The Road to Authentic Casting Is Also Slow

The conversation about the casting of In the Heights at Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre has accelerated since the last post about it here on The Director’s Vision blog.  Diep Tran published an impassioned article on line for American Theatre magazine, including statements from Quiara Alegría Hudes, co author (with Lin-Manuel Miranda) of the musical.  Ms. Hudes is emphatic that authentic casting is essential for any professional production of In the Heights.  It’s interesting, though, that she states that “I’m happy for schools and communities who do not have [Latino] actors on hand to use In the Heights as an educational experience for participants of all stripes.”  Ms. Tran points out that this attitude is far from universal among playwrights and advises consulting the author whenever the question comes up.

This was followed by the publication of an article by Priscilla Frank on The Huffington Post, opening up the conversation well beyond the theatre community.  The comments there have generated controversy.  Rhetorical questions from the chief theatre critic of the major daily Chicago Sun-Times, Hedy Weiss, implied that actors should be allowed to stretch to inhabit characters with backgrounds different from their own. (Ms. Weiss is the writer of the Sun-Times article that drew the scrutiny of Howard Sherman on his Arts Integrity Initiative blog.)  On Facebook Chay Yew, a playwright/director and the artistic director of a larger Chicago company, Victory Gardens Theater, expressed alarm and disappointment at this.  Mr. Yew’s reaction has in turn triggered further comment.  For her part, Ms. Weiss has now offered (on her Facebook profile) to attend a civil “town hall meeting” on the topic, and someone else has pointed out that the Alliance of Latino Theatre Artists – Chicago has planned a meeting on this very topic for August 9 at Victory Gardens.

I am working to ally with artists from ethno-racial backgrounds that have long been underrepresented and misrepresented in theatre and other forms of dramatic storytelling.  I support those that are working to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion in this work, and although the idea of authentic casting is newer to me I am fully on board.  It seems to me that Ms. Weiss and others that argue for “color-blind” casting, even when it works in favor of actors from backgrounds like my own, are–at best–missing a crucial point.  I am imperfect at all this and still learning how I can best help, and all of my thinking about it necessarily comes from the privileged position of an aging white Anglo male with a pretty cushy job as a university administrator (and a background as a professional and academic director and producer).  I also find some of the issues involved in all of this complex enough to be intriguing.

For example, it’s clear that authorial intent is a crucial ingredient in this conversation, but is it always the overriding consideration?  The Porchlight situation has arisen in the shadow of a decision that proved controversial by another professional Chicagoland musical theatre company, the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, to cast non-Latinx performers in Evita.  Even though it is obviously set in Argentina, my guess is that the British creators, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice, did not have Latinx performers in mind in the 1970s, when they wrote this now-classic musical (the original West End stars were Elaine Page, David Essex, and Joss Ackland).  In the U.S. four decades later, though, I would argue that the need to increase diversity and inclusion is an extremely important factor, and in the Marriott case it should probably have been the controlling one.

In their statements to the press, the Porchlight folks have pointed out that they have no business asking the actors they audition about their ethnicity.  That’s true.  In retrospect it seems to me that if a top priority had been authentic casting, they might have employed an interview question along the lines of, “How will your own background help you to maximize the dimension, detail, and truth you bring to the role of Usnavi?”  To be honest, however, I don’t know that I would have realized the importance of such an interview in advance.

I’m also being honest when I say I worry about theatre companies such as Porchlight.  I don’t know a lot about this company’s particular circumstances but I know that it’s a mid-sized theatre, and I have some experience running one of those: I was the producing and artistic director of a mid-sized company in the 1990s.  We worked continuously to give the company a solid institutional image, but all the while we were painfully aware that we were operating on a shoestring, most years racing to stay a step ahead of some accumulated deficit and never with any financial reserves.  It would have been a stretch for us to do the sort of outreach that Porchlight has described, and when Ms. Hudes says “You may need to fly in actors from out of town if you’ve exhausted local avenues, and house them during the run,” all I can tell you is that it would not have been within our means to do so.  That doesn’t mean I disagree when she says that “The Latino community has the right to be disappointed and depressed that an opportunity like this was lost.”  I’m certainly in no position to say otherwise.

Ms. Tran writes that “If all else fails, it’s fine to not mount the show if you can’t do it the way its creators intended. Because when it comes to a choice between whitewashing roles of color or having no production at all, the latter is preferred.”  Here again I don’t mean to argue, but in case it’s of any use in the conversation I would offer that the cancellation of a scheduled production after the investment of all the resources required to prepare for it could easily have crippled our mid-sized company.  Also, it still looks to me as if Porchlight had honorable intentions to diversify its repertoire when it chose In the Heights.  To cancel the show entirely would strike me as unfortunate, especially if it might discourage future efforts to expand the range of material being produced by this company or others.

Let’s face it: before they committed to producing Miranda and Hudes’s musical, Porchlight should have had a more robust strategy for getting this right.  They should have involved more Latinx artists as key staff members in the creative planning and casting processes.  Perhaps they should have partnered with a Latino theatre company as co-producer.  I just find their mistakes all too human, especially given their limited resources.  I hope they find their way through this successfully.

Like Ms. Tran, I am “ready for theatres to do better, to commit to authenticity, and to stop making excuses.”  But my nature, my background and, I freely admit, very possibly my privilege seem to be making me more patient about it.

UPDATE (August 2): Howard Sherman’s latest blog post provides useful context.  “When it comes to respect and recognition, diversity and inclusion, there is a new arts narrative being written right now.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s