No offense Australia, but your country and "whitewashing" seem to go together like a barbecue and snags (see what I did there). More often than not, I get a Google alert on my phone of some issue of whitewashing popping up in the land down under. Whether it's their infamous attempt to do In the Heights with a mostly white cast or the controversy over their tourism ads, Australia seems to have a hard time getting on the bus towards equal representation on stage and screen.
So you can imagine my surprise to not only hear that Opera Australia is planning on whitewashing their upcoming production of West Side Story but also defending it with the very reasoning why we have marginalized representation in theatre, to begin with.
News broke yesterday that the production will star Julie Lea Goodwin in the role of Maria. The character of Maria is Puerto Rican and Ms. Goodwin is Caucasian. It's also not the first time she's played the role professionally. She also portrayed the role in the 2016 Australian tour.
In order to justify this erroneous casting, Opera Australia boss Lyndon Terracini stated,
"It is about finding the best people that you possibly can and delivering the best possible production," he said. "Traditionally that has been the case (that Maria is Puerto Rican). "But it depends on the direction, we might have a few surprises in this production."
So I guess that means the Sharks might be entirely white? Unsurprisingly, this defense is what performers of color have been hearing for years from white creative teams when they see roles written for them are constantly played by white performers.
Interestingly enough, this isn't the first time Opera Australia has pulled a casting stunt like this. In 2013, they staged y The King and I with Caucasian actors, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, playing the role of the King of Siam. Here's a shot from that production.
And before anyone starts to defend this by questioning the availability of Asian actors in Australia, here's a company shot. It would seem there were plenty available seeing as the rest of the cast is Asian. I like the look on the kid in the bottom left, it's like he's asking "This is kind of messed up right?"
What's even worrisome is that more roles might be whitewashed in the production. Terracini stated that he and director Francesca Zambello hope to take the issue of race out of the show entirely. That might work except THE ENTIRE CONFLICT OF THE SHOW IS BASED ON RACIAL TENSION.
I'm not going to go through the steps of trying to explain how wrong it is to whitewash productions like these. If at this point, you can't acknowledge that it's wrong, then nothing I say is going to convince you differently.
Instead, I'm going to directly plead with the rights holders at Music Theatre International, Stephen Sondheim and anyone else who owns a piece of this property and shut this thing down if they aren't going to cast it correctly. There is a vast difference in having to cast a show in a certain way if performers of color aren't available and actively not casting them in favor of Caucasian actors.
The production isn't set to open until March 2019, so there is plenty of time to correct this error in casting and any potential others.