What's a Racially Ambiguous Actress to Do?
Stephanie Lourenco Viegas
For those of you who have not been following, OnStage just published an article about Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport CT's casting of a white actor as Camilla in In The Heights, a role written for a Latinx performer. It appears from production photos that the actor had to change her appearance to make her look “Latinx”. From her headshot, the actor has fair skin and it appears that she tanned and wore a dark, curly wig for the role. This comes to light the same day that it is posted that Connecticut Theater Company's production of Throughly Modern Millie cast a white actor to play the role Bun Foo, a Chinese man.
Let’s get this out of the way now so that there are no misunderstandings on what my point and feelings on this matter are later on: IF AN ACTOR NEEDS TO ALTER THE SHADE OF THEIR SKIN OR THEIR FACIAL FEATURES TO PLAY A ROLE THAT PERSON SHOULD NOT BE PLAYING THAT ROLE. PERIOD. THAT IS WRONG AND INEXCUSABLE WHETHER YOU ARE A COMMUNITY THEATER OR BROADWAY. If you are doing Hairspray and you cast a white actor as Seaweed and ask him to tan, that is unacceptable.
But now let’s try a harder example : you are a community theater company producing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and you have done your due diligence in advertising your auditions and no Indian actors for the roles of Neville and Helena turn up, however you have an actor of Iranian descent for Neville and an Indiginous Peruvian actor for Helena. They will in no way need to change their appearance to play those roles. Do you need to cancel your show despite having two actors who are perfectly appropriate in both appearance and talent but aren’t of the perfect race? And is it fair to those two actors, who do not have many opportunities of roles written for their particular ethnicity to take that opportunity away from them?
Here’s another tough one, going back to In The Heights: Let’s say an actor comes out for Vanessa. She is Latinx but she has fair skin and hair. Can SHE be cast or will her head-shot illicit cries of ‘white washing’?
Finally, here is one using my own experience. I am Portuguese. it is extremely debatable even down to the US Census whether Portuguese can be considered Latinx, and most Portuguese people do not consider themselves Latinx. However, my parents immigrated here, lived in a community with many immigrants of Portuguese, Brazilian and Latinx descent. They, and I, speak Portuguese and Spanish. I have dark tightly curled hair, dark eyes, and olive skin and I speak with a slight accent due to having learned Portuguese before English. My last name 'sounds’ Latinx. So knowing all of that, if I was to audition and get cast in a production of In The Heights would that really be whitewashing? Am I really 'unqualified' to tell that story?
I have lost many roles because I do not appear to be 'white’. I will never be cast on a Disney Cruise because the roles in my type (Fairy Godmother) usually go to 'white’ actors. I have been passed over for roles in theaters on every level because I am considered 'too ethnic’. The 'privilege’ of being 'white’ and being able to be considered for pretty much any role has never been something that I have experienced.
This is obviously problematic on every level, yet this industry for better or worse is one based on appearance and until that changes, until Casting Directors become more open, what we 'appear' to be is what we will more often than not be cast as. Because of that reality, there are a lot of actors left in this incredibly awkward middle ground in the name of color conscious casting. And many theaters that will now feel uncomfortable producing works that call for any specific race because they are afraid that they will be scrutinized if they cast someone who physically looks like what the role calls of but is of a slightly different ethnicity.
So where do we go from here? Do we require that all theater companies ask for someone’s ethnic background before they offer them a role in a show? Do we only go in for roles that fit our specific background 100%? I think we could all agree that both of those things are ridiculous to ask of anyone. I’d be incredibly offended if I was at an audition and someone blatantly asked me what my ethnicity was because they wanted to make sure I was actually Latinx. And if I could only audition for roles that are written for an actor of Portuguese descent, well I might as well quit now because there aren’t any.
This issue is so much more complex than it seems. I think we all need to agree on using common sense: acknowledge that every case, every show and every casting decision is different. This is not a 'one size fits all’ issue. There are lots of actors who are in a very tricky middle ground that you may not think of, and there should be different levels of what is acceptable depending on the show, level of theater and location. We can all agree that it is unacceptable for any theater , of any level, anywhere to cast a show with an actor who needs to alter their skin color of facial features for a role. As actors, we also need to use common sense in what we audition for. If you are a Caucasian actor, do not audition for the role of The King in The King and I.
But when it comes issues that aren’t *ahem* black and white, we need to calm down, and take a look at each situation individually because if we as artists and audience members become so exacting and literal, we will eventually be shooting ourselves in the foot. Soon a whole group of people who don’t have many opportunities will lose the ones that they do have and many companies will not want to produce shows that call for a diverse cast from fear of having their casting choices dissected. Common sense. That’s all I ask for.