The ‘type’ in the casting

"Miss Ethnic Non-Specific" tackles a big and important topic, but keeps things on the surface

If you’ve never been an actor, you may never have had cause to wonder about your type. In the biz, that means the type of role you would get considered for and cast in. Are you a leading lady? A best friend? When you imagine which characters on TV look and act like you, that’s probably your type.

Very possibly, of course, you can’t really think of anyone on TV or in movies who looks or acts like you. If you’re disabled, if you’re fat, if you’re genderqueer, if you’re an orthodox Muslim or Jew, if you’re a thousand other things. Hollywood’s scope is narrow, and many, many people are left outside looking in at beautiful idols whose lives and bodies seem nothing like their own.

There has been extensive research into why this matters, and it’s something most people understand on an intuitive level, even if they can’t quite explain it. But in Kristina Haddad’s new play Miss Ethnic Non-Specific, which she wrote and stars in, Haddad is never able to articulate why Hollywood’s need to fit everyone into a vanishingly narrow range of boxes is so problematic.

Haddad is attempting to tell a deeply personal story, and that is always a courageous act. But by brushing against fraught, thorny, and interesting questions about race and representation without engaging with them fully, Haddad’s story comes off as incomplete. Her personal experiences feel too small in the face of the issues she hints at, and she neither dives so deeply into the personal that the global becomes irrelevant, nor successfully makes her story feel like a small window into a wider problem.

Hollywood’s fixation on typing suggests that what you look like is the same as who you are, and that certain kinds of people can only ever look certain ways. Haddad correctly recognizes that this is neither true nor right. But she hasn’t figured out where to go next.

A central stumbling block in this independently-produced show, presented at Shaking the Tree, is that Haddad never successfully integrates her desire to be a movie star — and to achieve this by trying on a series of ethnicities she thinks will prove more marketable than her actual Greek-Lebanese heritage, a procession that forms the spine of the play — with the concept of a more inclusive Hollywood. Her childhood despair at not having Marsha Brady’s straight, blonde hair isn’t resolved; it’s just pushed aside when she realizes that Italian-looking curls and Roman noses are the hot thing. Ostensibly, Haddad’s is a journey of self-acceptance, but it isn’t actually Haddad who changes: the market does. Haddad tries to frame some of her later transformations as defiantly thumbing her nose at the establishment, but only when a casting director tells her that authentic is in does she drop the wigs and accents and decide to be herself.

For the Hollywood casting directors Haddad encounters, ethnicity is basically superficial: what do you look like, how do you talk? But it doesn’t seem any deeper for Haddad, or at least not for the character version of herself that she presents. She circles obsessively around images of different colors and textures of hair and different shapes of noses without ever fully examining the profound racial baggage that these particular features both hold. Her go-to sources of cultural immersion are restaurants, and she practices learning Spanish by repeating, among other things, “Yo quiero Taco Bell.”

These could be the stepping stones of the character’s journey from a shallow, stereotypical understanding of ethnicity to a deeper, truer one. But even after she comes to accept and take pride in her Lebanese heritage, framed as a turning point, she is positively gleeful that 9/11 has opened up a new world of casting for actors of Middle Eastern descent, tries to learn Arabic by calling random restaurants, puts on a headscarf, and accepts without comment a deeply stereotypical role as a Muslim woman. Though she’s leveraging her actual ethnicity this time, it comes off as just another way to get roles.

Haddad says over and over again that this play depicts a quest for identity. But the donning and shedding of these skin-deep ethnicities never illuminates anything about Haddad. She wants to be an actor because… she wants to be famous. She wants to be seen. She wants to do “important work.” None of these explanations provides insight into what animates her as a person, nor do any of them give particularly compelling reasons for us to root for her success.

The ambling script can’t quite decide whether Haddad is looking back on her life or experiencing it in the moment, and thus never settles into a consistent level of self-awareness or analysis. Video elements are inconsistently integrated, as is the inclusion of two additional actors, Alexandra Blatt and Joseph Bertót (also the director), who play the one-dimensional figures that Haddad encounters during her career. They don’t quite justify their presence in what is essentially a one-woman show. And though Haddad is certainly a woman worth watching, with an engaging stage presence, she doesn’t seem to have quite worked out how to tell her story.

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Miss Ethnic Non-Specific continues Friday-Sunday, Sept. 1-3, at Shaking the Tree. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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