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How CBS' annual diversity stage show may help TV from having an #OscarsSoWhite moment

The national debate over diversity in the entertainment industry is one of the most serious issues Hollywood has faced in years.

Or at least it was until the 23 young performers in CBS' annual Diversity Showcase in North Hollywood this week got their hands on the topic.

Thursday night's comedy show at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood had barely started when an assistant ran onstage to tell director Rick Najera that the cast had mysteriously disappeared. "Are they boycotting the Oscars?" Najera deadpanned.

One sketch of the nearly two dozen that followed imagined a black version of "Seinfeld," in which Kramer has a serious cocaine problem. The opera "Carmen" was redone with the heroine harassed by men in hard hats and work vests. And Peter Pan was caught off-guard when one of his child followers expresses an earnest desire for "a wall to keep out Mexicans" and squashes Tinker Bell because she might be an immigrant.

"Trump 2016," the Darling children chirped in unison.

This was the 11th version of the Diversity Showcase, which CBS sponsors to help find actors from nonwhite, unconventional or disadvantaged backgrounds (the last show for this year is 7:30 p.m. Friday). Organizers audition 4,000 performers to find the right cast members. Past shows have helped launch the careers of Justin Hires of CBS' upcoming "Rush Hour," Kate McKinnon of "Saturday Night Live" and Randall Park of ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat."

#OscarsSoWhite: Full coverage of the boycott and Hollywood's reaction 

But there is a special urgency this year, as the debate over the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominees quickly embroiled the movie industry in nationwide controversy. #OscarsSoWhite became a familiar hashtag. Several celebrities, including Spike Lee and Will Smith, have said they will not attend the ceremony in protest, and pressure has mounted on host Chris Rock to back out of the job. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has promised change in Oscar procedures.

Television programming has not faced such a polarizing national moment concerning diversity -- yet. But activists have complained for years about poor representation of nonwhites in TV programs, and experts have said that despite years of work, minorities remain underrepresented in virtually all facets of the industry.

Some believe that outreach efforts like the Diversity Showcase are one of the best tools the industry has to address the issue.

"They want to find the best diverse cast they can to show Hollywood that diversity is needed, it's a good thing," cast member Brett Maline, who trained with the Groundlings comedy troupe and has scoliosis, said in an interview backstage just before the curtain. "It's missing and we need more of it."

Londale Theus Jr., who played the black Seinfeld in the aforementioned sketch, agreed: "I'm glad I got to be part of this, because I feel like I'm part of the future that will change things."

"There needs to be change," Maline said. "And to be in a show in a time like this is amazing."

Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT

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