On Monday the 14th, a bunch of actors of color are coming together to showcase their talents and make their voices heard. Project Am I Right’s The White-List Cabaret. We will be singing some of your favorite, usually-played-by-White-people, show tunes.
Lauren Villegas, the creator of Project Am I Right (PAIR), is on a mission to make the theatre world aware of the perils of whitewashing.
What is Project Am I Right? Why did you start it? What do you hope to accomplish with your project?
PAIR is an initiative to raise awareness and empower professional actors to end the whitewashing of roles written for underrepresented groups. I started the initiative a little over a year ago when Marriott Theater announced their cast for a production of Evita that was pretty much entirely made up of white, non-Latinx actors. In calling them out for the whitewashing of a story about real historical figures who were clearly and inherently South American, I realized I was making the same few arguments over and over again. So I decided to write them all down. I stayed up all night and wrote them all out as kind of a FAQ to whitewashing, from the perspective of a White actor trying to decide where they stand on the issue. The great hope is rooted in the simple fact that if starting tomorrow cisgender actors said no to playing roles written as transgender people, if non-disabled actors said no to playing roles written as people with disabilities, and if white actors said no to playing roles written as people of color, then a *huge* part of the problem to do with representation is solved. It's that simple. We as actors need to remember that we have power and agency. We can no longer sit idly by and say "leave it to casting" or "take it up with the people behind the table." We can no longer shirk responsibility for the ethics of our choices. We must stand together with our colleagues, we must do the right thing together.
Have you noticed a change of conscious with “White” actors who would typically audition for characters of color since you started this project?
The most rewarding part of leading PAIR has been getting unsolicited messages, some from actors I know, some from actors I've never met, who tell me that reading the website or seeing the way I engage in online forums (even places like Audition Update) has made them change their views. One was a non-Latinx white guy with a Portuguese last name that had helped him get away with actively pursuing roles written as Latinx. He told me that even though at first he was very defensive of PAIR's objectives, that upon taking the time to consider everything, he went so far as to take the Latinx roles off of his resume and stop pursuing or accepting those roles moving forward in his career. Messages like that are why I do it. A message like that for sure cancels out all the angry "mind your own business" or "you're insane to think any actor will ever turn down a job" messages I get.
What are some challenges you’ve experienced as a woman of color in the entertainment industry?
LOLZ. How much time do we have? Aside from all the obvious stuff, I think the most relevant to PAIR challenge I've dealt with is sharing a dressing room with non-Latinx actors playing Latinx characters. It's not that I've ever had to deal with overt racism or malice. Just such overwhelming lack of awareness. Lack of empathy. Obliviousness. Listening to a colleague I love and respect cry about not wanting to wear the brown contacts that were purchased by wardrobe for her to wear for the show. Being asked how to curse in Spanish. Listening to offensive over-the-top stereotypes and accents coming out the mouths of colleagues I consider friends. Being asked why I haven't invited my family to the show and not being able to tell them the truth that it's because I'm embarrassed of how bad and frankly offensive the dialect work is. And for all of this to happen in my place of work where I need to be polite, professional and courteous. And where as an actor with no authority over my fellow actors I feel like I simply have to do my best to ignore it all and do my job. Then seeing how many white actors use the argument "I've played [whatever non-white character] and all my friends in the show of [whatever non-white race] were totally fine with it!" To justify feeling like PAIR is an overreaction or that they are an exception, I remember every time I've been in a dressing room like that and felt so hurt and so trapped. And to realize that my silence has ever been interpreted as a tacit or implied endorsement to those actors to continue to whitewash breaks my heart. That's why I couldn't stay silent anymore.
What do you think our fellow actors of color need to do in order to see the change they want to see in the business? What can casting/directors/producers/writers do to further the diversity and inclusion cause? And how do you combat those that don't believe in furthering diversity?
I think we have to continue to put up with a lot of the crazy stuff we put up with but find ways to politely challenge the status quo whenever and wherever you can. The next time you're in an audition and a white creative or casting professional asks you to be more urban/sassy/hood-rat/spicy/submissive/or whatever stereotype they're implying (intentionally or not), politely say something like "Sure. Great. I'd love if you could share a little more about how else you would describe the character. I know you don't want just a shallow stereotype so I want to be sure I understand exactly what you are looking for." Give them the benefit of the doubt. Give them a chance to rethink what they asked you to do and how they asked you to do it. Full credit for this technique to the brilliant Bisserat Tseggai.
I also think we need more actors of color to transition and start writing, directing, producing, working as talent agencies, and casting directors. We NEED to get behind the table. Professionals who are working behind the table right now, I think the best thing they can do if find ways to hire people to work with them who aren't white/cis/non-disabled. Hire people to work side by side with them who have a completely different experience of the world and an entirely different experience of how our crazy business really works. And listen. For those that fight inclusion, there's only so much to be done. It's hard emotional labor to raise awareness and change minds. I am careful to choose battles I have some chance of winning. There are battles that aren't worth the effort. I remember to reclaim my time when I should. Don't waste my time on dinosaurs and bigots who aren't going to change. I try to find allies in waiting who can and will join the fight.
What are your thoughts on Representation versus Presentation?
I think the presentation element is kind of the final frontier of the issue. I think for Latinx people it's particularly complicated since we're inherently such a diverse group phenotypically speaking. Think about how many Italian or Jewish girls have played Maria in West Side Story or Nina in In the Heights because they "looked Latina" when there are plenty of Afro-Puerto Rican girls who are *actually* Puerto Rican who can't get an audition for the role because that's not what white directors and casting directors perceive a Latina to look like. Think how many fair skinned, light-haired, light-eyed Latinx actors get told they don't look "Latin enough" to tell their own stories. I think especially for Latinx actors it has to be about complicating what "looks Latinx" to begin with in representing ourselves.
You have done a lot of theatre in Chicago. Do you think there is a major difference in how New York City Theatre's deal with racism in the arts versus the ChiTown theatre scene?
I think the biggest difference is simply the size and all the ways the size of the community affects accountability. When everyone knows everyone it's harder for things to slip through the cracks. It's harder for people to get away with things. After a couple of years of very public shaming of some companies they've really started to make an effort. Is it kinda lame that that's what it took? Yeah. But at least it worked. Eventually. I will also say that I give the Chicago theater scene in general a lot of credit for investing in new work by non-white writers. There are obviously tons are great things happening here in NYC to foster new voices too and the face of Broadway is changing slowly but surely. The thing that can be frustrating about NYC actors and casting that happens here is the sheer volume breeds a certain kind of every-man-for-himself totally cut-throat mentality and individualism that can be kind of toxic.
On Monday, June 14th we are performing in your cabaret - The White-List Cabaret. What do you hope our fellow Actors Equity members will walk away with? Why did you feel this show is important to produce?
My Whitelist Cabaret hopes to raise awareness of the career challenges faced by actors from underrepresented groups, and to help highlight importance of not whitewashing the limited number of roles written specifically for them. We also hope to help producers, directors, and casting directors see that some of the roles on these artists' whitelists don't need to default to White/Cis/Non-Disabled after all.
What's next for Project Am I Right?
My long term hope is to get into conservatories, universities and even performing arts high schools to talk to pre-professional actors. I'm developing a workshop curriculum that covers the history of representation on stage and screen and also the ethics of the choices we as actors make in the course of our careers. I'm also hopeful to make My Whitelist Cabaret an annual event and even to take the idea to other cities.
Thank you so much Lauren! For more info on The White-List Cabaret please list the Facebook event page! www.facebook.com/events/1775935052696590