Porchlight casting raises questions on the nature of 'authentic' theater

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Lin-Manuel Miranda - CHARLES SYKES/INVISION/AP
  • Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda

In 2010, when the young actor Corbin Bleu took over the lead role of Usnavi in In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who'd written the show's score and also originated the role, hailed him in rap:

Now as for Corbin Bleu, chalk it up to ambition.
The dude came in and straight SMASHED his audition.
But can he "hold the flow?" Well, I know the part, I did it.
We'd NEVER cast someone unless they proved that they could spit it.
Usnavi is a Dominican immigrant living in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood. Yet Bleu's mother and father are, respectively, Italian-American and Jamaican-American. He was born in Brooklyn. There was protest when he got the part of Usnavi—what would he know of the Dominican Republic? So Miranda stood up for him. 


I mention this because Chicago's Porchlight Music Theatre recently announced its own production of In the Heights. After what artistic director Michael Weber called an "exhausting audition process," the role of Usnavi was given to Jack DeCesare, whose roots, like Bleu's, turned out to lie in Italy. This makes him, in some eyes, a white actor who simply looks like he isn't.

And as a result, Porchlight is now being damned for not doing the due diligence that would have prevented this double injustice—to the Latino actor who would have gotten the role in a more righteous world, and to the show itself, which apparently will be a shell of itself when presented by an inauthentic cast. Vox culture reporter Aja Romano calls the casting "whitewashing"; Romano quotes a professor of Hispanic studies who says the casting "gentrifies a show that is about a community fighting against gentrification," and a Chicago actor, Madrid St. Angelo, who accuses Porchlight of putting on In the Heights "for all of the wrong reasons," chiefly "in the hope of putting dollars in pockets."

Chicago actor Tommy Rivera-Vega, who also auditioned for Porchlight's production, makes an argument similar to Romano's in a post in today's Bleader:

Porchlight's offices are located in Hermosa, a Latinx neighborhood just west of Logan Square—the heart of gentrification in Chicago. Here, brown people are struggling to keep their homes and their businesses, and survive however they can. . . .Walk out the door of Porchlight's offices and you'll feel the sweat of my people dying to stay alive. That's the story Porchlight had the chance to tell. Instead, the theater has essentially gentrified Miranda's gentrification masterpiece.

Romano offers the above critiques in Miranda's name. She quotes from an interview last year in which Miranda said about casting, "My answer is: authorial intent wins. Period. As a Dramatists Guild Council member, I will tell you this. As an artist and as a human I will tell you this. Authorial intent wins. That's the end of the discussion. . . . If the author has specified the ethnicity of the part, that wins."

This seems to settle the question for Romano. But is specifying the ethnicity of a part the same as specifying the ethnicity of the actor playing the part? Besides, Miranda addressed the question directly in his rap for Corbin Bleu. It went on:

Now THIS is sensitive, and I'm hesitant to begin again
But I'm a Puerto Rican-Mexican; I PLAYED Dominican.
And everyone's from everywhere, we are reppin' so many things
Andrea's Venezuelan and Jewish, Karen's like twenty things
So yes, I see your point, but ethnicity's just a factor
They've gotta play the part: in the end, dude is an ACTOR. 
I'm a theatergoer who thinks a theater that believes casting for ethnicity is more important than casting for talent should say so publicly so consumers can beware. Then again, authenticity isn't a figment of the imagination of the critics who accused Porchlight of betraying it. Authenticity is something you know when you see it, and it can transform a production—I still remember a performance of West Side Story done several years ago at Lake View High School that was held together by the only authentic Maria I've ever seen.

But as the debate over ethnic-specific casting rages, I hope it keeps its feet on the ground. "Dude is an ACTOR" is the real world talking, and I wonder if anyone but Miranda could get away with saying it. Certainly not Hedy Weiss, the Sun-Times drama critic the theater community seems to love to hate. It was Weiss who set the wheels of wrath in motion July 18 when she tweeted:


That authentic was held against her by everyone who believed the actual casting wasn't—though Weiss tells me she was merely repeating a claim made by Porchlight—hence the quotes. (However, Weiss wasn't able to find the source of the quote for me, though it's true to the spirit of Porchlight's news release.)

The criticism got Weiss's back up, and in a comment on a Huffington Post story she replied snarkily: "Do you think Jonathan Pryce should be banned from playing Shylock because he is not Jewish. Do you think you should only recruit murderers in Cook County Jail to play Macbeth? It is called acting." 

Which is what Miranda had said. But Weiss isn't Miranda. Henry Wishcamper, artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre, replied to Weiss in an open letter on Facebook.

One sentence in particular stood out to me: "It is called acting."
No it's not.
It's called theater.
Theater is a conversation. It is a conversation between artists and a community. It begins as a conversation between a writer and a reader. With a production, it becomes a conversation between performers and an audience—perhaps the most delicate and ephemeral conversation imaginable but one with the power to change lives. . . 
Forget Shakespeare, said Wishcamper. "Casting In the Heights is different than casting Shakespeare. Lin-Manuel Miranda and [playwright] Quiara Alegría Hudes made their authorial intentions very clear. Porchlight ignored them."

It's an elegant letter, but it's not the last word. The authorial intentions aren't as clear as all that, and it is surely both acting and theater. When Wishcamper writes about the delicate transaction between performers and audience as if acting has nothing to do with it, I wonder if he's ever sat through a play mauled by earnest amateurs. 

Various interesting precedents have been cited in this debate to add heft to the arguments. Let's start with Jonathan Pryce. 

After he'd played the Engineer, the lead male role in Miss Saigon, in London, producer Cameron McIntosh, with millions of dollars on the line, was determined to bring Pryce to Broadway when the show opened there in 1991. But Pryce is British; the Engineer is Vietnamese-French. An Asian-American actor should play the part, Actors Equity insisted, and McIntosh had to threaten to cancel the New York production before the union backed down.

So McIntosh made his money and Pryce won a Tony. And it's true: an actor from the Philippines, or maybe Thailand or China, who could have been made up to look Vietnamese with less makeup than Pryce required, missed out on a moment in the sun. But the show was such a hit that it's been translated into 12 other languages and performed in 25 countries. Dozens of other actors, Asian and otherwise, have followed Pryce as the Engineer. Was casting him such a cultural travesty?

Now Pryce has just finished a short, acclaimed run as Shylock in New York. When Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice centuries ago, we know he did not intend Jewish actors to play Shylock, just as he did not intend women to play Portia. There were no women actors in Shakespeare's day, and Jews had been expelled from England in 1290.

So did Pryce's Shylock violate the play or respect the playwright—Pryce not being Jewish? If you say that, by now, What difference does it make? I think that's the point. Inevitably, art separates itself from its creators to become something autonomous. A question for the current debate is, How soon do we let that happen?

That brings me to the most recent precedent being kicked around now: the recent Marriott production of Evita.

"Even if you subscribe to the idea that most Argentines are of European origin and are therefore 'white,' you can not escape the fact that their culture is Latin," local actor Bear Bellinger said in an open letter to the theater. "Using only one actor of Latin descent is irresponsible to that truth and a lost opportunity to feature a group of people who are regularly ignored on our stages." 

Bellinger said Chicago is at least 28 percent Hispanic and "to not make an effort to reflect that portion of your city, in a show that is a representation of their culture, is shameful." 

But Argentines, and, say, Mexicans, share a Latin culture in the same vague way that the Irish and the Austrians share a European culture. Try to force the comparison and you'll insult a lot of Argentines and probably a lot of Mexicans too. Argentines, said a foreign minister during a summit in Chile in 1998, "are Italians who speak Spanish who think they are British." Argentines, according to the New York Times article I'm drawing from here, "have historically vacillated between grand sophistication and banality." 

Eva Peron descended from Basques, Juan Peron from Basques and Sardinians. Che Guevara had Irish Norman roots. Give those roles to actors from Puerto Rico or Mexico to play and you'd be putting bread on their tables. But would you be advancing authenticity in Chicago theater by an inch? I hope the conversation we're now having tries to figure this out.

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