Whitewashing 'In the Heights' in One of the Most Hispanic Areas in the Country (Updated)

Whitewashing 'In the Heights' in One of the Most Hispanic Areas in the Country (Updated)

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief

In the past couple of weeks, the issue of casting shows racially correct has been a hot button issue not only on this site, but the entire industry as well. As more and more theatres are pushing for racially diverse materials and casting, the spotlight becomes a bit more glaring on the theatres that aren't and the feeble excuses they're coming up with. 

Last year, there was major controversy coming out of Chicago where a professional production of In The Heights cast a white Italian actor in the role of Dominican, Usnavi. In response to the outrage, Porchlight Theatre stated that the decision was largely based on casting difficulty. Given that Porchlight is located in Chicago, home to over 2 million Latinx people (6th largest in the country), this excuse fell way short and was deemed unacceptable by the Latinx community and even the creators of the musical. 

For reference, Latinx is the gender-neutral alternative to Latino, Latina, and even Latin. Used by scholars, activists, and an increasing number of journalists, Latinx is quickly gaining popularity among the general public. It’s part of a “linguistic revolution” that aims to move beyond gender binaries and is inclusive of the intersecting identities of Latin American descendants. In addition to men and women from all racial backgrounds, Latinx also makes room for people who are trans, queer, agender, non-binary, gender non-conforming or gender fluid. 

Now, a year later, casting issues regarding the piece have sprung up again, this time in Bridgeport, CT where the Downtown Cabaret Theatre (DCT) had cast AT LEAST one white performer in a Latina role, Puerto Rican Camilla Rosario, altering her appearance to resemble a Puerto Rican woman. To many, this is considered "brownface" which generally falls under the umbrella of "whitewashing”.

I am now being told that the roles of Daniela and Piragua Guy were also white. It has been reported to me that these white actors were cast over Latinx performers who also auditioned for the show. The level of wrong here is off the charts. 

While I certainly know of this theater, I'll admit that I didn't know about this particular casting until it was brought to my attention by several audience members and others in the theatre community. Many were wondering why I hadn't said anything about this, considering the multiple articles we've done condemning whitewashing. 

One email read, 

"As a member of the Puerto Rican community I was deeply offended to see a white actress playing the role of a Puerto Rican mother. Not only was she wearing a wig and makeup but spoke in a very poorly done accent as well."

 Another read, 

"I've seen plenty of shows here before that were cast correctly when it comes to race. It's disappointing to see that they couldn't follow through on the one iconic Hispanic musicals in a heavy Hispanic area."  

An email from a fellow Latina actress stated,

"The overall production was excellent, so it's really sad for me that I was so distracted by seeing white people playing basically me, made up to look like me. Had this been in any other town maybe it would have been unnoticeable or okay, but not here, not with me." 

So, as I do with all emailed complaints or reports and to be fair to all theaters, I did the research, contacted the theater for a response, and will address the issue. 

From what I see, from DCT's website and promotional materials, it does appear that at least one white performer was cast as a Puerto Rican woman in the show. It also is evident that her appearance was altered to look like a Puerto Rican woman. However, I am being told now that she's "40% Native American", which doesn't mater because she's still, "0%" Puerto Rican. 

While I do not believe that this theatre company or the creative team are in any way maliciously racist (given their commitment to producing racially diverse material in the past), I can certainly understand why some would be offended by this, with no explanation from the theater as to why it happened, and especially in a city such as Bridgeport, CT (which we'll get into in a moment). 

But, before we get into this particular situation, let me provide some context into the issues of "whitewashing" and "brownface". 

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There is no question that the use of "blackface" (the makeup used by a non-black performer playing a black role) is unacceptable in every way. The use has been shunned in the entertainment industry. It's use rightly ignites outrage and people have lost their jobs and been expelled from schools for donning it. No matter what their intent, whether it be mocking blacks or trying to "educate", it's always wrong. 

However, while the line is clearly marked that "blackface" is terrible and should never happen, it's a bit blurry when it comes to other races, especially Latinx and Asian. Hollywood has employed the use of white actors playing Latinx roles in the past. 

Hollywood.com stated, 

"Many non-Latin actors have played Latino roles, with varying degrees of success: Hank Azaria, Johnny Depp, and Anjelica Houston have all played Latinos. There have even been white actors in historical representations of Latino history. Ethan Hawke played a Uraguayan in Alive and Ben Affleck’s character in Argo was based on half-Mexican CIA agent Tony Mendez."

Most famously, Rita Moreno, who happens to be Puerto Rican, even had to darken her complexion for West Side Story.

Because of this practice of "brownface" and "yellowface", it trickles down to the theatre community where it is interpreted as generally acceptable and, therefore, practiced often. While these portrayals are rarely done in a disrespectful way (playing up racial stereotypes), casting white performers as Latinx or Asians is still unacceptable.

If you're wondering why this is a problem. Jon Oliver laid this out pretty well. He's white. He gets it. 

The great hypocrisy in all this is that while theaters would NEVER employ the use of "blackface", and would cancel a show before even considering it, the stance softens when it comes to "brownface" and "yellowface". More and more theaters across this country use white actors in shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Miss Saigon, and In the Heights

One point of defense I usually get from a theater is "Well, are we supposed to only cast Germans as Nazis in The Sound of Music? Or Jewish people in Fiddler on the Roof?

First of all, saying this greatly diminishes the problem and plight of performers of color. Secondly, it reveals a gross lack of knowledge when it comes to countries of origin within race classifications. 

And yes, at least for me as an Asian male, I also believe it is wrong for performers of color from one race who are cast as another. While some might, I would never audition for the role of a Latino or Middle Eastern or historically white male. 

But that's enough context, let's get back to the issue in Bridgeport. 

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Rather than cast a Latina actress in the role of Puerto Rican, Camila Rosario, Director Christy McIntosh-Newsom chose to cast white actress Julie Bell Patrak. However you can see Ms. Petrak's transformation from THIS to THIS

While Ms. Petrak reportedly(The show closed on May 21st and I didn't see it) didn't play up Latina stereotypes, her appearance was still altered to portray a Latina woman. Ms. Petrak even commented on her transformation in an interview where she said, " I’ve also been diving into the dialect…it’s all about bringing in an authenticity and truth to the story."

However obvious or subtle, if an actor has to change their appearance to pay another race, that actor should not have been cast in the role. With all due respect to Ms. Petrak, while her portrayal might have been as respectful as possible, it was never going to be authentic. Also, there is no such thing as a Latinx "dialect". According to Latino performer Luis Eduardo Mora, "You can have an accent from a specific country or region."

But I'm not going to pile on Ms. Petrak too much here. For all I know she is just an actress who either auditioned for the role or accepted the role when asked by the director.

Now some of you might be saying that since the role of Camilla is so small (Is it though?), it doesn't matter. However, the ethnicity of these characters were written a specific way for specific types of performers and anything against that severely undercuts the authorial intent by the writers, one of which is Lin-Manuel Miranda who happens to be Puerto Rican.

But moving beyond the fact that whitewashing occurred, the questions become "Why?" and "How?" 

It's important to state who the Downtown Cabaret Theatre (DCT) are. The theatre has been around since 1975 and is currently run by both Hugh Hallinan as Executive Producer and Eli Newsom (Ms. McIntosh-Newsom's husband) as Producing Artistic Director. This also isn't some small-time community theatre and referring to them as such would be offensive to the sizable operation they've had success in building. While operating, currently, as a non-profit theatre with open call auditions, the theatre does offer and has employed Equity performers and pays performers for their Children's Theatre productions. 

But why did this happen?

Unfortunately we may never know. Not unless the DCT comes out with a statement following the publication of this article. I reached out to Mr. Hallinan and Mr. Newsom to let him know that it had been reported to me that audience members and others in the community were complaining that whitewashing was occurring in this production and I wanted to know how this came about with the casting process. This is the response I received, fairly quickly, from Mr. Hallinan:

It reads: 

"Chris,

Under no circumstances does the Downtown Cabaret Theatre employ the practice of "whitewashing" when casting its productions.  It's a silly and unfounded accusation and barely deserves a comment."

Beyond the fact that Mr. Hallinan's response was arrogant and dismissive towards the complaints from his audience, it's also problematic because it suggests a gross ignorance when it comes to whitewashing. My concern now is if Mr. Hallinan doesn't truly understand what whitewashing is, otherwise he'd plainly see that it occurred within his theatre. That is, unless he wasn't aware of what was going on in his theatre, which is even more troubling. I asked for a follow up comment from Mr. Hallinan, but that was never responded to and I haven't heard a word from Mr. Newsom either.  

There are also about fifty different ways Mr. Hallinan could have responded to me that would have, at the very least, explained why this happened. While they're certainly not obligated to release that information,  I could have (while still disagreeing with the final decision) understood the position the theatre was in. But Mr. Hallinan doesn't think I, therefore you, deserve a response to that. Oh well. 

But this leads into next question, "How did this happen?"

As usually the case when issues like these happen, the excuse from the theatre is that they had to make such casting choices based on the limited pool of performers auditioning. Again, with specific to the situation at DCT, Latinx performers were passed over for Latinx roles byt white performers. 

I have made it known my feelings when this happens, by saying that if performers of color do not show up for roles of color, or the theatre can't find any, then the theatre should replace that show in the season. You wouldn't do Fences without any black actors, so why would you do In the Heights without enough Latinx performers? I would say the same is true for Avenue Q, but many theatre companies don't abide by that. 

It also doesn't matter if it's ten roles or just one, cancelling a show should always occur before whitewashing is even an option. If a theatre was doing Violet, which requires a black male in the role of "Flick", I am willing to bet they would go to great lengths to find a performer to fit that role and cancel the show if they couldn't, before ever considering putting a white actor in "blackface" to play it. 

But the “not enough actors” excuse isn't viable anymore, especially not in Bridgeport, CT. 

While the ability to find Latinx performers might be an issue in cities with a scarce Latinx population, that is far from the case in the Bridgeport area. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014, the area boasted the highest Latinx population in the State of Connecticut with approximately 177,000. Two things to note here. The first is that this number ranks the Bridgeport area with the 46th highest Latinx population in the country, right behind Detroit and just ahead of Oklahoma City. Second and perhaps most ironic, is that Puerto Ricans made up the largest pool of the Bridgeport Latinx population, at just under 34%. 

So while there may not have been enough Latina actresses to show up for the auditions(which has been reported that wasn't the case), there was certainly a sizable population to reach out to, especially with New York City(2nd Highest as of 2014) just a short train ride away. I don't know to what extent the creative team did to try to find Latina actresses to come out for the role. I inquired about that, but my questions weren't responded to. 

In case you were wondering how the creators of In The Heights feel about this issue, look no further than the comments from co-writer Quiara Alegría Hudes. In an interview last year with American Theatre Magazine regarding the Chicago casting controversy, Ms. Hudes said the following: 

"The fact is that creating true artistic diversity often takes hard work. Concerted, extra effort. It takes time and money. You cannot just put out a casting call and hope people come and then shrug if they don’t show up. You may need to add extra casting calls (I do this all the time), to go do outreach in communities you haven’t worked with before. You may need to reach out to the Latino theaters and artists and build partnerships to share resources and information. You may need to fly in actors from out of town if you’ve exhausted local avenues, and house them during the run. When faced with these expensive obstacles, an organization’s status quo sometimes wins because it’s cheaper and less trouble. The Latino community has the right to be disappointed and depressed that an opportunity like this was lost. It can be very disheartening, as an artist and as an audience member."

It's important to note that Lin-Manuel Miranda stated in response to Ms. Hudes, "“I honestly can’t improve on her words. She speaks for us both.” 

Later on he expanded by saying, 

"When I see a school production with not a lot of Latino students doing it, I know they're learning things about Latino culture that go beyond what they're fed in the media every day. They have to learn those things to play their parts correctly. And when I see a school with a huge Latino population do HEIGHTS, I feel a surge of pride that the students get to perform something that may have a sliver of resonance in their daily lives. Just please God, tell them that tanning and bad 50's style Shark makeup isn't necessary. Latinos come in every color of the rainbow, thanks very much."

Couple of things to take away here. 1. He's referring to school productions and DCT is a quasi-professional theatre. 2. He expressively doesn't want people making themselves up to look Latinx. 

It should also be noted that, while Ms. Hudes stated she has less of an issue when it comes to schools and amateur theaters producing this in low Latinx populated areas, because of DCT's location and the fact that they regularly seek and cast Equity performers, that does not apply here and the desired casting of the creators should have been respected.

Did the DCT reach out to the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (who holds the production license) for permission to cast it that way? I don't know. But what I do know, is that there is no way the R&HO would have approved it, unless DCT misrepresented the type of theater they are. 

Again, without comment from the theater, which they refused to give, it's impossible to know what they did before settling on a white actress to play a Puerto Rican role. 

However these comments given by the director of the show, Christy McIntosh-Newsom, provide some insight into her justification in casting white performers in Latinx roles. It should be noted that it's unknown if she made this comments in response to this article or beforehand.

She stated, 

"Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a beautiful show about people yearning for home. What makes the show so familiar and so impactful is that this is a feeling that every single person can relate to. Is home the place we were born? The place from which our ancestors came? Is home defined by our genetic connection or by the place we choose to set the roots?" 

She isn't wrong that a theme of the show is about home, and there are plenty of quotes where Miranda wants people to relate to the story being told on stage. However he's also mentioned plenty of times who he wants playing those roles in non-school productions. 

If there is any doubt about that. One need look no further than the casting requirement notes from the lisencsing rights page from the Rodgers & Hammertein website. 

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The R&HO doesn't decide the ethnicity of these roles, that comes from the creators of the piece and should always be honored. Again, we're not talking about a small town in the middle of nowhere with a scare Latinx population. We're talking about one that(as of 2014) was the 46th highest in the county. 

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So, what if no Latina actresses showed up to audition for this role? What should this theater have done? Well, in addition to putting out casting calls on all social networks and trade sites, they could have reached out to community groups, church groups, local universities (University of Bridgeport in town and Fairfield University is 8 minutes from the theater), conduct casting calls in the Bronx, Harlem, or any other commutable area of NYC and consider hiring an Equity performer for the role. After all that? If you can't find one Latina actress, cancel the show. 

While expensive and daunting, if you're going to do racially diverse shows, you have to cast them racially appropriate. There is no substitute. 

But, DCT didn't do that. So given the scenario, what should they have done after casting Ms. Petrak as Camilla Rosario? At that point, they should have explained themselves and reached out to the Latinx community. There should have been a lengthy explanation of why Ms. Petrak was appearing in that role in the program, which should have included details of the exhaustive search in finding appropriate casting and statements of support and endorsement from local community groups such as the Hispanic Cultural Society in Danbury or even the church San Lucas y San Paulo in Bridgeport, and an invitation for Latinx performers to audition for future shows. I am told there was no explanation given in the program. 

You have to do this, because it demonstrates how seriously you took this situation and the lengths to which you went. While it might not excuse your actions, the audience will at least understand why you had to do what you did and it might even soften the criticism. 

Without explanation, that leaves the audience up to assume what led to this casting and risks greatly offending them, which is a terrible gamble for a theater to take. You cannot roll the dice with how to handle the lack of racially appropriate casting, especially not with iconic theatre pieces for that particular community. 

From what has been communicated to me, DCT not only failed to appropriately cast In The Heights, but failed to explain why. Both are unacceptable, but doing one without the other is even worse. 

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I am happy to see that more and more theaters across this country are interested in producing more diverse material and drawing in more performers of color to their theaters. However, when theaters produce these shows, they have to be cast racially appropriate. There is no falling short on this option. The reason why articles like these are written are to re-iterate why this practice is wrong. 

While it might seem unfair that I'm singling out the Downtown Cabaret Theatre, since they are not the first nor will be the last that will cast In the Heights with white performers, given their location and history it's hard to understand why it happened. It is my hope that, going forward, the leadership at DCT takes this to heart. 

If the DCT or anyone involved decides to respond to this, I will gladly update this post with their response. 

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UPDATE: In the spirit of providing solutions to problems, and in relation to the post below, going forward OnStage will gladly promote and post any casting notice for any theater that is in need of diverse performers at no charge.

We are very fortunate that both our Facebook page and blog site itself have quite a reach. With over 2 million newsfeeds reached this past week we can certainly help any theater find the performers that they need.

I realize that there are a lot of theatres out there that would like to do diverse material but might not have the pool of talent to cast it appropriately so we want to help out anyway that we can. Please reach out to us with any postings and questions at onstageblog@gmail.com

Update #2: It's come to my attention that members of the DCT community are deflecting the issues stated in the article to my personal theatre history. So in the interest of full disclosure, yes, back in 2012, I did cast a white actor in the role of Mohammed in the play "The Tale of the Allergists Wife". I did so only after an extensive search and getting approval from Samuel French Inc from correspondence with author Charles Busch. I also never asked the actor to alter his appearance or perform in a stereotypical accent. In fact I insisted that he shouldn't unless he do the thorough research in getting it right. 

Considering my feelings now on the subject, I would certainly would have done things differently or pulled the show since that would have been my decision. If you feel that this somehow disqualifies my position on this issue or excuses DCT for what they did, I'm not going to stop you. 

I'm not allowing comments on this blog thread, if you want to comment, do so on social media. I won't cater to anonymous cowardly comments. 

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