During Wakefield High School's rehearsal of the musical "Runaways," Gretel Truong came to a point in the script where she didn't know what to do -- despite its clear instructions.
Latino, black and white students were to form separate groups to symbolize racial divisions among urban youth. Truong, who has a Vietnamese father and a white mother, felt as if she didn't belong anywhere. So she decided to make A.J., her tomboyish role, into a floater.
"I bounced around and interpreted it as part of my character," said Truong, 18, an Arlington senior bound for the University of Virginia in the fall. "I looked at the character as a newcomer in this group of runaways, and she didn't really know where she fit in. I myself am of mixed race, so didn't really fit anyplace, anywhere, either."
Solutions such as Truong's have become increasingly common on the high school stage. As schools throughout the Washington area diversify, drama teachers say they are casting across cultures, creating racially eclectic families and forcing audiences to stretch their imaginations a bit more.
But colorblind casting, as the practice is known, has its challenges: Scripts often need to be retooled to eliminate references to tans or hair color, and students of different backgrounds have to be persuaded to try out for shows not written for them.
Tonight, the two trends -- colorblind casting and the area's changing demographics -- will meet at the fifth annual awards gala of the Critics and Awards Program, better known as the Cappies, to be held at the Kennedy Center. Wakefield's "Runaways" is up for Best Musical, along with productions from four other schools. More than 200 students, who will don tuxedos, prom dresses and their best behavior for the night, are nominated for awards in 35 categories.
Two years ago, a black female student from Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington won a Cappie for her performance as a Jewish man in "Fires in the Mirror," a play about race relations in New York City. Theater teacher Rip Claassen said the casting was intentional.
"When we did that show, we purposefully also had some white students playing black characters just so they could explore the different identity issues," Claassen said. "We've got to realize as artists that this is a world that is multicultural."
This year, Duke Ellington staged "Amen Corner," a play about a black church in Harlem, nominated for several Cappies. "One of the questions asked to us by our white students this year was: 'Should I audition?' " Claassen said. "We ended up bringing up the issue that this is something that African American actors often have to deal with."
Claassen's answer was yes, and some white actors were included in a majority-black cast.
When Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield put on its production of "Rivals" this year, the role of a lovesick Jack was played by junior John O'Malley, who is white. Jack's father, Sir Anthony, was played by senior Noel Mesfin, who is black. In 2002, the school put on "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," and the cast had a similar makeup, said Lee theater director Trena Weiss-Null.
"Joseph's family was as colorful as his coat. . . . I try not to think about color when casting," Weiss-Null said. "I cast mixed couples and family groups whenever they are the right actors for the roles. I am more likely to look at height than race."
She recalled having to change a line a few years ago when the school staged "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" and the role of Ken was played by a black student. The line, "Hey, Ken, nice tan," became "Hey, Ken, nice suit."
Some schools, despite growing diversity, say their drama departments have been slower to lure immigrant or minority students. And that makes it more difficult to cast shows that are primarily about race or culture.
"I would never pick a show like 'Ragtime' or 'West Side Story' because we couldn't do it," said Christopher Kosmaceski, a music teacher and incoming drama director at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. "People would disagree with me, but I think it would be difficult."
Nationally, officials at the Cincinnati-based Educational Theatre Association said teenagers seem increasingly interested in performing works with a social message, often about race or class.
"They are open to seeing people as people," Executive Director Michael Peitz said. "There are schools that will do 'West Side Story,' and they may be a primarily white school and will cast difference through costuming or color of clothing."
For their part, minority students say they know high school has provided a fairly utopian backdrop to their acting aspirations. They don't have to enter the real world to know productions aren't always colorblind; they say the casts of their favorite television shows don't reflect what they find in school.
"I know that people get cast based on how they look in Hollywood," said Corey Hawkins, 15, a sophomore at Duke Ellington. "We work so hard on our craft, and once we get out of Duke Ellington, there are not going to be people looking for technique. I worry about that a lot."