This is Not a Rhetorical Question

Neoliberal Identity Politics in Current Casting Practices

It’s probably accurate to say that one of the reasons we actors follow our calling is to inhabit all kinds of characters (or have them inhabit us), especially ones who are as different as possible from who we are in our real lives, characters who do things we would never do. For example, I am currently in online rehearsals of Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon’s piece B. In it, I play a man (I’m a woman) called Jose Miguel, who is a terrorist (I am not). I am Chilean, though. And I was in the Chilean resistance against the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1980s, so I am able to provide some political, social, historical, and cultural context. That’s where the similarities end. And yet, in our current hyper-fragmented identity politics climate, it is very important that this role was given to a Chilean.

The original articulation of identity politics was coined by the Black socialist feminist Combahee River Collective in 1977, and it aimed to address a number of overlapping structures of repression. It said that we people of color, as well as Indigenous people, Black people, and queer people, have to be advocates of our own liberation, because nobody else is going to liberate us. We have to do it ourselves. And to do that we have to look at how race, gender, and sexual orientation interact in our own identities; that there are several oppressions we have to deal with, that inequality as a structural and intersectional phenomenon affects oppressed groups differently. But identity politics has been taken over by this politics of inclusion, and this politic lacks a structural critique of capitalism and therefore operates in reaction to what is considered the normative center: bourgeois, heterosexual, male, white. Our current identity categories have an interest in recognition and affirmation that, arguably, can be met within capitalism. We’ve also neoliberalized the original articulation of identity politics, thinking of our identities and our experiences as our own property and privatizing them as a product, as opposed to seeing ourselves as universal insurgents with social and political agency. And the question is, is it really liberating to commodify our identities?

four actors onstage

A production of The Refugee Hotel by Carmen Aguirre at the University of California Irvine, directed by Juliette Carrillo. Photo by Paul Kennedy.

Last September I was invited to the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada to facilitate a weeklong workshop entitled Post-Colonial Latinx Perspectives, held within the context of a series of workshops aimed at decolonizing our theatres. Stratford produces mainly classical theatre and musicals, employing culturally diverse performers. Members of the company, which included one Latinx actor, took part, as well as several Latinx Toronto actors. We read Latinx works, put scenes up on their feet, and, of equal—and perhaps greater—importance, spent a significant amount of time having difficult conversations. It was my aim to challenge essentialist identity politics that reduce our cultural identities to static endpoints that can only be performed by those who have lived experience of that particular cultural identity. Put another way, I wanted to provoke discourse that would tackle this moment of rigid cultural materialism. I wanted to defy the present climate because I do not believe that our final objective is to only have Latinx actors play Latinx parts, but rather that it is a tactic towards the ultimate goal (decades away? centuries away?), which is a theatre in which everyone will play everything.

Now, I’m aware that this “everyone can play everything” stance has led to whitewashing and “color-blind” casting because it has been addressed through the lens of inclusion in reaction to the normative center, as opposed to a politics of intersectionality. Taking on the “anybody can play anything” slogan through the latter politic would mean, in my view, that the casts of my plays (I am a playwright as well as an actor) would aim to reflect the racial and cultural diversity of whatever city they’re playing in. So, for example, if any one of my plays were to be produced in my hometown of Vancouver, about forty per cent of the actors would be Asian. We are now, I believe, at a place in our discourse in which we can start to really look at that ultimate goal and not confuse our tactic (only Latinx people should play Latinx roles) with the final objective, which is to abolish segregation and ghettoization in the theatre. But the question is: How do we get there?

I do not believe that our final objective is to only have Latinx actors play Latinx parts, but rather that it is a tactic towards the ultimate goal (decades away? centuries away?), which is a theatre in which everyone will play everything.

During our workshop, I often found myself making the following comment: “This is not a rhetorical question” in regards to real questions, such as, “Should a Latinx role only be played by a Latinx actor?” “Of course!” was the answer, with one Latinx actor stating they would consider it an act of violence if a non-Latinx actor played a Latinx role. I didn’t let that response deter me; it was in fact the perfect jumping-off point for my next question: “What if a theatre company in Saskatoon really wants to produce your play that features a Latinx cast of characters, and there are no Latinx actors in Saskatoon and the company has no funding to fly in Latinx actors? Do you tell the company to not produce your play? Do you deprive Saskatoon audiences of experiencing a Latinx story?”

This question could be asked about any number of independent theatre companies operating outside the big urban Canadian centers. Do we simply not share our work because most medium-sized Canadian cities don’t have the Latinx talent to fill the roles and no funding to bring actors in? This is not a rhetorical question. Over the years it has been brought to my attention that several companies across Canada have wanted to produce my plays but have resigned themselves to not doing so because there are no Latinx actors in their community. They figured I would not be open to casting non-Latinx actors and didn’t bother asking me for fear of the question itself being deemed offensive. I don’t blame them for not asking. Especially if the response from some would be to consider casting anyone other than a Latinx person an act of violence. In the Saskatoon example, I would simply ask the company to hire as many Indigenous and actors of color as possible—and in that way honor the Combahee River Collective’s definition of identity politics—and a Latinx cultural consultant.

How do we create this tool kit, meant to help non-Latinx actors inhabit Latinx characters to the best of their ability, without falling into racist stereotypes that are so often used against us?

During our Stratford discourse, we had two sets of notes going. The first was called our manifesto. Using the Saskatoon example, we decided that until we reach the goal of everyone truly playing everything, a manifesto would have to be shared with a company looking to produce a Latinx play. It would ask the hypothetical company to not erase us by making public statements that we do not exist—as happened a few years ago when a Vancouver company told a national newspaper they had spent two years scouring the country for Latinx talent, which they simply could not find (and yes, there is a Latinx talent pool in Vancouver)—but rather state that we do exist but that funding limitations made it prohibitive to bring us to their city. It would ask the company to commit to due diligence before concluding that there is indeed no Latinx talent in their pool (if you’re in Canada, a good place to start is by contacting the Canadian Latinx Theatre Artist Coalition, which has an ever-expanding database of Canadian Latinx theatre talent) and to endeavor to cast the Latinx roles with fellow racialized actors, and it would ask that all efforts be made to have a Latinx cultural consultant. We didn’t get much further than these manifesto points during our week together, but we thought it was a good start.

The second set of notes was called our tool kit, which consisted of cultural information that could be brought into a rehearsal hall where Latinx work was being made without Latinx artists present. This tool kit sparked lively and at times tense discussion as we delved into potentially offensive subject matter. What does one add to this tool kit? That Latinx people are more prone to hugging and physical proximity than the dominant culture in English Canada, which is protestant liberalism? That we tend to be louder and more gesturally expressive? What about the concept of chisme, that word that encompasses the grapevine, buzz, gossip, the lowdown, being “in the know,” and that captures our storytelling culture? How do we create this tool kit, meant to help non-Latinx actors inhabit Latinx characters to the best of their ability, without falling into racist stereotypes that are so often used against us? And yet we were all interested in a tool kit to go with the manifesto.

three stage production stills

The world premiere of Anywhere But Here by Carmen Aguirre at the Vancouver Playhouse, produced by Electric Company Theatre and directed by Juliette Carrillo. Photo by Emily Cooper.

One might argue that a tool kit is the equivalent of research, which any theatre artist is going to do no matter what play they’re working on, but how do non-Latinx theatre artists go about researching an actual culture? How would they even know that chisme exists if we don’t tell them? Latinx artists’ end goal, of course, is to bring our whole selves, and therefore our culture, into all rehearsal halls. You know, when we’re all playing everything. In the meantime, what does our tool kit contain? Like our manifesto, we didn’t get far with it, other than the few tips I mentioned above, but in a country where Latinx people might not be able to be present in all rehearsal halls where Latinx work is being done, we liked the idea.

My play Anywhere But Here just received its world premiere in Vancouver. It featured nine actors, eight of whom were Latinx. However, one of the leads was played by a Pakistani Canadian actor. We searched across North America for the perfect Latinx actor to play the part, and we found several. Sadly, none of them were available. We knew that we might have to end up casting a non-Latinx actor; a fellow racialized actor in order to honor the original articulation of identity politics, the one that argues that racialized communities deal with a particular set of oppressions that only we can liberate ourselves from. Casting a fellow racialized actor was as much an act of authenticity (as opposed to the current orthodox cultural materialism) as an act of solidarity. And he killed it.

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Thoughts from the curators

Canons act as both aspirational mirrors and genealogies for societies, but they also go beyond reflecting an image: they define how we make work and who is invited into the studio, on whose terms. Amid this catastrophe, we have an opportunity to rebuild: what stories will tell us who we are and how we got here, and how will we gather to tell them?This five-part series features curators and artists who participated in the Stratford Festival Lab’s “Beyond the Western Canon” workshop series in the Summer of 2019. This investigation was designed to push beyond the bounds of what is thought of as the theatre’s traditional artistic mandate: the “Western Canon.” In these articles and conversations, artists share their negotiations with dominant systems and structures, imagining holistic processes for a canon-to-come.

Beyond the Western Canon

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Really helpful thoughts going forward. I appreciate the way you've deconstructed identity politics here--I've had many of these conversations with friends, but never known how to proceed.