Several young Latinx actors living in Chicago have reached out to me to express their profound disappointment regarding the unfortunate casting decision(s) made by Porchlight Theatre for their upcoming production of In The Heights.
You and I inherently understand that this musical came from one of us. Our cousins from the island, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, collaborated to tell a story about us. And while you and I may not be Dominican, nor from the Heights, that story is still our story. It is a story about Latinidad. It is told from our hearts, our guts, our groins … from our lips to God’s ears.
You and I have the shared experiences the characters in this play experience: of feeling the isolation of being a Latinx student on a predominantly white college campus; of having a parent relate their shame and trauma when wanting to achieve their own dreams against the wishes of their parents; of engaging in a relationship with someone outside of your specific culture while being hounded by disapproval from your friends and family.
This is an experience that you and many in our community share. But the fact is this is “A Tale of Two Theatres,” not only in Chicago, but in many other cities as well. There is the “theatre” that claims to champion diversity and inclusion in their mission, staff, and seasons. And then there is the “theatre” that people from marginalized communities see: one that is predominantly white, male, and tone-deaf to the decisions they make onstage and off.
It looks like even after at least three major national theatre organizations raised their concerns in response to the collective outrage of the Latinx community both locally and nationally, the theatre is moving forward with the production with white actors portraying leading roles.
This after Hillary Clinton stated in her DNC acceptance speech, “Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino people who face the effects of systemic racism and feel their lives are disposable.”
I share in your frustration. It may feel like no one has listened to you. That your experiences, your talent and the dedication to your craft is of little value to the powers that be.
All I can do is offer the following counsel. I will do my best to put this emotional experience we are having as a Latinx community into a clearer perspective, and hope it offers comfort and validation to you as a person who embraces their Latinx identity as much as I do.
The truth is hidden in the fractures and crevices that this situation has revealed. While you may hear that the best actor got the job regardless of ethnicity, who hasn’t walked into any casting office and seen that every headshot and resume is filed by gender and ethnicity?
The reality is that the Latinx identity runs the entire spectrum of black to white. Some identify as such, others do not. Some speak Spanish, others can’t. Many are bi-racial, tri-racial, multi-racial—you name it. You and I intuitively understand that we contain multitudes, but the thing that connects us all is that we are the result of a collision of black, indigenous, and white ancestors, bound to hemispheres between the Atlantic and Pacific, and we are all cousins to the experience of Manifest Destiny, practiced by a European dominant culture.
That dominant culture extends to the American theatre. Recently one of the founders of the regional theatre movement, Zelda Fichandler, died. She is responsible for the idea that each region or city should have its own homegrown theatres—representative of and responsive to the needs of its community.
In regard to Chicago in particular, Latinx now comprise nearly 25 percent of the population of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. Latinx represent the most important demographic in entertainment expenditures. The Latinx acting community is well known to be one the largest bases of talent outside of New York and Los Angeles. But year after year, outside of Latinx-based theatre companies, many Chicago theatres have rarely produced plays or hired creative teams led by Latinx artists. Even artistic directors of all backgrounds are not immune to the syndrome of only hiring white directors to helm plays penned by artists of color.
What I have also noticed in conversations online and in social media is the defense of “passing”—whereby a majority of the debate surrounds what defines “authenticity” versus what is “acting” in regards to ethnicity. Unless people are experts in the cultural anthropology of being Latinx, these are not “imagined circumstances” that one can slip on like a second skin. The majority of Latinx can’t “pass”—in life or in the industry. And yet we are the ones most marginalized when it comes to telling our own narratives—or having access to representing our greater, shared humanity.
Having those opportunities requires more artists of color at the leadership level. And while it is never a given that a Latinx director has any more of a trusted relationship with the culture represented than a white one, it is a slippery slope when it is assumed that a director from the dominant culture inherently has more knowledge or experience to deploy that narrative than one who has lived and has been shaped by. Directors and others artists of color live within a “double conciousness” that has shaped our identity, cultural experience, and empathy with our brethren and sistren. It is loss to the greater theatre community when there is no place at the table for us.
When a theatre stands fast to protect a racist casting choice in the face of the feedback and concern this incident has raised, it begs the question: how can we, the Latinx community—or any traditionally marginalized community—take action without triggering the dominant culture’s “threat nerve” that results in defensive posturing instead of progressive change?
What is necessary for you to know is that the society we live in has for centuries operated from the assumption that one white person’s worth is greater than that of hundreds of people of color. Just look at the recent comments made by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who asked “where did any other sub-groups contribute more to civilization” than “white people?”
This narrative is not only perpetuated by American history, but has been the narrative for many theatres for decades. It is rooted in the history of the American musical—a descendant of the minstrel show—which is often conveniently left out of the theatre history training. Much like how slaves really didn’t build the White House, or the internment of Japanese-Americans didn’t happen. You get the picture.
I will not mince words. This is more than just experiencing rejection—which is a common feeling when one doesn’t get a role they desired. What you may experience—as I have in the past—is trauma. It comes from a continued systemic racism in our beloved institutions.
That is how the dominant culture operates. The gatekeepers and the creative staffs are predominantly white—and I think they believe they can continue to engage in practices like these to exclude Latinx like you and me, as well as other artists of color.
There are certain musicals that require that the original choreography be recreated and ground plans from the Broadway productions be honored when professional licensing is granted. And yet when it comes to cultural specificity of the characters, that can be ignored somehow? Again, this practice of whitewashing is done because if there is money to be made by the dominant culture, or that can reward a white actor over a Latinx actor, then so be it.
I hope this is giving context—and perhaps at times a dose of irony that comes with this bitter medicine you must swallow. Believe me when I say that it is meant to help you understand the mechanisms behind it all. Which leads to my final stanzas, which are entirely about you…
This craft is not for the faint of heart. It is important for you to understand that there are people out there that love and appreciate you for who you are. Who understand that sharing and baring your soul on stage is never frivolous. The Greeks taught us this—that the stories of our civilization and the voices of our citizens are valued above all. Your narrative matters. Your life matters. Your voice matters. And I and others who live and work within and with the Latinx community will do everything to support you and your endeavors.
You and I know that we want to tell stories that speak to who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. Latinx are the fastest growing demographic in the United States—and we are already changing our society for good.
Be kind to yourself by following this prescription, from my experience:
Do not let the decisions of ignorant individuals determine your happiness. They do not and will not understand your worth. Go where the love is. Find people who believe in you and who care about your future. Do not seek validation from institutions that have traditionally excluded your stories. In fact, be more skeptical of them. Reading a theatre’s production history and mission statement will tell you more than you need to know.
Be kind to yourself and detach yourself from any news, reports, and reviews of telling the story of a Latinx character though the eyes of a white actor and a white director and a white creative team. That is not a production I am interested in seeing. There is nothing to be gained by it artistically, socially, or emotionally. We know this because we have seen brownface on our stages, in films, on television. It’s hollow, false, and insulting. It also hurts to the core. You don’t need any more of it in your life and career. Look away and find the people (and that does include all allies of all shades and ethnicities) who do embrace your worth.
There will be other productions, produced and creatively helmed by truly inclusive and diverse teams of artists.
Make your own work. Seek out resources like ours at the Latina/o Theatre Commons, The Kilroys, HowlRound and American Theatre Magazine who are raising these issues as well. You are not alone. Change will come slow, but it will come. Theatres can no longer hide beneath the rock of decades of exclusion, whitewashing, and discrimination. Our current generation is more diverse than ever—and the more they do not seem themselves on our stages—the more they will take their stories elsewhere. New media and self-producing is a future that will be lucratively and emotionally attractive if the theatre decides that to keep casting homogenously white.
And lastly, and this is hard one: be kind. Forgiveness is a difficult, but it is the thing that is needed to move on. It’s better for our soul and makes better people in the eyes of the world. As Michelle Obama recently said, “When they go low, we go high.” Whenever we get the chance to be leaders ourselves, we will be better. When we are successful, we will send the ladder back down. We’ll take control of our narratives, and make sure that there is still room for more.
Good luck my friend. The work continues. Remember that we are on the side of progress—and we shall endure.