Recently, I saw “The Taste of Sunrise” play at Wheelock Theater. The actors and American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters did an excellent job in this production. But I must admit, for a few minutes when the play started, I couldn’t focus on the play itself.
You see, the play is set in the early 1900s. In one of the first scenes, you see a middle-aged white woman addressing a middle-aged black man as “Mr. Tucker.” My mind raced. It’s set in the 1900’s, right? Did she really just call him “Sir?” Wait. He’s HER boss? She’s the help? Was the story written as a black character for the father and a white woman for the help? In the 1900s? I was so confused.
Cultural Constraints Removed
After a few more scenes in which my racial paradigms were turned on their head, my brain was like, “Relax. Race doesn’t matter in this production.” The Wheelock Family Theater had cast its actors not based on the dictations of the cultural context of the story line, but rather on the quality of the talent they each possessed. So, if for a play set in the 1900s, the best character to play the father was a black man, then so be it. And if the best actor for the help was a white woman, so be it. It didn’t matter that societal norms of the time indicate that this casting configuration was not the historical norm. Wheelock did it for the sake of having the best talent in place.
It was a shock to my mind, because I was expecting them to limit themselves by those historical time constraints. Once I realized my own self-imposed cultural limitations, I was able to let go of my “expectations” and actually enjoy the story for the story itself. Race became a non-factor for me, as it had clearly become for the Wheelock production team. By the end of the play when Tuck (black) and Nell (white) were hugging in hope, all I saw was two people with great expectations for their futures.
Bucking Tradition Leads to Performance Excellence
Wheelock’s primary requirement was “Can you act? Are you the best one for this role?” Not “Do you look the part? Do you “fit” aesthetically with the other actors? Will the audience be OK with the ensemble mix?” Such a requirements-based protocol has resulted in Wheelock’s outstanding productions and renowned reputation: Wheelock is known for having great family theater productions, providing excellent summer programs, and serving as a launching pad for aspiring thespians.
Corporations and organizations across the board could stand to take a page out of Wheelock’s playbook. Yes, when implementing new casting (hiring) policies based on requirements, your audience may be jolted out of its comfort zone. But the discomfort will only be temporary. And when team and organizational effectiveness and productivity (along with other key metrics) increase, the new policies will speak for themselves. If hiring based on requirements can produce the best product, perhaps it’s time to say “goodbye” to traditional casting and hiring protocols.
Originally published April 2015.