Late last month, a headline writer for McClatchy DC was not alone in getting caught in a linguistic, oxymoronic knot when they announced, “Minority babies outnumber whites among US infants.” While the word minority has been a catchall to describe people of any race or ethnicity other than white, it also means, per Dictionary.com, “1. the smaller part or number; a number, part, or amount forming less than half of the whole, 2.a smaller party or group opposed to a majority, as in voting or other action, 3. a group in society distinguished from, and less dominant than, the more numerous majority.”
What the McClatchy headline, and others like it, seemed unable to address was that, despite the very facts they were reporting upon, the so-called minority is rapidly becoming the majority overall; babies are just the bellwether. Using minority to denote people of color is rapidly becoming, and in many cases already is, both incorrect and passé. Bloomberg News had similar trouble in their headline on the same subject – “The Majority of American Babies Are Now Minorities” – but they salvaged the situation, to a degree, with a graphic headed “Minorities No More.” Other outlets managed just fine, ranging from Pew Research, which actually addressed the inversion of terminology in their headline, to NPR.
Does minority remain the prevailing term for people of color inadvertently, or is it deployed to sustain a narrative in which people of color are not only numerically but conceptually less than white society? One can only hope that editing stylebooks are grappling with this very issue, and will come out on the side of retiring the reductive use of minority as a synonym for any and all people whose race or ethnicity is not Eurocentric white.
Perhaps if stylebooks were all more advanced on language surrounding race and ethnicity, the Chicago Sun-Times wouldn’t have run a headline this week that read, “Porchlight’s ‘In the Heights’ names its authentic cast.” Those who see anything beyond the title of the show, the theatre and the word cast, might wonder about the presence of the word authentic. Aren’t all casts authentic, in that the actors are who they say they are and will be playing the roles they’re announced to play?
The source of this construction can be found in the body of what should be a straightforward casting announcement (as it was in the Chicago Tribune), where Sun-Times writer Hedy Weiss writes, “Porchlight Music Theatre will open its production of that first Miranda hit with an unusually ‘authentic’ cast.” This begs the question: what’s with the quotes around authentic? What’s so unusual?
Weiss doesn’t explain, and the rest of the piece goes on to quote the artistic director of Porchlight and to list the cast. Presumably, Weiss is using the word authentic to address the fact that the cast is, based solely on their names, largely Latinx. Of course, that is entirely appropriate, considering that the characters in Heights are almost entirely Latinx. But by utilizing authentic (a word which does not appear in Porchlight’s release) set off in quotes and by citing the casting as unusual, Weiss seems to imply that this is an exception to some norm and questions the very term and concept of authentic when it comes to casting.
This subtle undermining of what has rapidly become the prevailing, but by no means universal, casting practice in the U.S. reveals at best a disagreement with the practice. That no editor questioned it, that an editor compounded it in the headline, effectively making it the central theme of the brief, predominantly cut and paste, story, suggests the retrograde idea that through casting, race can still be acceptably erased on stage, even when it is absolutely essential to the story being told.
While Weiss introduced both authentic and the possibly sarcastic equivalent of air quotes around it, Porchlight’s press release unfortunately led her in that direction. A statement from Porchlight’s artistic director Michael Weber mentions “an exhaustive audition process seeing hundreds of the Chicago-area’s diverse established and new music theatre talent, and even reaching out to our city’s vast hip-hop dance community,” “[making] every effort to present a company that reflects the true spirit of this story of community,” and “all but one of our actors is making their Porchlight Mainstage debut.”
Without ever using the word Latino (let alone Latino/a, Latinao or Latinx), this statement comes off as Weber patting his own theatre on the back for working so very hard to meet the basic requirements of the musical he chose. That’s the implicit message that Weiss intuited and made somewhat more explicit, if still enigmatic to those unaware of the concept of authenticity in casting.
No doubt Weber’s statement was designed to ward off any possibility of the kind of criticism leveled at the casting of Evita at the Marriott Theatre in Chicago earlier this year. Actor Bear Bellinger was the first to call out the casting of that production, and the resulting press attention made very clear that when it came to authenticity in casting when it comes to racial representation (a term that needs no quotes surrounding it), Chicago needed to step up its practices. But now that color conscious casting has become the predominant practice nationally, there’s no need to point it out or expect kudos for employing it (inadvertently, Weber has demonstrated how little his company knew of Latinx talent in the city). The subject of race in casting should only be news when it is being ignored or exclusionary.
On a corollary note regarding gender, Porchlight’s release is a bit too caught up in Hamilton fever, as it came with a large photo of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Heights’s composer and lyricist. To be sure, Heights was Miranda’s baby from its earliest days at Wesleyan University, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that in addition to the photo, Miranda’s name appears in the headline, is mentioned in Weber’s statement and he gets a bio alongside the production’s director, while bookwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes’s sole mention amounts to “book by.” Miranda is rightly acclaimed and surely Porchlight is attempting to link itself to the impending Chicago run of Hamilton. That doesn’t excuse virtually ignoring Hudes, who – like Miranda – has received the Pulitzer Prize; in fact, she beat him to it by four years. Also, Porchlight’s In The Heights is not the “Latest Creation by Multi Award-Winning Director/Choreographer Brenda Didier.” Heights was created by Miranda and Hudes, two acclaimed Latinx artists.
Whether it’s the dissemination of messaging by theatres or reports on that messaging by the arts press, there’s an essential need for everyone to step up their game. While theatres are being encouraged, and in some cases required, to participate in equity, diversity and inclusion training that may help to smooth this transition, it’s not immediately apparent whether the same effort to raise awareness is taking place in newsrooms, especially among veteran writers whose concept of language around race may have been formed in an earlier era. But both the act of making art and the act of writing about it share the common goal of communication, and at a time when the conversation around race in this country is both heightened and often divisive, certainly the arts are one place where care and consideration can prevail.
Update, July 20, 2:45 pm: Additional information that reflects upon the topics in this post is currently being gathered, and further updates will include that material as it is confirmed. However, it has been noted by several readers on social media that while Porchlight may have done an extensive casting search for diverse talent in the cast, the primary creatives on the production are all apparently non-Latinx artists, which certainly bears on the discussion of authenticity in one of the few popular musicals that centers on the Latinx community.
Update, July 27, 11:30 am: an update to this post has been posted separately, as “Intricacies and Intent Surrounding Race and Ethnicity in Casting.”
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.