(For this aricle, we have chosen the non-binary term "Latinx" to refer to the culture and people it focueses on)
With the rise in popularity of Hamilton and everything Lin-Manuel Miranda, it's no surprise that many theatre companies are rushing to perform his work as much as possible. In The Heights is easily one of the most produced musicals in the world.
What makes this show such an obvious choice for many theatres is its name recognition but also that it provides an opportunity for performers of color to take center stage in a musical that celebrates the Latinx culture. While many theatres understand this and cast it right, many others fall short and cast white performers in the roles. This is a term we affectionally call, "whitewashing"
We've seen this happen many times before, sometimes in areas that aren't that diverse, to begin with, and also, ironically, in areas with the highest amounts of Latinx people in the country. When these situations occur, many theatres will claim that they did not get the racial turnout during auditions, however more than not, white performers are cast over Latinx performers for Latinx roles. The level of egregiousness when that happens is beyond compare.
So that's why I can only be disgusted when I see what's happening with the production occurring at the Brisbane Powerhouse in Queensland, Australia.
In collaboration with Matt Ward Entertainment, calling the casting of this show "whitewashed" is an understatement. It might as well be a mass-bleaching of the show with how they cast these roles with white and non-Latinx performers.
For instance, here is their casting announcement for the role of Sonny, Usnavi's Dominican cousin, which will be played by Fraser Crane:
Then there is Benny, the Africa-American car driver, being played by Tom Struik:
And finally, there is the character Usnavi, originated by Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. A character described as a proud Dominican. He's being played by Jason Bentley.
While I might give some slack for casting racially ambiguous performers in these roles, these guys aren't even close. And Matt Ward Entertainment wasn't done there. They also cast white performers in the roles of Daniela, Abuela Claudia and Nina. In fact, the actress playing Vanessa appears to be the only performer of color cast in a principal role.
You might say that this could be a result of lack of Latinx performers auditioning, However, I've spoken to Latinx performers who auditioned for this show who were turned away in favor of white actors playing these roles.
In fact, Matt Ward Entertainment foolishly posted a video clip of their auditions on their Instagram page which shows a dance call where there are a good number of performers of color. Why weren't they cast in these Latinx roles over white actors?
Now before I go further, it must be mentioned that in the past both Lin-Manuel Miranda and co-writer Quiara Alegría Hudes have said that in educational settings, an all-white production of the show is acceptable as long as it's respectful and its aim is to educate.
However where both of them draw the line is with professional productions. Hudes said in an interview with Arts Integrity,
“Casting the roles appropriately is of fundamental importance....For decades, the vast majority of Latino roles were maids, gangbangers, etc. It’s demoralizing, obnoxious, and reductive of an entire people. It’s a lie about who we are, how complicated our dreams and individuality are...“The Latino community has the right to be disappointed and depressed that an opportunity like this was lost.”
So the professional status is where things with Matt Ward Entertainment get a bit blurry. From all evidence, it doesn't appear the show is a union production or MEAA(Australia's version of AEA). However, they do state that they are a profit-sharing payment company for principal roles, so their actors do get paid. While they might not be union, the act of payment can qualify them as professional, so the wishes of the writers should have been followed and these roles should have been cast racially correct.
Queensland, Australia isn't known for it rich Latinx population(less than 1% are Spanish speaking), which begs the question of why they're doing In The Heights to begin with?
However in the casting call for the show, Matt Ward Entertainment stated,
"In The Heights celebrates diversity and inclusion – we strongly encourage performers from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds to apply."
True, but you need to follow through on that by casting Latinx actors in Latinx roles, especially since you had a number of them audition.
If you were to ask me how this happens, my only guess is that this is what happens when a show about Latinx people is directed by a creative team that looks like this:
So where do we go from here? Because this is a semi-professional production(once again, they pay their actors), I'm calling on Matt Ward Entertainment to correct their errors and recast this show with Latinx performers. If they don't, I hope that the licensing house will step in since their casting requirements were ignored.
Judging from the emails I've received by those in the community, some who are Latinx performers who were not cast in the show, I'm guessing this issue is just beginning.
This is one of the few shows that celebrates Latinx culture and features Latinx performers in lead roles. That is something that needs to be followed and respected. And when a theatre blatantly refuses to cast Latinx performers in favor of white, non-Latinx actors, that needs to be called out. I hope that Matt Ward Entertainment understand where they went wrong and correct the mistake.
9/20/17 - Matt Ward Entertainment has been deleting angry comments on their social media pages calling them out for whitewashing. Full Disclosure: OnStage Blog deletes comments and bans users who blatantly violate our commenting policy.
9/20/17 - Most likely due to the overwhelmingly negative response to this article, Matt Ward Entertainment was very fast to post a picture of one of their cast members, who is a performer of color, who is playing Nina's father, Kevin. They also go out of their way to point out that he is Brazilian in the casting announcement. But this begs the question, why are white, non-Latinx performers playing principal Latinx roles and this Latinx performer is cast in a minor one?
9/21/2017 - Matt Ward Entertainment has released the following response on their Facebook page.
Statement from Matt Ward Entertainment:
To our colleagues in the Australian theatre community and impassioned In The Heights fans across Australia and abroad; we respectfully acknowledge your concerns regarding casting for the upcoming production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights at Brisbane Powerhouse.
The feedback is accepted with the utmost seriousness and consideration and we wish to contribute to this important conversation openly and respectfully.
In casting In The Heights, we actively encouraged actors of all ethnicities to apply and were committed to ensuring our casting reflected Australia’s vast cultural and linguistic diversity whilst assembling the highest-quality cast members available for the production.
A number of claims in an article on yesterday’s OnStage Blog are misinformed and misleading.
More than 50 percent of our cast members identify with an ancestry other than Australian. Of our lead cast, our Usnavi is Samoan; our Nina hails from Italian descent; our Vanessa is from Uruguay; our Kevin and Camila are from Brazil. Our supporting cast is comprised of performers with Latino, Islander, Asian, Middle Eastern and American ancestry.
We value the feedback from the community and are committed to expanding our efforts moving forward in regard to inclusion and representation.
Matt Ward Entertainment
Okay, a couple things to take away from this statement. First of all, the goal in casting In The Heights isn't to "Australia’s vast cultural and linguistic diversity", it's to accurately portray the designer of these characters the way they were written which were as Latinx people living in Washington Heights, NY.
Also, them bringing up the ancestry of their cast also reveals some issues. First of all, it shows us that Latinx performers were cast in ensemble roles while non-Latinx performers were cast in principal ones. Reverse that and then you've got it right.
Secondly, Matt Ward Entertainment seems to believe that by casting performers who identify as "Non-Australian" is enough. It isn't. As we have stated on this site,
"Ethnicities are not interchangeable.If you don’t have the appropriate ethnicity for a character, don’t use another ethnicity to “pass.” People of colour are not part of a mix-and-match Tupperware set where you can just substitute any brown person for another."
So in the case of Usnavi, even though the actor identifies as Samoan, he still shouldn't have been cast over a Latinx performer.
Finally, the statement fails to address the whitewashing of some of these characters such as Daniela, played by actress Tanele Storm Graham who, according to her bio page, identifies as Caucasian.
I understand that Matt Ward Entertainment is trying to save face with their casting decisions. However, it doesn't fix the initial mistake of casting non-Latinx performers in roles written for Latinx people, when Latinx performers were readily available.