Subsequent to Arts Integrity exploring the Porchlight Music Theatre’s casting of their forthcoming production of In The Heights, as well as Hedy Weiss’s article for the Chicago Sun-Times (detailed in Race, Spoken and Unspoken, in Chicago Cast Announcement), other voices weighed in on the issue of authenticity in casting. They added details that weren’t all apparent to someone outside the Chicago theatre community, as well as commentary on the situation.
Trevor Boffone, a professor at the University of Houston and Ph.D. in Hispanic studies, wrote about the situation on his website, asserting that the cast features “a white actor playing Miranda’s theatrical doppelganger Usnavi, the musical’s main character,” going on to write:
This casting decision gentrifies a show that is about a community fighting against gentrification. Evidently, Porchlight fails to comprehend the lived realities of Latin@s all across the nation who face many of the issues seen in Miranda and Hudes’ musical. This especially rings true when a white man is cast as Usnavi. 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.
Tommy Rivera-Vega, a Chicago area actor who had auditioned for the Porchlight production, wrote in a public Facebook post:
I understand that you cast some Latinxs in the show (people that I have worked with before, respect their work, and love.) But when the person actually narrating the story is not Latinx, you are creating an atmosphere, an ecosystem, a perfectly created barrio around him, where the white folks behind it can now feel safe telling our story. You are essentially “building a wall.” Not giving us a chance….
By casting a non-Latinx Usnavi, and not even having an overwhelming Latinx support in the Production team, the backbone of the show suffers, because it was never lived. Being a Latinx will turn into devising what being Latinx is, instead of just being it. You have essentially gentrified Lin-Manuel Miranda’s gentrification masterpiece.
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Asked about the ethnicity of the actors cast in many of the show’s leading roles, Porchlight provided a statement through their press representative, which reads:
While Porchlight specifically encouraged artists who self-identified as Latinx to audition for In the Heights both in our AEA and non union audition announcements; we did not invite nor require potential employees to state their racial self-identification as part of our hiring practices. Even if we knew for certain an artists’ self-identification (of any qualification) we do not feel it is appropriate to violate the confidentiality of their privacy.
When it comes to the subject of inquiring about ethnicity in any casting process, Porchlight makes an important point, which can be stated even more emphatically: while the company neither invited or required actors to state their ethnicity, they legally can’t. To do so would violate antidiscrimination laws in regards to hiring, where subjects such as race and ethnicity, as well as age, sexual orientation, and medical status, are off-limits. However, that doesn’t prevent a producer, theatre company, director or casting director from proactively seeking actors of a specific ethnicity (or gender, or disability) and inviting them to audition.
Writing at fnewsmagazine, “a journal of arts, culture, and politics edited and designed by students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” Jose T. Nateras explains:
The truth of the matter is, often, actors of color aren’t able to get an audition in the first place. For instance, Porchlight makes audition appointments available through a website that has only so many audition slots open for signing up on a first-come-first serve basis. It is well known that these slots fill up fast and whether or not the roles looking to be filled are for actors of color, a large portion go to white actors.
Granted, these are actors who, very understandably, want a chance to audition for one of the more respected musical theater companies in Chicago. An actor’s agent can submit them for auditions, or they can self-submit, but it is ultimately up to the casting department of a theater to call actors in from the many submissions they receive. So, yes, casting does come from the pool of actors who audition, but when you’re in control of who is in that pool, that’s not an excuse.
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Greatest little place in the Caribbean,
I love it.”
– from In The Heights
The casting notice provided by Porchlight to the Casting Call portion of the Actors Equity website (the company hires both Equity and non-Equity performers) did state, “Especially seeking actors/actresses who identify as Latino.” However, the same posting, as is standard for Equity listings, also carried non-discrimination boilerplate, “Performers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds are encouraged to apply.”
Even Hamilton, praised for its diverse cast, got into trouble when it sought “non-white” actors, because such a notice violated non-discrimination hiring laws. But one way of addressing intentionality in ethnic casting, in being “color-conscious,” is to specify the race or ethnicity of the characters, not the actors.
It’s worth noting that when the AEA posting was used by Backstage as the basis for their own notice of the casting of Heights at Porchlight, the specific character breakdown repeatedly noted, under ethnicity, “all ethnicities,” which translates the non-discrimination language on the AEA website into the misleading suggestion that, unless otherwise noted, the characters themselves can be of any ethnicity. In an e-mail to Arts Integrity, Luke Crowe, casting vice-president at Backstage, explained, “With Equity listings, we also default to the inclusive ranges (all ethnicities, all ages 18+, etc.) unless the Equity listing specifically defines narrower criteria.”
While three of the more detailed character descriptions as provided to Equity by Porchlight mention ethnicity – Usnavi “dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic,” Abuela Claudia “moved from Cuba to New York,” Carla is “of Chilean, Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican descent – the others don’t address it, save for Benny, who is “not Hispanic.” This contrasts with the current casting notice for an upcoming production at Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, which at the start of the descriptions of the major characters in their breakdown, notes them as, “Usnavi, male, 20s, Dominican,” “Nina, female, 19, first generation Puerto Rican,” “Kevin, male, 40s, Puerto Rican,” and so on. While the published edition of the Heights script does not list ethnicity on its cast of characters page, the specific ethnicities are evident within the script itself, and even the back cover describes the setting as “a tight-knit Latin American community.” The clearer the breakdown, the stronger the call for the specific actors being sought.
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Last fall saw questions raised and indeed controversy in connection with issues of authenticity in casting of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop in a community theatre production at Kent State University and a theatre department production of Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India, which was ultimately canceled, at Clarion University. In the wake of those incidents, In The Heights composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda went on record about his position over what should guide producers and directors in casting roles that call for specific races and ethnicities.
“My answer is: authorial intent wins. Period,” Miranda said, going on to emphasize that, “In every case, the intent of the author always wins. If the author has specified the ethnicity of the part, that wins.”
As part of the same interview, although previously unpublished, Miranda spoke of his intent in writing In The Heights. Having previously noted that West Side Story is populated by Latino gang members, he said:
“One of the impulses that went into the writing of Heights was, like, I don’t see a world in which I can play a part in musical theatre. There’s nothing existing. In the Heights was my way of writing something that had lots of roles for Latinos.”
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In the struggle for equity in arts, across gender, racial, ethnic, disability and other communities which have seen choices default too often to white, Eurocentric males, there are many traditions, habits, practices and in some cases outright discrimination to be addressed. Exploring a single situation at a small theatre in Chicago is not meant to vilify that company, but only to highlight how challenging it seems to be for so many to move to a place of true diversity and equity, where stories that involve race and ethnicity are told with those elements intact, in addition to welcoming diverse artists into the telling of stories that were originally created by and for white artists. Only by looking at what has happened in the past and what is taking place today can we find our way to a fairer future – and a future where the voices of those creating work for today and many tomorrows can be heard and respected, even when they’re not in the room or even on the phone, checking to see that their intent has been understood and properly represented.
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Addendum, July 27, 4:00 pm: Arts Integrity received the following statement from Porchlight Music Theatre, approximately five hours after this piece first went online. It reads, in its entirety:
To our colleagues in the Chicago Theatre community, please know that we at Porchlight Music Theatre have been intently listening to and have clearly received the messages of concern regarding our upcoming production of In the Heights.
The thoughts that have been expressed are accepted with the utmost seriousness and consideration, and we humbly wish to contribute to this needed conversation.
In the casting of In The Heights, as with all productions at Porchlight, we did not invite nor require potential employees to state their racial self-identification as part of our casting and hiring process. All actors who attended were considered based solely on the content of their audition.
Our continual objective is to create and encourage an environment of inclusion in all our work here at Porchlight Music Theatre.
Moving forward, we are committed to expand our efforts in regard to inclusion and representation as well as furthering our relationships with the diverse talent and institutions that make up the Chicago Theatre community.
Addendum, July 29, 2:00 pm: In the wake of the casting conversations about the production, Michael Weber, artistic director of Porchlight, provided the following expanded statement to the website PerformInk, elaborating on their prior comments. Jason Epperson, publisher of PerformInk, told Arts Integrity that the site already had a four-part series on In The Heights in the works, with the first part always planned to focus on casting, when the controversy developed. This statement is reproduced with PerformInk’s permission.
We at Porchlight Music Theatre, as a company and as individuals, are deeply committed to being inclusive in all aspects of the organization. We acknowledge and apologize to the Chicago theatre community and the Latinx community as a whole for disappointment in the hiring of our IN THE HEIGHTS cast and production team, and for frustration that has been caused by the slowness of our fuller public response. We agree that we could have done a better job in making a public statement more quickly. We have been carefully paying attention to the conversations and assimilating them with the utmost consideration. During this time we have also been actively implementing many of the constructive ideas and suggestions that have been offered to us through social media and by email.
From the beginning, our casting approach was to hire an acting company that genuinely represented the community of characters as described in the play. We advertised in a transparent way with the intention of especially inviting actors who identify as Latinx to audition. There was an extremely large turnout, including many actors who had never auditioned at Porchlight before.
As is common knowledge, in the casting process we found ourselves at the heart of the challenge of how to hire a potential employee without crossing legal or privacy boundaries that would result in someone being denied employment based solely on their race. We found ourselves at the epicenter of the debate, “how can you know for sure when you cannot ask?”
There has been much conversation around the suggestion to do research and “ask around.” Prior to auditions, we did reach out to several noted Latinx artistic leaders in the community for guidance. All suggestions on avenues to post our casting notices were implemented. All suggested actors were invited to attend auditions. And during the audition process, we did ask around regarding actors we were interested in casting, but whose ethnicity we were unsure of, in order to gain as much insight as we could. However, that information often proved inconsistent and thus unreliable, with the only definitive means being to ask the actor directly as a condition of employment.
So, at the moment of decision, when an actor is in front of you, giving an excellent audition, and of whose ethnicity you are just not precisely sure, what do you do? From the information we were able to gather we moved forward with the actors who gave the best auditions, believing we couldn’t absolutely know their definite ethnic heritage without violating a boundary. We know now we could have done better.
Only post hiring did we learn conclusively that not all cast members self-identify as Latinx and that the fine actor playing “Usnavi,” Jack DeCesare, is actually of Italian descent. We want to be very clear that the responsibility for hiring Jack is wholly ours, not his. This excellent young actor merely showed up for an audition. And he did his job well. Our job was to assemble a company for a work that has unique casting responsibilities. We fell short.
We absolutely stand by the cast and creative team that has been hired for this production, 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.
To this end we have reached out again to diversity and cultural leaders, including The Chicago Inclusion Project, The Latina and Latino Studies department of Northwestern University, The Latin American and Latino Studies Department at DePaul University, Latinx theatre professionals in our community, and others to obtain suggestions of cultural consultants that we can add to the creative team to assure the best representation of the nuances of the work and the community being represented in it.
Further, we plan to expand our already planned post-performance discussion series by inviting many of the voices who have expressed themselves on social media or to us directly to join in a prominent way in this needed and continuing national conversation. And we welcome this production being a point of example and learning for not only Porchlight but for other arts organizations who, like us, may face the same challenges. We look forward to creating forums where we can move forward, and closer, together.
IN THE HEIGHTS is not only a play about community and gentrification, it is a catalyst for conversation about the way things are and ways they can be better. This production has become a source of valid controversy and conversation in our community and an important source of increased understanding and growth for Porchlight Music Theatre. We acknowledge and accept the response our decisions have caused. We deeply regret that our actions have caused offense to our friends and colleagues in the Chicago theatre community, and beyond. We truly are embracing this as an opportunity to improve our artistic processes and we sincerely hope that we can once again earn your trust and respect as the inclusive organization that we have always striven to be.
We welcome further conversation both in public forums and directly via email.
Porchlight Music Theatre
Michael Weber, Artistic Director
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts and interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.