Why Do White People Keep Putting on In the Heights?

Lin-Manuel Miranda said he's okay with high schools casting In the Heights however they can. But should he be?EXPAND
Lin-Manuel Miranda said he's okay with high schools casting In the Heights however they can. But should he be?
Dario Lo Presti/Shutterstock

If you’ve ever hitched a ride with me to or from Arizona School for the Arts (where I’m currently enrolled), you’ve probably heard the soundtrack to In the Heights blast from my speakers. The 2008 Tony-winning show was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, hip-hop’s voice in Broadway's increasingly diversifying musical scene. While he’s best known for his recent hit, Hamilton, In the Heights set a precedent for the place of ethnicity and color in theater; the original Broadway production features a cast made up of people of color, reflecting the immigrant roots (largely Latinx) of those who populate Washington Heights, the musical’s titular neighborhood. It tells the story of a specific group of people struggling to survive in the wake of a largely white push to “reinvigorate” (gentrify) the “seedy” (ethnic) parts of the city. The show’s protagonist, Usnavi, fights to keep the doors of his store open on one of the summer’s hottest weekends. As the people he has known all of his life start to pick up and leave, he questions whether or not to keep the store (and his parents’ immigrant dreams) alive. But what story is being told when those telling it are not those who have experienced this hardship?

I was nervous when Xavier College Preparatory announced that their fall musical would be In the Heights. As a young Hispanic/Latino actor growing up in the Valley theater scene, this piece is especially important to me and my people. Knowing the pool they’d be drawing from (Xavier reported in 2013 that 25 percent of their students were women of color, with only 10 percent identifying as Latina), I was worried it would be miscast. My fears were confirmed when the cast list came out weeks ago. Xavier’s production features a cast of mostly white actors, and only three of the 12 lead roles were given to Latinx actors. Frankly, I was stunned. Of course, it’s possible that not every woman of color or Latina student at the school wanted to audition, which could be one reason for the under representation in the cast, but that isn’t an excuse. If you can’t cast a show honestly with the actors you have, you need to put on a different show. Something either ignorant or offensive had occurred. And the problem was that I couldn’t tell which.

In the past month alone, two other cases have come up regarding the casting of a non-Latino actor in the part of Usnavi, In the Heights’ protagonist. Chicago's Porchlight Theatre came under fire for their decision to cast a white man in the role, and more locally, Phoenix Theatre became embroiled in conflict for casting a French-Iranian immigrant. In both of these instances, there was backlash from the Latinx community through Facebook and other social media sites. No matter how respectful the intent was when presenting these pieces, it’s ultimately the perception of the work that determines its appropriateness. It felt as though both Porchlight and Phoenix Theatre did not trust Latinx actors to tell their own story.

Many pieces of theater are about the universal struggles we as humans experience at large. But there is another type of show that cannot be experienced universally. It’s about the hardships of one particular group of people. Recognizing the difference between these two types is important. Hamlet, for example, can be cast a variety of ways. The casting can be universal because the problem is. However, if a conflict details the struggle of a specific community, the casting must stay true to the script; it creates a more inviting experience for those whose hardship is being portrayed. It’s the same reason there would never be an all-white cast of The Color Purple, an all-straight cast of Angels in America, or an all-male cast of The Vagina Monologues. In the Heights is not a special case. Color-conscious casting is essential to honestly tell the story. And the same goes for television and movies, too. Recently, Paramount and Dreamworks received major criticism for casting Scarlett Johansson, a white actor, as Ghost in the Shell's Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is Japanese. The same kind of message is being spread here: Dreamworks and Paramount are saying they don’t trust a Japanese actor to tell the story that comes from their culture. And the tragedy is that this case is not unique. Films such as The Theory of Everything (casting Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking instead of an actor who really had a motor neuron disease), Anything (casting Matt Bomer as a transgender sex worker although the actor is not transgender), and even Doctor Strange (casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, a character who has always been of Asian descent) only serve to perpetuate the harmful practice of “colorblind casting” that runs rampant through our society.

While color-conscious casting is important in any piece of theater that looks at the struggle of people of color, the technique can be somewhat reversed for some pieces of theater. This is why Hamilton should be cast with people of color. While originally all of the Founding Fathers were white, Miranda made the conscious choice to cast people of color because he was highlighting the immigrant nature of the story of the Founding Fathers. His point is that everyone was an immigrant to America at some point, but the history has been written from a very Eurocentric point of view. This was his retelling to make American history more accessible to people who have been traditionally told that this history does not belong to them. 

Miranda has come out with a statement in regards to high school productions. In a 2013 interview with the website THNKR, he specifically said “I believe when you’re in high school, you should be able to play whatever role you want.” He has no reservations about high schools putting on In the Heights, and this is where he and I fundamentally disagree. I understand his case for authorial intent, but when you send art out into the world, it’s no longer yours, it’s communal. And putting high schools on a different plane than a professional theater company says that their art is less important than the art of professionals. Although they have limited resources, they should be treated with the same respect and tasked with the same duties as a professional company, because art is still art. Some people's only access to theater is through high school performances. The work doesn't influence them any less than a professional show would. They don't go into a high school show thinking that they need to take away less from the work just because it is a high school production. They'll still be looking for the same lessons they would in a professional production. Ultimately, art doesn’t make less of an impact on the community based on its source. 

Xanthia Walker, a director and teacher I have worked with, is the co-founder of Rising Youth Theatre, and to her, Xavier’s casting doesn’t ring true. “To cast white young actors to play people of color enforces the idea that white bodies are the default onstage — that white is ‘neutral’ and ‘flexible’ and can tell (appropriate) anybody else's story,” she comments. “It also tells students of color — in this case, Latinx students, that the theater isn't for them — because we are telling them that their stories are powerful, but their bodies in performance, in the positions of power, are not.”

When productions are miscast, it is not the fault of just the company or the actors. Everyone in that theater community loses.

While Xavier administrators are not available for comment until September 28 due to a licensing agreement, I was assured by the cast (specifically those playing the roles of Usnavi and Benny, who are both white) that they would be consulting with Latinx residents of Washington Heights. While it appears Xavier is doing everything they can to try and make their production as truthful as possible, this solution comes off as discourteous and harmful for a number of reasons. The idea that one can adopt another’s culture by simply spending time with them (even in an educational setting) is insulting. There’s something upsetting about the image of someone of an underrepresented group of people coming in and saying, “Here, borrow my culture, and I’ll watch as you perform it for an audience."

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Osiris Cuen, a Phoenix-based Latina actor known for her work at Childsplay in Tempe, isn’t angry with Xavier for doing In the Heights, but she’s worried when it comes to non-Latinx actors playing the roles. “I’m sure [residents] have a lot to offer these acting students,” she says, “but I don’t think any of these kids have or ever will have to experience gentrification, or the struggles they face as a Latinx community.”

While many student actors view this show as a “challenge” put forth to mature as actors, members of the Latinx community see a group of outsiders pilfering hardships and using them as a playground for personal growth. No matter what steps any company is taking, there is no way to change ethnicity. And whitewashing productions like this only harms the theater community.

I’ll still see Xavier’s production of In the Heights. I’ll arrive 15 minutes early, and I’ll clap when it’s over. But I won’t forget where I come from or what I stand for. I’ll be watching for those who cannot watch. I will watch you try to copy their actions as they continue to suffer. And I will not shy away from argument. If you find me after the show, I will gladly engage you in a civil conversation about the merits of color-conscious casting, and what subtle racism has evolved to look like in the 21st century. And I will not forget those who have come before me, and those I represent. I certainly wish Xavier the best of luck with their production. But I also want them to know that they won’t get away with stealing the story of my people. Stealing my culture. So, buena suerte.

Viva la América.

In the Heights plays at Xavier College Preparatory, 4710 North Fifth Street, on October 12, 13, and 15. More info can be found at www.xcp.org.

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