In the Heights’ casting controversy comes to Phoenix

In the Heights’ casting controversy comes to Phoenix

Kerry Lengel

  • The Republic |

Every revolutionary work of art has its first draft. And in the case of “Hamilton,” the runaway Broadway hit about America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, that first draft is “In the Heights.”

Created by the New York-born Puerto Rican Renaissance man Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton” tells the story of the Founding Fathers through the musical vernacular of hip-hop and with a cast made up almost entirely by people of color. This year it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the New York production is sold out months in advance.

“In the Heights,” Miranda’s first hit (and 2008’s Tony Award winner for best musical), tells the story of a Dominican-American neighborhood in New York fighting to preserve its identity in the face of gentrification. In many ways, it is a far more traditional musical than “Hamilton.” But it was the first big Broadway show to feature rap music, and with a nearly all-Latino cast, it spotlighted a community — and provided job opportunities for its actors — that is woefully underrepresented in mainstream theater.

And yet that makes casting “In the Heights” a challenge now that it’s making the rounds in regional theater, where the pool of Latino talent, particularly professional talent, can’t match that of New York or Los Angeles.

A question of authenticity

In July, Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre came under fire for casting a white actor in the lead role of its upcoming staging. Accusations of “whitewashing” and “brownface” erupted in the blogosphere.

Here in Arizona, similar concerns are being raised about Phoenix Theatre’s season-opening production “In the Heights,” which begins Wednesday, Sept. 7 — but with a twist. Cast in the role of Usnavi, the show’s narrator (and Miranda’s alter ego), is the Iranian-born actor Pasha Yamotahari.

“You have this narrator, you have this story driver who is not Latino. That gets under my skin,” said Ricky Araiza, artistic director of the Latino troupe Teatro Bravo.

“There is an artist of color who is not Latino being cast in a part of someone who is Latino, which I feel can be just as dangerous because to me, as a Latino, that’s saying ‘brown is brown.’ There’s white, and then there’s ‘the ethnics.’ As long as it’s someone who’s brown in this part, that’s filling the role. That’s how it reads to me.

“This is not to knock Pasha’s talent. Pasha’s ridiculously talented. But I don’t think this is his story. I don’t think this is his part. And it makes me, as a Latino, as a viewer, uncomfortable. … If I do go see it, my discomfort will be that I will walk into that theater and see someone putting on Latino inflections who is not, who is wearing the culture as somewhat of a costume.”

Now, that’s a softer accusation than the cries of “brownface” heard in Chicago. But isn’t putting on costumes — both literally and figuratively — what the theater is all about? That’s one of many questions, some thornier than others, raised by the issue of Latino representation in “Heights” and in the American theater at large.

Who tells whose stories?

For the record, a majority of Phoenix Theatre’s cast is Latino — 13 out of 20, according to artistic director Michael Barnard. (You wouldn’t necessarily know that looking at the cast list, since not all of the Latino actors have Hispanic surnames, which is a reminder that it’s unsafe to make assumptions.) The company held auditions in both Phoenix and New York, hiring seven out-of-town actors to fill out a diverse cast.

There are also four African-American actors and only two “Caucasians,” Barnard said, so you would think any accusation of “whitewashing” would be out of the question. But a majority of Porchlight’s cast is also Latino, and that wasn’t enough to forestall controversy.

The ethnicity of the lead actor seems to be the main sticking point, along with that of the creative team (director, designers, etc.), which is mostly white. The same is true at Phoenix Theatre, with the exception of choreographer Nick Flores.

The debate in Chicago began with a blog post by Houston-based Hispanic studies scholar Trevor Boffone titled “Casting an ‘authentic’ IN THE HEIGHTS,” which sparked similar protests from the Chicago Reader, American Theatre magazine and the Huffington Post, the latter headlined “Why White Actors Should Not Be Cast In Latinx Roles — On Broadway Or Off.”

Using a different nouveau construction for Latino/a, Boffone wrote, “If you can’t field a majority Latin@ cast and hire a predominantly Latin@ creative team, then perhaps do a different show.”

Teatro Bravo’s Araiza said he tends to agree.

“Does it mean everyone onstage and behind the scenes has to be Latino? Of course not,” he said. “But I do think the shot-callers, the decision-makers, there needs to be some Latinos in there. There has to be. …

“I do feel that if a community doesn’t have the casting ability to do ‘In the Heights’ — for instance, in Madison, Wisconsin — you’ve got a whole canon of white theater that you can still do.”

Does representation mean all or nothing?

But if only Latinos can tell Latino stories, does that risk preventing those stories from being told at all? Commercial theaters are being pressured to be more diverse, yet if their efforts fall short of 100 percent representation, they risk being called out for whitewashing. Should Wisconsin theatergoers be deprived of the opportunity to see “In the Heights” because only 7 percent of the population (and likely less than that of the professional acting pool) is Hispanic?

“I’m not comfortable with this idea of all or nothing,” said Marcelino Quiñonez, a Valley actor, director and writer who is about to star in his new play “El Che” at the Phoenix Center for the Arts. It’s not a professional production featuring Equity (union) actors like Phoenix Theatre’s shows, but even though Arizona is 30 percent Hispanic, he said casting the play was a challenge. (Full disclosure: Quiñonez’s romantic partner is part of Phoenix Theatre’s “In the Heights” cast.)

“I think to cast a full Latino production of 'In the Heights' is difficult in our city,” he said. “Sometimes, the fact is that the demographics of working (actors) do not amount to what’s needed in a particular production.

“If a play calls for five Latinos, and based on the audition process you can’t get five Latinos to, one, show up to audition, or, two, fit the bill of what’s needed, then I don’t think that should determine whether the show gets cancelled or not. I think that’s dangerous. I think that’s dangerous for the playwright, I think that’s dangerous for the community as a whole.”

It would also mean even fewer opportunities for Latino actors, he added.

“I think these conversations have to take place, but I think sometimes people’s sensitivities are a little too much,” he said, “where they’re not really listening to what the other group is saying.”

Can non-Latino actors bring authenticity to Latino roles?

Issues of representation in the theater have been a hot topic over the past couple of years. For example, a 2014 Seattle production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “The Mikado” was denounced as “yellowface” for dressing up white actors as Japanese characters. Producers responded in an op-ed that “the ethnicity of the actor or the production is only an issue if one is looking for issues.”

Obviously that didn’t sit well with the protesters. And advocates for “authentic” casting are equally incensed with a common dismissal of their complaints: “It’s called acting.”

Yet, broadly speaking, the idea that an actor can only represent his or own group onstage, whatever that may be, certainly doesn’t apply at all times. Nobody takes issue with American actors playing Irish characters in a Martin McDonagh play, so long as they get the accent right.

Which brings us to the man in the middle of the local debate, Pasha Yamotahari, who is on staff at Phoenix Theatre as resident dramaturge, among other roles.

Arizona actor Pasha Yamotahari was born in Iran and grew up in France and Canada. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)

Arizona actor Pasha Yamotahari was born in Iran and grew up in France and Canada. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)

His family fled post-revolutionary Iran when he was baby and moved to France, then to Canada. Here in Phoenix, he has played a Frenchman in “Boeing-Boeing,” a Brit in “The 39 Steps,” an Indian-American named Vigneshwar Paduar in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” and a Russian ballet dancer in “Nureyev’s Eyes.”

Yamotahari said that his experience as an immigrant — along with a love of hip-hop — fueled his passion to audition for “In the Heights.”

“I went to one of the only French high schools in Toronto, and you’ve got Somalis, you’ve got Tunisians, you’ve got French French, you’ve got New Caledonia, you’ve got Persians, Iranis, Iraqis, and we’re all connected by this language and the different cultures that language has helped create,” he said.

“We used to rap outside of our high school, a bunch of people from different places. One person’s laying down the beat, and we started just freestyling in French. My friend Abdul Muhammad’s talking about his Somali village and rapping about it in French.

“So when that show came out with Usnavi using the (rap) narrative to talk about where he’s from, who he is, what surrounds him, I just felt connected to that. I felt such a draw, not only to Lin-Manuel and his storytelling, but who his character is and how he is part of the voice of that community. And I wanted to try to honor that.”

The question at the heart of this debate is: Should he be allowed to?

Did Phoenix Theatre try hard enough?

If everyone can agree that there’s no problem with Yamotahari playing Rudolf Nureyev, then authenticity isn’t necessarily what is at stake here. Representation is. Minorities — African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, the LGBT community — have long battled for inclusion in every facet of the culture, from the halls of Congress to Hollywood. (Remember #OscarsSoWhite?)

Phoenix Theatre’s Barnard said inclusivity is one of the company’s top priorities.

“We talk about it all the time,” he said. “When we did ‘Memphis,’ we wanted to make sure we had a strong African-American cast that could do what the show called for. When we did ‘Evita,’ we wanted to have as many Hispanic individuals participating in the show as absolutely possible. Because I don’t want to have to not do certain shows that I think are really strong and have a great message, and we can’t do it because we can’t cast it. …

“You can’t oftentimes do ‘The King and I’ with a completely Pacific Asian cast, but you do the absolute best you can, and you honor the culture in the best way you can.”

Yet the decision to cast a non-Latino in the lead of “In the Heights” — particularly one who works for the theater — has raised eyebrows. And Phoenix Theatre’s critics say it has not done enough to reach out to Latino talent beyond posting audition notices.

“In the sixth largest city, it is unfortunate and disappointing to not have exhausted all possibilities to secure an authentic cast to tell the story with the author’s original intent,” argued Valley actor Damon J. Bolling, writing via e-mail. “In 2016, we as a theater community need to better by allowing actors of color to tell THEIR story, and not use ethnic doppelgangers in order to ‘pass for’ or ‘look like.’ In contemporary pieces written for and by people of color and certain cultures, it reads inauthentic — if this is not a part of you, the material will TELL ON YOU.”

Clearly, debates over representation and authenticity in the theater will continue. But Barnard stands by his decision to cast a non-Latino in the lead role of “In the Heights.”

“Yeah, Pasha is on our staff, and I do try to utilize him just like any other company that has a staff of performers connected to them,” he said. “And you look for pieces that resonate with that particular performer. Pasha embodies and embraces everything about Usnavi in his real life. It’s a character that means a great deal to him. As long as he understands community and family and the immersion of a culture inside another larger culture — which Pasha does embody all those things — then why not?”

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