Last spring, I received an email from an angry parent who had just viewed a production of In The Heights at her local private high school. Apparently, she was shocked and angered when seeing that the show featured an all-white cast.
Upon reading this, I asked her some questions: How many Latin students are there in that school? Are any involved in the theatre program? Were white students cast over the Latin students?
Her first reply gave me all the information I needed to know. This small private high school had zero Latin students.
While I might question why a school with zero Latin students are performing the definitive Latin musical of the 21st Century, I had to tell the mother that this wasn't an issue because the creators of the show don't have a problem with it. In fact, they encourage it.
For those of you who don't know, both Lin Manuel-Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes have stated in the past that they have no problem with white, black, Asian, Indian or any other race playing Usnavi and Vanessa in school productions.
In 2013, Miranda stated the following during his interview with THNKR,
“I believe when you’re in high school, you should be able to play whatever role you want.”
He reiterated this point later on in an interview with ETA,
"The joy of In the Heights runs both ways to me. 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."
Co-writer Quiara Alegría Hudes also agrees. During an interview with American Theatre Magazine, she said this,
"I’m happy for schools and communities who do not have these actors on hand to use In the Heights as an educational experience for participants of all stripes."
While the show's creators don't have a problem with white high school students playing these roles, they've both made it clear that it should be done when there are no Latin students available.
But even though they have stated they wouldn't have an issue with a whitewashed high school production, should high schools be doing that? In my opinion, no.
If a school wants their students to gain a greater understanding of other races and cultures, there is a myriad of ways to do that without embodying them on stage. Take a trip to a museum, assign research projects or bring in guest speakers. I do believe in a student's ability to play roles that put them in different circumstances or tackling various issues, but as a person of color myself, that shouldn't include donning yellow or brownface to play a role.
And I'm sorry, but if your theatre teacher isn't aware of shows that can provide those types of acting challenges for their students, then they shouldn't be teaching theatre.
So if you're considering casting an all-white production of In The Heights at your school next year, even though the creators might not have an issue with it, I would encourage you to think otherwise.