Guest post by Tripp Pettigrew (read his family story here). Tripp is the proud parent of adopted children, and, inspired by his children, he founded a not-for-profit theatre company in Los Angeles. His company is getting ready to produce its inaugural production of Kander & Ebb's "Cabaret." In his own words, read about his inspiration below.
My youngest son, Alex, has had an incredible journey. He walked into my home shirtless, dirty, scared of our dogs and barely verbal. From that moment, his tantrums were so powerful and explosive that I was called to his school multiple times a week. He stabbed one teacher with a pair of scissors and scratched another on the face so deep she had to go to the emergency room. In order to try to have any kind of time to dedicate to my job, my mother-in-law spent three months of her time going to school with Alex, something which I'll always be grateful for. I won't get into the tantrums outside of school but suffice it to say that there were way too many times that, in traffic, Alex would throw open the door of the car and run. Just picture this Caucasian early thirties man chasing after a Latino child on the streets of Los Angeles. Thankfully no one reported me for kidnapping!
It has been a long journey but after 7 years, the tantrums are completely gone. Yes, there are still times when Alex expresses anger inappropriately but I will take this version! We finally found a great school for him: a small class room with dedicated teachers that are trained in behavioral issues. At home he spends most of his time drawing comic books or building with Lego. He has won citizenship awards at school and his teachers adore him. He has the highest grades in his classes and he hates weekends because those are days he can't be a school. We still struggle, of course--why won't teenagers take a shower or brush their teeth! But, he greets me with a huge hug every time I come home. He has changed my life in a million ways.
A few years ago, Alex could hardly wait to see the new Frozen show at Disneyland. Since the movie came out, he was in love with Olaf and spent most mornings before school singing Olaf's song. The summer the Frozen show opened, there was a lot of hubbub online about the color-blind casting. True to the hubbub, at the show Alex and I saw, Kristoff was played by an African-American actor.
Considering that Alex is usually a stickler for things appearing correctly (he once refused to ride the Haunted Mansion ride because Oogie Boogie--typically just a large, naked green monster--was depicted at the end wearing a Santa hat and beard), I was curious if he would notice or care about the multicultural casting. To my surprise, Alex didn't blink an eye. The lady behind me whispered to her husband, "Why is Kristoff Black?" But my son loved the show. He didn't have anything critical to say except he thought the Olaf puppet was too small. Later that day, though, he asked me, "Do you think I can be Olaf some day?"
This moment made me realize the power of representation. This is what I wish to do with my theater company, Imaginary Theatricals. I wish to produce only color-blind, gender-blind, and sexual-orientation-blind theater. I firmly believe that what's more important in theater is the story being told not whether or not Curly from Oklahoma is played by a white man. Rodgers and Hammerstein made us confront racism and domestic violence.
I think the same can be done to further the race and/or sexual orientation and/or gender conversation in this country through casting (and even better if you can find new works to produce that support this idea). I think you can make small adjustments (for example, as in Frozen, choosing an African-American actor to play a traditionally white character) that have huge impacts. For the most part, if the production itself is good enough, I don't think many people will notice. However, if people do notice, I think it starts the right conversation. The lady sitting behind me at Frozen didn't get up and leave. She asked her husband, "Why is Kristoff Black?" If I had been her husband, my response would have been, "because he's a made up character from a place that doesn't actually exist."
We are producing our inaugural production of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret from June 7th through 9th. We hope to have a trans actor as our Emcee and a deeply diverse cast. We want to pay these actors a living wage.