The opening performance of the Broadway revival of Parade was punctuated by a Neo-Nazi protest. Antisemitism rates in the United States are currently skyrocketing to levels unreached since the Holocaust. Especially in this context, authentic Jewish representation in the theater could not be more important. In a time where Jews are constantly targeted, victimized, and silenced, the national tour of Funny Girl’s recent casting of a non-Jewish performer as Fanny Brice feels like yet another move towards silencing Jewish voices and watering down the Jewish experience.
Last month it was announced that Cuban-American actress Katerina McCrimmon would be assuming the role of Fanny Brice in the upcoming national tour of Funny Girl, which comes to Minneapolis in January. To be perfectly clear, McCrimmon is an incredibly talented performer who absolutely deserves to lead a national tour; however, Funny Girl is not her story to tell. This is not a personal attack against her, but rather an acknowledgment of just how many people had to approve this decision. Just how many people came together to decide that this casting choice would be absolutely alright? This incident reflects a broken system.
Fanny Brice, a real historical figure, was a proud Jewish woman whose Judaism was an integral part of her life and story. Casting a non-Jewish performer to tell her story diminishes Brice’s contributions to Jewish theater and to history in general. It is wonderful that the theater world is making an active stride toward incorporating diversity into casting choices, and I hope to see many more diverse casting decisions in the future. I have joyfully watched shows such as Hamilton and Six obliterate racial and gendered boundaries in their casting decisions, and hope to see future shows emulate this inclusive mindset. However, unlike these aforementioned shows, Funny Girl and Fanny Brice’s stories are inherently intertwined with Judaism in a way that is impossible to be authentically and accurately portrayed by a performer who is not Jewish.
The theater community has made much progress in terms of representation, but we still have a long way to go. Growing up, a constant thought in my head as an avid theater fan was always that there were so few women like me in positions of prominence within the industry. The Jewish performers I looked up to, such as Shoshana Bean, Talia Suskaur, and Idina Menzel were few and far between. Jews deserve representation, just like anyone else. Little Jewish girls like me deserve to go to the theater and see someone just like them up on that stage. We deserve for our stories to be told. We deserve to have authentic representation on stage. Theater is an environment in which everyone should have a safe space where their voices and stories can be uplifted, and that must include Jews.
Jews come from all different walks of life, every corner of the earth. It would have been entirely possible and encouraged to cast a non-white Jewish performer, even a Cuban-American Jewish performer to take on this iconic Jewish role. As a Cuban-American Jew myself, I have a deep admiration for McCrimmon and hope they receive many more opportunities to continue breaking boundaries for Latinx performers. However, we cannot elevate the voices of some while silencing the voices of other minorities. It seems that society does not recognize that not all Jews are white, and that we are a minority, deserving of representation in our own right. Jews deserve authentic representation just as much as any other marginalized community does, however, the erasure of our culture goes unnoticed, unchecked. This sort of “inclusionary” casting feels like a tactic to cover up the erasure of the experiences of an ethnic minority without facing repercussions. Diverse casting is wonderful and admirable, however silencing the voices of an ethnic minority in the name of “diversity” is not true inclusion; it is erasure. Erasure of the experiences of a Jewish woman whose life was uniquely impacted by her Judaism. Erasure of Jewish culture, of Jewish stories, of Jewish experiences.
The humor throughout Funny Girl is self-aware and ironic in a way that would simply be offensive when being portrayed by a non-Jewish performer. The musical comically references Jewish stereotypes, including the archetypical Jewish nose and obsession with bagels, in a way that is largely offensive when done by a non-Jewish performer. Quips such as “is a nose with deviation such a crime against the nation?” featured in the song “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty”, can serve as a self-aware joke about the discriminatory experiences that Jews have faced throughout the years, when sung by a Jewish actress. However, when uttered by a non-Jewish performer, this lyric simply serves to reinforce negative stereotypes about Jews. While this situation is in no way at the same level of extremity, propaganda during the Holocaust utilized exaggerated images of Jews with huge, beak-like noses, in order to separate and dehumanize them. This stereotype has a long and harmful history for Jews, and it would be entirely problematic for this lyric to pass the lips of a non-Jewish performer. If a non-Jewish performer were to crack these jokes and sing such lines, this kind of horrific rhetoric would continue to be disseminated. Due to the musical’s light and silly tone, this problematic rhetoric that has harmed millions of Jews is easily enforced and normalized when uttered by a non-Jewish performer.
What perhaps sends an even louder message than this casting decision is the rest of the world’s relative silence. As of the time I am writing this article, I have seen very few people speak up about this incident. This decision sends a negative message to the public about the value and importance of Jewish voices and the Jewish experience. It is a statement that our stories do not have intrinsic importance and that we do not deserve representation on stage. As Jewish actress Talia Suskaur stated on Instagram, “[i]n a time where Antisemitism is at its all-time highest since the Holocaust, it is so detrimental to have a non-Jew playing at a Jewish stereotype around the country. Jews are always, for some reason, the exception. We are an ethnic minority. We matter.” While complete diversity and inclusion is an ideal that we as a theater community must constantly strive towards, diversity entails elevating every voice, not only the voices of those who are most palatable and marketable. Certain roles simply must be cast a certain way in order to preserve the integrity of the story of the show. To be clear, every performer from every background deserves for their voice to be heard. I am certainly not advocating for other minorities to lose opportunities at the expense of Jews; I am simply advocating for Jews to be extended the same courtesy.
The internet broke over “In the Whites”, a racially offensive production of In the Heights, and yet when a non-Jewish performer is cast as Fanny Brice: radio silence. Every marginalized community has an equally unique and important story to share. While these events are in no way equivalent, a parallel can be drawn, not between the occurrences themselves, but rather between society’s reactions and attitudes towards these incidents. Just as Usnavi, Nina, and Vanessa must always be portrayed by Latinx performers, so too should Fanny Brice be portrayed by a Jewish performer. Jewish voices are important and deserve to be heard and celebrated. Our experiences are an essential aspect of history. As Suskaur said: “We matter.” Our voices, stories, and experiences truly matter.
Hannah Shapiro is a Cuban-American Jewish theater fan who lives in Miami.