Six decades after Sidney Poitier shattered racial barriers with his performance in Raisin in the Sun, Emilie Kouatchou brings a Black Christine Daaé to The Phantom of the Opera.
Kouatchou ushers in a new era of Black representation in theater as the lead female role in Broadway’s longest-running musical performance. Thirty-six actresses have played the role in the show’s 34-year history, and until now, not one of them has been Black.
“I think it’s outrageous that it has taken this long for a Black actress to be cast as Christine,” said Kenneth Elliott, chair of the Department of Visual, Media, and Performing Arts at Rutgers University–Camden. “Black singers have headlined productions at the Metropolitan Opera for decades. But Broadway is bourgeois entertainment and slow to change, so this is a very welcome development.”
Rutgers–Camden lecturer of Theater Amy-Rose Forbes-Erickson focuses her scholarly work on the exploration and expression of racial identity through performance. She is pleased to see more work that is inclusive of Black representations, from the perspectives of and for Black people.
“Black storytellers and theater-makers have always used theater and performance as modes of self-expression and stories, from honored traditions to inventiveness,” Forbes-Erickson said. “There is nothing more important than theater as a space of liberation to share our deepest desires, dignity, and humanity from social justice to belief systems that reveal who we are as Black theater artists in the world.”
In an industry where box office sales are the measuring stick for success, Black representation has proven to be a profitable concept. Hamilton, the Lin-Manuel Miranda blockbuster with a strongly diverse cast, has earned over $650 million on Broadway and more than a billion dollars for the entire franchise, which includes a movie and traveling productions. Representation sells.
“Until recently, very few theater producers gave much thought to diverse representation, and inattention to the issue meant that there was little progress,” said Elliott. “I think that is starting to change, and the best way to support this progress is for all theater artists to consider it in their work.”
Elliot isn’t the only person who feels this way. Kouatchou was quoted in People magazine as saying, “It frustrates me that it took this long, it does. I’m honored that it’s me, and I'm honored that I’m making history, but I’m really excited for when it's not even a question, it's not even a thing, the first Black Christine.”
Rutgers University–Camden is excited to celebrate the accomplishments of Black Americans through a month-long storytelling project titled RePRESENTation Matters. Each story will explore the significance of representation in our quest for true racial equality.
“My hope is that the RePRESENTation Matters project sparks conversation about why representation matters in the effort to overcome systemic racism.”
–Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis
All photos of Emilie Kouatchou courtesy of The Phantom of the Opera.
All photos of Hamilton courtesy of Disney.
Creative Design: Douglas Shelton