceptance and equality are still fully expressed in the tour: homosexuality by Joanne&Maureen and Collins&Angel, coloured people by Leon Lopez and Kenny Thompson (as previously mentioned), inter-racial relationships by Collins&Angel again, the use of drugs, homelessness and the diverse job choices which people weave themselves into. I’m a traditionalist, meaning I like shows to always portray the same message throughout its course and runs, no matter where in the world. Although this show has altered characters appearances, they have done nothing to the meaning or morals of the show. If you truly believe in what you are saying, then you should also be slating Les Miserables for at one point casting a black man as Javert, yet I see no complaints. Or We Will Rock You, as I once heard Sharon D. Clarke explaining that originally Killer Queen wasn’t casted to be black, yet she went on to originate in the role. I’m aware I have digressed, but my message still remains the same. The casting crew did well to cast the 20th Anniversary the way they did; what better way to celebrate Jonathan Larson’s noble work, than to apply it to reality.

  2. I feel like the UK theatre scene has been always a little bit less diverse than other theatre scenes across the world, but that’s just a slight opinion. I hope that it was for the sake of the show, that the producers felt that it was important to preserve the show and that these were the right talents for it, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been impossible to find a diverse cast

  3. Oh come on now. Did they really have to do this? POC have such a hard time finding a place in theatre that isn’t in the ensemble or that “token black character” who is stereotypical as hell and has ~the voice~ which a lot of us don’t have. This was a show where we didn’t have to fight so hard to be seen. This is just very disappointing.

  4. Wow I agree, omitting the diversity from the cast totally goes against Jonathan Larson’s vision. Its not like I think talented actors should be disqualified from certain roles simply because they’re white, but there is something really uncomfortable and inappropriate about whitewashing the ENTIRE cast. Not cool.