Once upon a time, years before “Hamilton” ever blew our minds, the gifted soul that is Lin-Manuel Miranda created and starred in a little (Tony-winning) musical called “In the Heights.”
The musical follows protagonist Usnavi, a bodega owner who dreams of winning the lottery and wooing the girl of his dreams, for three days in his New York neighborhood.
Like “Hamilton,” the show is known for its inclusion of contemporary musical styles not usually found on the Broadway stage, including salsa and rap. It also, taking place in the predominately Dominican community of Washington Heights, featured a wonderfully diverse cast, starring, of course, LMM himself (and later, “sexy” Alexander Hamilton, Javier Muñoz).
One of Miranda’s great gifts to the theater community has been the creation of bold and intricate roles for actors of color. It’s in part due to him that this year’s Tony Awards was by far the most diverse in its history.
However, this month, a Chicago production of “In the Heights” failed to continue Miranda’s legacy of diversity on stage. The Porchlight Music Theatre received widespread criticism after announcing that Jack DeCesare, a white actor of Italian descent, would play the lead role.
In piece titled “Porchlight’s ‘In the Heights’ names its authentic cast,” the show’s artistic director Michael Weber published a strangely self-congratulatory statement introducing the cast.
“After an exhaustive audition process, during which we saw hundreds of the Chicago-area’s diverse music theater talent—both established and new—and even reached out to our city’s vast hip-hop dance community, we are excited to introduce the cast…We have made every effort to present a company that reflects the true spirit of this story of community…”
It didn’t take people long to say, quite appropriately, “Wait, huh?”
Could the casting team really have made, as they put it, every effort to find a cast that represents the stories unfurling on the stage, when people of Latinx descent make up over 20 percent of the Chicago population?
Even if so, if the efforts didn’t pan out as planned, maybe it would have been better to think of a Plan B? As scholar Trevor Boffone put it: “If you can’t field a majority Latin@ cast and hire a predominately Latin@ creative team, then perhaps do a different show.”
These roles were written by Latin@s for Latin@ actors. The Latin@ community wants their stories told, but in an ethical way that speaks with the community in question. To gentrify In the Heights is to completely miss the point of the musical.
The casting decision raises important questions about diversity and representation on the stage. When there already exist so few roles for Latinx performers, what does it say when the few roles that do exist go to white actors? In a musical that deals explicitly with the issue of gentrification as a theme, the casting seems especially mishandled.
In an interview with American Theatre, playwright and composer Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for “In the Heights,” expressed her disappointment, describing how one of the main motivations behind the musical was to create complex, dynamic roles for Latinx actors when hardly any exist. “For decades, the vast majority of Latino roles were maids, gangbangers, etc,” she said. “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.”
Following the controversy, Porchlight released a statement expressing their commitment to genuine casting and diverse, thoughtful representation. They cast DeCesare, Weber explained, without explicitly knowing his ethnic background. Only after his exceptional audition and landing of the role did the production team realize his heritage was Italian.
The crew has no plans to replace DeCesare, though they expressed understanding at the dissatisfaction expressed vocally by the Chicago community. “We absolutely stand by the cast and creative team that has been hired for this production,” Weber wrote, “but we recognize that more must be done to assure a truthful dramatic representation of this work, as well as how we at Porchlight approach diverse and representative casting in the future.”
Demonstrating his commitment to the ideals the musical is based on, Weber expressed his plans to reach out to cultural groups like the Chicago Inclusion Project, the Latina and Latino studies department of Northwestern University, and the Latin American and Latino studies department at DePaul University for suggestions to add Lantinx voices to the creative team.
He also invited the many individuals who reached out online and through social media expressing their disappointment with the casting decision to participate in post-performance discussions on the topic, pushing the dialogue forward.
Such voices would likely include Tommy Rivera-Vega, who posted a stunning note detailing his disappointment with the casting choice on Facebook.
Being Latinx is not just putting an accent, getting a cool haircut, the prominent beard, lot of hair, shuffling your feet so it looks like you can salsa. It is about who we are as people. It is about growing up and trying to understand the reason why we have to work harder than everyone else. Asking our parent(s) why all the Latinxs that we see on tv are drug dealers, or criminals, or picking fights, never successful. We rap because it is the only way we will be heard. It is about understanding that no matter how well you are doing in life, you still go back to your community to spread that love and success.
Looking forward, theaters need to understand that creating a diverse cast and crew may not be easy, but it is necessary. Not trying hard enough is no longer an excuse.
Hudes elaborated on simple ways to prioritize diversity in casting. It might take more time, more money, and way more work, but that’s the task at hand. “You cannot just put out a casting call and hope people come and then shrug if they don’t show up,” she said.
“You may need to add extra casting calls (I do this all the time), go do outreach in communities you haven’t worked with before. You may need to reach out to the Latino theatres and artists and build partnerships to share resources and information. You may need to fly in actors from out of town if you’ve exhausted local avenues, and house them during the run.”
In other words, you must, to quote LMM’s other musical, “work!” Casting directors of the world, let’s not make this mistake again.