By Tommy Rivera-Vega
This article was originally posted on the Chicago Reader's Blog. It has been reprinted here with permission from the author. We stand in solidarity with Tommy Rivera-Vega.
When I first saw the lineup for Porchlight Music Theatre's 2016 season, I thought: Wow! This might be our chance.
In September the theater will stage In the Heights, a Tony Award-winning musical by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, set in a tight-knit Latinx community in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood. Born in Puerto Rico, I came to Chicago to make and see theatrical works like this—work that reflects my Latinx roots. I'm an ensemble member of Teatro Vista and The Other Theatre Company, which pride themselves on producing shows that tell the stories of the oppressed.
Miranda portrays the Latinx experience in America with pride, and his carefully crafted characters—from the elderly Cuban neighbor to the young woman just home from college—demonstrate that he understands the importance of breaking stereotypes. Heights is full of love, hope, struggle, respect, integrity, and dignity. Miranda depicts my culture beautifully, and his play feels real—life just as I lived it.
I wasn't the only one who felt this way: Puerto Rico will always remember that Sunday in June 2008 when Miranda flew our flag on the Tony Awards stage, signaling the beginning of an era in which Latinx writers, actors, and directors would finally be able to tell our own stories in our own voices. Every little Latinx theater kid watching that screen that night had the same thought: "That'll be me someday, representing my island."
For all these reasons, I was ecstatic to see Miranda's story—our story—of gentrification, racism, and hope, told from our perspective on a Chicago musical theater stage. "American musicals, Chicago style," as Porchlight's motto goes, seemed like the opportunity so many of us had been waiting for.
In June 2016 I auditioned for the show. I was asked to come back and read for the part of Usnavi, the same role Miranda originally played on Broadway. Usnavi is a Dominican bodega owner who serves as the narrator and the voice of the Latinx community in the show. I remember when I saw that audition room full of other actors and actresses who looked like me. Again, I thought, WOW! They can really do this. Maybe they'll have a couple non-Latinx actors in the background, I thought. But the story will be told right!
Then I saw the cast list. The lead role of Usnavi would be played by Jack DeCesare, a white actor of Italian descent. The production team would have just one Latino member, its assistant director.
Porchlight, I give you credit for casting some outstanding Latinx actors and actresses in the show—people like Isabel Quintero, Yando Lopez, and others—artists who I have worked with before, and whose performances I love and respect. But you have done this community a disservice by not casting a Latinx actor in the starring role. When the show's narrator, the person actually telling this story of a Latinx community, is not himself Latinx, you have essentially created a barrio where the Latinx characters become window dressing for a white storyteller. You are blocking us from being the stars of our own universe. You are co-opting our story.
Porchlight's "exhaustive" search for a Latinx actor to play the lead role was obviously not "exhaustive" enough. I do not know Jack DeCesare personally. I'm sure he's a fine actor. That's not the point. He should never have been seen for this role. He should never have auditioned for it either. As an active member of the Chicago Latinx community, I know so many Latinx actors, including many Afro-Latinx actors, who would have been perfect for the role of Usnavi. If Porchlight couldn't find the perfect choice in Chicago, it could have reached out to actors in cities like New York, LA, or Miami, which also have diverse acting communities. It's hard work, but it's much needed in order to cast with integrity.
Speaking to American Theatre Magazine on the issue, Hudes made a similar argument: "Casting the roles appropriately is of fundamental importance," she wrote. "When faced with these expensive obstacles, an organization's status quo sometimes wins because it's cheaper and less trouble. . . , The Latino community has the right to be disappointed and depressed that an opportunity like this was lost."
Let me ask this, Porchlight: When you were casting your recent production of Dreamgirls, did it ever cross your mind to cast a white actress as Effie? I'm guessing not. You knew you couldn't make that choice because you couldn't let down the black community in that way. You made the right call then. All the Latinxs in that audition room saw that, and they trusted you. And you let us all down.
In a comment on a Huffington Post story last week, Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss essentially argued that it's OK to cast white actors in Latinx roles. "Do you think Jonathan Pryce should be banned from playing Shylock because he is not Jewish?" she wrote. "It is called acting."
But being Latinx isn't just putting on an accent or shuffling your feet so it looks like you can salsa. It is about who we are as people: It's about having to work harder than everyone else for the same success and the same respect. It's about understanding that no matter how well you're doing, you still go back to your community to spread that success. It's about respecting your abuela because she is more powerful than the president of the United States—especially when she throws that flying chancla (flip-flop) at you when you misbehave! You can't act that deep knowledge or lived experience. You can only draw from it. With a non-Latinx actor cast as Usnavi, the show suffers.
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. They're trying to prevent the more powerful and privileged parts of society from taking away the little they have—from pushing them off the Chicago map. 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. Although he hasn't commented publicly on the casting, should Porchlight be so lucky to have Mr. Miranda attend the production, I can only assume he would share our disappointment. What are we supposed to tell Latinx kids expecting to see their Latinx superhero rap their story, only to see a white actor on stage? That white men are more suited to fly a Puerto Rican or Dominican flag?
Don't keep us out of the stories we have written about our own communities, about our own histories, in our own voices. It's not yours to tell. Don't erase us from our own culture. It doesn't belong to you.
Porchlight had a chance to do something really special. Unfortunately, it seems that Chicago will have to wait even longer to hear our story in an authentic way.
For more on this topic, check out Reader media critic Mike Miner's take here.