Beyond Black Hermione: Jack Thorne and Disability as Diversity
It is not surprising that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and discussions of diversity go hand in hand. The decision to cast Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Granger spurred considerable conversation about whether or not Hermione could be viewed as black. Within fandom circles, fans continue to maintain various headcanons about fictional characters, which are often based in the ways in which the fans themselves identify.
Jack Thorne, the playwright behind Cursed Child, has been outspoken about the necessity of diversity in casting, particularly regarding disability. (Thorne has a medical condition called cholinergic urticaria, which he has previously described as “a strange version of a sort of chronic prickly heat.”)
In past interviews, Thorne has cited issues such as government cuts as being reasons why disability representation remains so important.
In part… because disabled people are in ‘real trouble’ from government cuts, particularly the proposed capping of the access to work fund, which helps to pay for carers and interpreters in the workplace. ‘The way disabled people are being treated by this government is atrocious.’
In a more recent interview, Thorne reiterated that conversations about diversity cannot exclude disability, particularly in the arts.
When you have auditions, try to identify some parts where you can have disabled actors in for the roles. It’s happening, but it’s happening very slowly.
Within the Harry Potter franchise, disability has only been clearly integrated in the case of actors such as Warwick Davis (Professor Flitwick and Griphook, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Parts 1 and 2) and the late Verne Troyer (Griphook, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), whose dwarfism has allowed them to play goblin (or part-goblin) characters.
Aside from characters such as Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, who is clearly written as being disabled, the actors in the films generally appear to be able-bodied. Daniel Radcliffe has a condition called dyspraxia, which affects his motor skills, yet this is never integrated into his portrayal of Harry in a way that would serve as representation. Similarly, the decision could have been made to cast an amputee in the role of Mad-Eye, yet Brendan Gleeson is not.
It should be noted here that Daniel Radcliffe has also been on the opposite side of this debate, having played “Cripple” Billy Claven in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander, Fantastic Beasts), meanwhile, won an Oscar for his portrayal of the late physicist Stephen Hawking – who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – in The Theory of Everything. The appropriateness of having an actor portray a disability that they do not have is worth questioning.
As industry professionals become more open to including disability in their works, they should also seek out actors with the same conditions that they intend to have portrayed. While some initial challenges could result from hiring disabled actors, accommodations should be made wherever possible. Conditions that might not be as apparent to audiences also exist and deserve to be represented by those who have an intimate knowledge of their own realities. Outside of the realm of the Harry Potter franchise, there are a number of actors whose disabilities have been embraced. To name just a few current examples, Gaten Matarazzo (Stranger Things) has cleidocranial dysplasia, Micah Fowler (Speechless) has cerebral palsy, and Millicent Simmonds (A Quiet Place) is deaf.
While more established actors may be protected by unions, newcomers generally are not. The establishment of specialist agencies and other organizations can help provide marginalized actors with a platform that might not otherwise be available to them. In addition to being a working actor himself, Warwick Davis is the cofounder of a talent agency for actors of very short or very tall stature, Willow Management. (The agency was originally founded to keep actors of short stature from being commodified.)
The inclusion of disabled actors in conversations about diversity should not exist separately from those around race, sexual orientation, gender, and the many other attributes that make up one’s individual identity. All of these intersect to inform our understanding of the world around us. Everyone should be able to have the joy of finding a piece of themselves in a fictional character, and that can only happen if diversity is normalized in all its forms.