The Imperfect Road to Authentic Casting

There’s a lot to learn from Howard Sherman’s post yesterday on his Arts Integrity Initiative blog, about the casting process for Porchlight Music Theatre‘s upcoming production of In the Heights and the way that the company and the Chicago Sun-Times announced the cast. I am inclined to agree that the Sun-Times reporter that Mr. Sherman quotes seems more behind-the-times than a big-city arts journalist for a major daily newspaper ought to be, and there’s no arguing with Sherman’s idea that “at a time when the conversation around race in this country is both heightened and often divisive, certainly the arts are one place where care and consideration can prevail.”

I do worry, though, that Mr. Sherman may be a bit overzealous in an effort to root out imperfections in a theatre company’s approach to a work such as In the Heights. The company apparently went to some lengths to find top-flight talent that’s appropriate for the show, but Mr. Sherman scolds artistic director Michael Weber for (among other things) seeming to be proud of that effort, and for needing to search for Latino/a performers instead of knowing them already.

Mr. Weber strikes me as a good guy (to the very small extent that I know him—his company is an internship venue for advanced students from the theatre school where I work, and he is one of my 1,500+ Facebook “friends”). I applaud Porchlight for doing Quiara Alegria Hudes & Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, for working hard to cast it as well as they can, and for moving forward on other fronts as well. I’m disinclined to second guess their promotional language or their staffing choices, imperfect though they may be (perhaps this is partly because I know first-hand about the myriad challenges of running a mid-sized theatre company). I celebrate the good things they’re doing and I would encourage them to keep getting better and better. But maybe that’s just my style–and mine is obviously the privileged perspective of a white Anglo middle-aged man, so take it with a grain of salt if you think you should.

[I chatted briefly online with Mr. Sherman before posting this, and he didn’t provide me with a response to incorporate into this post.  I know he will feel free to comment or send me a statement to incorporate in this post if chooses to do so.  He did send me a link to this blog post by Dr. Trevor Boffone which provides a little more dimension–some of it disappointing–to the story.]

I am grateful to Mr. Sherman for teaching me some new vocabulary: he uses the words “Latinx” and “Latinao” in his article, and either one seems more elegant than “Latina/o” and more concise than “Latina and Latino,” so that’s helpful (although, as you can see, I’m not fully comfortable with the newer words yet).  [Dr. Boffone’s post uses another clever word I had not seen before: “Latin@.”]  Mr. Sherman also uses the phrase “people of color,” which is fine by me, but I remembered that the great playwright August Wilson had objected to the phrase “artists of color,” so I asked Mr. Sherman for a possible alternative.  He suggested the new adjective ALANA (African, Latino/Hispanic, Asian and Native American), which is intriguing, but he cautioned that it is not yet widely used and therefore probably not yet understood by many.

I do agree with Mr. Sherman’s point, that “there’s an essential need for everyone to step up their game,” and I continue to consider his advocacy invaluable. I hope his insights will help me and others to speed our journey toward equity, inclusion, and related virtues.

UPDATE (July 27): Mr. Sherman has posted a detailed follow-up to the post linked above.  He quotes at least two people who criticize the casting, in the central role of Usnavi, of an actor who is white rather than Latino.  There is significant balance in the rest of Mr. Sherman’s  exploration of the issues a theatre company such as Porchlight faces when diversifying its repertoire, though, and in his last paragraph he states that “Exploring a single situation at a small theatre in Chicago is not meant to vilify that company, but only to highlight how challenging it seems to be for so many to move to a place of true diversity and equity….”  If you’ve followed the story this far, I’ll bet you’ll want to read this new post in its entirety on artsintegrity.org.

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