The casting of the upcoming production of In The Heights at Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago, in particular a non-Latinx actor in the leading role of Usnavi, has provoked a great deal of comment and controversy. On August 9, Victory Gardens Theatre hosted a public forum, “The Color Game: whitewashing Latinx stories,” which drew a full house and an even larger online audience to explore the issues of race, ethnicity, authenticity and representation provoked by the Porchlight casting and an earlier production of Evita in Chicago; reporting from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Reader on the forum expanded its reach yet further). The event had been preceded by multiple online essays on the subject, including posts by Trevor Boffone, Tommy Rivera-Vega and Jose T. Nateras, as well as two reports (here and here) from Arts Integrity as the situation unfolded, and a commentary by me, writing in my capacity as interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.
On Sunday evening, August 14, Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew shared, via Facebook, a post that was headed, “Just Got this from Lin-Manuel and Quiara.” Readers have noted that it seems to be coming from a single voice, but Hudes’s preface addresses that:
I will be swamped returning from vacation and may not get a statement out, I wanted to forward you my email interview thread with Diep Tran for American Theater at the end of July when this happened. Lin stood behind my comments in this thread then, and I assume that still stands. Here are some of my most relevant comments, cut and pasted for continuity which I am comfortable with them being posted publicly, in the context of “excerpts from her interview with Diep Tran for American Theatre Magazine.”
For those seeking more clarification about Miranda’s position, I was in touch with him with him following the publication of the American Theatre article; he had been on vacation when the controversy over Porchlight’s casting emerged. Responding to an offer to add his own thoughts, he wrote, referencing Hudes’s comments in the the article, “I honestly can’t improve on her words. She speaks for us both.”
Hudes’s full statement to Yew is as follows:
I am not familiar with Porchlight but based on them being Equity, then I can only assume this is a professional theater company. Within the context of professional productions, casting the roles appropriately is of fundamental importance.
The fact is that creating true artistic diversity often takes hard work. Concerted, extra effort. It takes time and money. You cannot just put out a casting call and hope people come and then shrug if they don’t show up. You may need to add extra casting calls (I do this all the time), to go do outreach in communities you haven’t worked with before. You may need to reach out to the Latino theaters and artists and build partnerships to share resources and information. You may need to fly in actors from out of town if you’ve exhausted local avenues, and house them during the run. 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. It can be very disheartening, as an artist and as an audience member.
The sad fact is that even in New York, where we Latinos abound, the theater world often reflects a much more closed system. I’m talking onstage and off.
For decades, the vast majority of Latino roles were maids, gang bangers, etc etc. It’s demoralizing, obnoxious, and reductive of an entire people. It’s a lie about who we are, how complicated our dreams and individuality are.
Chicago has a historic Puerto Rican and Latino community. Its history as a hub of Latino migration is beautiful and robust. I’ve had the honor of working in Chicago numerous times and getting to know a deep pool of diverse talent there. Artists like Eddie Torres founded Latino theater companies to create opportunities where there were none. The Goodman houses a Latino theater festival frequently, and they did a beautiful job casting my play The Happiest Song Plays Last. DePaul recently hosted the Latino/a Theater Commons festival. Chicago is poised to be at the forefront of these issues!
I am proud to have written complex roles for actors of many ethnicities: Latino, African-American, White, Asian-American, Arab-American. I have stumbled at times. But I continue to commit to nuance and specificity as the core of the dramatic impulse, and the gateway to the human experience.
I have been in a lot of rooms where people give lip service to being committed to diversity. But that’s different than doing the hard work that it often involves.
I do not hold these views as strongly with educational and non-professional productions. I’m happy for schools and communities who do not have these actors on hand to use In the Heights as an educational experience for participants of all stripes.
I have had the pleasure of working with directors of many backgrounds on my work. Women and men, Latin@, Asian American, African American, bicultural, and white. I have purposely tried to work with the widest range of directors possible, aesthetically and culturally speaking, and this broad group of collaborators has enriched my vision as an artist.
I have chosen directors based on many considerations: aesthetics, artistic mission, their connection with a given script, their history of excellent casting and designer collaborations.
Rather than demand a particular background for a director of my work, I try to encourage Artistic Directors and producers to consider hiring woman directors and culturally diverse directors THROUGHOUT their season–not just for the “Latino” play or “women’s” play. Directors of color should be hired to do EVERYTHING. They should be directing Shakespeare and Moliere and Ibsen and Cruz. Not just Cruz.
This post, in a slightly different form, first appeared on the website of the Arts Integrity Initiative.