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A black actress is playing Hermione in the Harry Potter play, and J.K. Rowling loves it

Noma Dumezweni, who won a Laurence Olivier Award for her performance in A Raisin in the Sun, will play the adult Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Noma Dumezweni, who won a Laurence Olivier Award for her performance in A Raisin in the Sun, will play the adult Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The lead actors have been picked for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the London play created in part by J.K. Rowling that will depict the Harry Potter books' main characters as adults. And the big news is that Noma Dumezweni — an acclaimed British stage actress of South African heritage — will play the adult Hermione Granger.

Dumezweni is black, and predictably this created some small backlash on the internet among people who apparently managed to read the Harry Potter books without absorbing a single word of their message that prejudice and discrimination are bad. And Rowling pointed out on Twitter that Hermione's race is never specified in the books:

Art from Harry Potter fans depicting Hermione as black or multiracial has been circulating on the internet for a while. So have similar reimaginings of well-known characters from literature and film (some examples: Lord of the Rings; Disney) as different races than they're usually viewed as. These interpretations are known as "racebending," and they're not just about changing the color of characters' skin.

Racebending can provide a new way to see familiar characters

Sometimes racebending simply provides a way to imagine better representation for people of color, or for fans to show what's in their head when they imagine a character whose race might not be specified. And it's more typical in the theater than elsewhere: The directors of the Harry Potter play didn't invent the idea of race-blind casting.

But depicting characters as a different race can also make works more creatively rich by offering new insights into their themes.

Hamilton, the Broadway musical that reimagined the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries as people of color fluent in rap, is a racebending of history — and a tremendously successful one. Hamilton's casting isn't a gimmick; it's a fresh way of looking at figures who have become familiar.

The casting notes from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda show the insight this can add: Hamilton's George Washington, for example, is described as "John Legend meets Mufasa"; the Marquis de Lafayette, America's crucial French ally, is "Lancelot meets Ludacris." Most people would never imagine the dusty white men of history books this way — but the description suddenly casts them in a new light.

Casting a black actress as Hermione does the same for Rowling's books. Prejudice is the central theme of the Harry Potter series, displayed in terms of magical heritage rather than race.

Imagining Hermione, who is from a nonmagical background and becomes an activist on behalf of enslaved house-elves, as nonwhite, is another twist on those themes — it makes her an outsider from a historically less privileged caste in both the magical and nonmagical worlds.

"Painting Hermione as a woman of color" is "an act of reclaiming her allegory at its roots," film and TV writer Alanna Bennett wrote in a BuzzFeed community post in February. "Hermione Granger will always be an icon, no matter what color her skin… The least we could do is provide her with more room to be that icon."

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