Activism Life

Walking The Line

August 24, 2016

If you’re involved at all in theatre, then you’ve probably heard about Chicago. If you’re involved in theatre in Arizona, then you’ve probably heard about Phoenix Theatre. And if you’re involved in theatre in Arizona and are under the age of 25, then you’ve probably heard about the recent casting of In The Heights at Xavier College Prep.

If you’re not familiar with In The Heights, some background: it’s a hip-hop musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (the brain behind Hamilton). In The Heights is about a community of predominantly Latinx people living in New York’s Washington Heights, where Miranda himself grew up. The musical is one of few that focuses on the Latinx story. Unlike Hamilton, which is considered to be an “immigrant tale,” In The Heights focuses on an ethnically-specific group of people in order to tell their story.

In the most recent production in Chicago, the upcoming Phoenix Theatre production, and now the Xavier College Prep production, the lead role (and many of the other leads/supporting roles) have gone to people with no Latinx heritage at all. In fact, the Xavier production boasts a cast of almost entirely white actors in the lead roles, while more ethnic actors are in the ensemble.

I grew up in Arizona, was involved in the theatre community there, and still keep up with what goes on, so when it was announced that both Phoenix Theatre and Xavier would be putting on In The Heights, I had to wonder, “why?” Why would a mostly white, private, high school choose In The Heights as their fall musical? I still haven’t found the exact answer, but I have a hunch that it has to do with the fact that it’s a Tony-winning show.

Granted, Miranda himself did come out with a statement, back in 2013, saying how high school students should have the opportunity to play an array of roles, I still wonder, what was the school’s purpose of choosing such an ethnically-demanding show? What message is that putting forth into our community when that show is cast, at a young level, with mostly white performers? What conversations are happening in that rehearsal room? As I’ve already seen from many of the cast members, there’s a fetishizing tone about saying “I can’t wait to tell their story and explore their culture!” I would hope the production team is prepared to address that.

As soon as the cast list came out I, of course, tweeted about it, using the hashtag #InTheWhites. As I assumed, the responses from the high school cast ranged from confused, to borderline racist.

One of the milder responses I received was, “Isn’t the point of acting to be able to able to take an experience that you have not personally been through and recreate it?” Yes, but also no. To quote the American Theatre’s website, “According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, between 2006 and 2015, actors of color in New York City were cast 23 percent of the time, and within that number, an average of only 10 percent of the time without regard to race.” Those are some pretty slim numbers. Yet for ethnic-specified roles, white people are regularly considered. Forbes takes it a step further in their article #TonysSoWhite; since the Tonys and Oscars began, over 95% of nominees have been white.

So what does this tell us? We need to do better.

As an ethnically ambiguous POC, I’m not innocent of this either. I’ve been cast in many roles in which I, racially, did not fit. Is this correct? No, probably not. Am I aware of it now? Absolutely. As an actor I believe that it’s my duty and privilege to tell the stories of others, but I need to do so respectfully. I don’t audition for shows in which I don’t fit the roles. I’ve learned to not attempt to tell stories that, historically, could not be mine. It’s all too easy to fall into doing brown face or yellow face or even at times, black face. It’s our job as actors to step in before that happens. And it’s our community’s job to teach us why that is not okay.

Now, do I believe this is all on the actors? No, of course not. In fact, the most common response to most of my tweets regarding the casting was something along the line of “We don’t choose the musical. We auditioned for the musical our school chose. Take it up with them. You should support us or don’t bother seeing it.” Which begs me to say this: You have a choice. Yes, sure, your school might announce that they are doing a show and it might be the only musical they do all year and you might not fit ethnically, but you have a choice. You can stand up and speak up and let your school or theatre know that you have a problem with their decision.

I was extremely disappointed in many of the responses from the cast in which the tone was accusatory towards me, deeming my criticism to be a “lack of support” for the work the cast would be doing. This is not a personal attack. This is not a personal critique. To the entire cast: this is not about you as a person/performer, but it is about your response to what is happening in the community you have chosen to be a part of. This is an invitation to set aside your pitchfork the minute anyone calls into question a project you might be working on, and instead listen and learn. This is me asking you, as fellow actors, to question what you do and why you do it and what impact it leaves on the world outside of your personal circle. This is a calling for us, as theatre makers, to be better.

We as actors are not powerless, but we so often allow ourselves to believe that we are. You are more powerful than you think, and who you choose to play onstage proves that. So choose wisely.

Xo, Willa

  • Reply
    August 24, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    Lovely, lovely, lovely post. I am speaking as an actor who was told by a director I had the best audition, but I wasn’t cast in that paying gig because the theater company pressured her to cast an actor who was clearly of color over me. They wanted more representation onstage. And while I would have loved to have worked on that show, I didn’t resent it for a minute. Because I know actors of color. (I knew the actress I lost the role to, as well. She’s terrific.) And I know the racist crap they put up with just trying to have an acting career. I know the opportunities I have as a white-passing actor (I’m Hispanic but I sure don’t look it) that my friends who don’t pass never get. It is not considered a “political” choice if I’m cast in an Ibsen piece, or a period piece. Writing amazing roles for actors of color are reparations for years and years when white actors got to play all the good roles, no matter what the race. And we still freaking see it all the time – only without the makeup. A huge theater in town did a story about Asian children, and guess what race the actors who were in it were?

    The stories of historically oppressed races are being told by others too often and not enough is done to find actors of color to fill those roles. No, it’s not the fault of the actors at this school this play was chosen. But they will and do have opportunity after opportunity laid out for them after this play. And if the worst thing you go through is you don’t get to play *all* the roles (because some exist, in part, for the purpose of balancing history), if you have to pass up one play because you’d rather sacrifice what you want for the right reasons than be part of something crappy for the wrong reasons…if THAT’S the worst thing you experience? Consider yourselves lucky AF. And if you don’t get that, you really, REALLY need to check your privilege and sit all the way down.

    If they don’t have a long and consistent history of criticizing the systematic oppression of their colleagues of color, they have zero place, as Jesse Williams said, to critique the resistance to that oppression. They don’t, obviously, because they are making excuses for it. They aren’t elementary school kids. They’re a year or two away from being officially adults.

    Wake up, kids. No matter how good you are, the reality is you’re going to make a healthy portion of your audience uncomfortable by co-opting a group’s story. A group who has been overlooked and oppressed, not only offstage but has been reduced to stereotypes more often than not onstage and onscreen. And never, ever insist people who point out your ideological shortcomings should support you or shut up. Protecting your privilege has the opposite effect – it nullifies any impulse to support you.

    Willa, thank you. Pretty sure Jesus* would be on your side in this scenario.

    *yes, the diety, jerks

    • Reply
      August 24, 2016 at 7:31 pm

      Thank you so much for your response. I really appreciate it and cannot thank you enough for sharing your story. Xo

  • Reply
    Will Olesiewicz
    August 28, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    its a show. its pretend. its a fucking high school. dont be a cunt Willa. no one likes them.

    • Reply
      Alex Tuchi
      August 28, 2016 at 3:34 pm

      Wow! Perpetuating a sexist stereotype was SO much more effective than, you know, an actually coherent argument! You must be really grasping at straws here, pal.

    • Reply
      August 28, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      Hi Will Olesiewicz,
      Thank you for your comment. While I appreciate everyone’s thoughts on the matter, I do wonder why you felt the need to call me a ‘cunt’? I personally don’t feel like the best way to debate is to name call, but maybe that’s just me. In the future, I would highly suggest refraining from buying into sexist remarks–it’s really unflattering. But again, thank you for your opinion on the matter.

  • Reply
    Making It Right: An Apology – What She Is
    May 9, 2017 at 8:32 am

    […] whitewashing of shows like In The Heights, walk away from the roles or the people or the places that go against what you believe in, and do […]

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