Laurence Olivier (l) and Laurence Fishburne as Othello. Credit: Sun-Times Archive

Nearly 300 members of the Chicago theater community gathered at a town hall meeting  at Victory Gardens Theater Tuesday night to discuss the problem of a lack of roles for performers of color and why, despite the many black, Latino, and Asian actors in Chicago, some of these roles still go to white actors.

The meeting was precipitated by Porchlight Theatre’s announcement last week that it had cast a non-Latino actor in the lead role of Usnavi in its upcoming production of Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2007 musical In the Heights.

Usnavi, who is also the show’s narrator, is a twentysomething bodega owner who lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Like many residents of Washington Heights, he’s Dominican-American. He’s also one of the relatively few musical theater roles written specifically for a Latino actor.

Therefore when Porchlight made its casting announcement the Chicago theater community responded with outrage and intense debate, largely on social media, but also in the news media, including this website. “Don’t keep us out of the stories we have written about our own communities, about our own histories, in our own voices,” actor Tommy Rivera-Vega wrote in a Reader essay. “It’s not yours to tell.”

For many, Porchlight’s In the Heights seemed like another chapter in the long theatrical tradition of whitewashing nonwhite characters by casting white actors to play them even when numerous actors of color are available. (The classic example: Laurence Olivier playing Othello in blackface.) But why, others argued, shouldn’t roles go to the actor who had the best audition? “Do you think Jonathan Pryce should be banned from playing Shylock because he is not Jewish?” Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss wrote in a comment on a story in the Huffington Post. “It is called acting.”

In response, the ALTA Chicago Alliance of Latinx Theatre Artists organized the town hall meeting to discuss the issue and propose some practical solutions. More than 2,000 people followed the discussion on a live Facebook stream. At the outset, ALTA’s executive director Ricardo Gutierrez announced that the meeting was intended in the spirit of “familia,” a directive the congenial, mixed-race group seemed to take to heart. Isaac Gomez, one of the meeting’s organizers and the evening’s emcee, added that the intention of the gathering was not to attack one particular institution or person, but rather to figure out a way to change the entire system. “A conversation about casting usually turns into whining and complaining,” he said. “Today we are going to take action.”

Before the discussion began, actor Stan DeCwikel Jr. read a statement on behalf of his In the Heights castmates. He noted that you can’t judge an actor’s race or ethnicity solely by his or her name: he, himself, is half-Mexican, and several other members of the cast are also part Latino. But they, and the management of Porchlight, believe that the play’s themes apply to all people, not just Latinos. “There is beauty in racial ambiguity,” DeCwikel continued, “Theater is a way to explore other backgrounds and experiences.”

In a panel discussion moderated by Marcela Muñoz, executive and coartistic director of Aguijón Theater, five theatrical professionals discussed the various roles that actors, casting directors, producers, and educators can play to put more performers of color onstage, and not just as ridiculous and painful stereotypes.

“The system isn’t broken,” said playwright Paul Oakley Stovall, who recently took some time away from the theater to work on the Bernie Sanders campaign. “The system is working as it was meant to work. People of color and women were never meant to be onstage. The system is working. We need to destroy it.”

How can the system be destroyed, or at the very least, transformed? “Top down, baby!” said Ilesa Duncan, the producing artistic director of Pegasus Theatre. “We need to open up directing all across the board.” And not just directing: panelists suggested that theaters employ more people of color in other offstage roles: casting, designing, dramaturgy.

“You need to ask, ‘Who is making the decisions?'” said Lavina Jadhwani, casting director at Lifeline Theatre. “And ‘Who is being paid?'” Jadhwani recalled how directors have, on occasion, called her up to ask her for advice about portraying south Asian culture onstage but have neglected to offer to pay her for her expertise or give her a decision-making role that would allow her some influence over the production. “Talking to us is not the same as having us in the room!” she exclaimed.

Jadhwani also suggested that theaters consider why they want more diversity. The artistic director of a science fiction-focused theater recently explained to her that she wanted her company to more accurately reflect the genre, which is very diverse. But others have motives Jadhwani considers less artistically pure. “Are you motivated by guilt?” she asked. “Or fear? Or funding opportunities?”

Participants at a town hall meeting share their suggestions for increasing opportunities for nonwhite actors.
Participants at a town hall meeting share their suggestions for increasing opportunities for nonwhite actors.Credit: Eunice Woods

As actress E. Faye Butler pointed out from the audience, it’s illegal for casting directors to ask actors at auditions about their racial and ethnic background—this measure was intended to prevent actors from losing out on roles because of their race or ethnicity. But Stovall wondered if they could ask other questions to determine if the actor was a good fit for the character, like “Where did you grow up?” or “Are you fluent in Spanish?” Or, as one audience member suggested, “Why is it important for you to tell this story?” (“I need to pay my rent” is not an acceptable answer.)

Playwrights can also assume more control over the production. Duncan noted that playwrights have the right to make demands about who directs their work and which actors fit their conceptions of the characters. Actors can also speak up: Stovall recalled how the cast of Bailiwick Repertory’s 2014 production of Dessa Rosea musical about the relationship between a slave and a white woman in the pre-Civil War south—argued with the white playwright, Lynn Ahrens, about how a black woman would behave in a certain situation. In the end, Ahrens accepted their suggestions.

But when Muñoz, the moderator, asked how theater professionals could “break the glass box”—if it would be acceptable for someone to write about or portray a person of another race and ethnicity onstage—the panel was stumped.

“Is it a matter of lack of opportunity?” Muñoz asked. “If there were more opportunities for artists of color, is that the engine that would move the whole thing?”

“Is it the authors or the system?” wondered Liza Ann Acosta, a professor of literature at North Park College and a member of the Teatro Luna theater company. “What do we do now?”

“Would you say you’re advocating a double standard?” Muñoz asked. “People of color can play anyone, but whites can only play certain roles?”

“The writer always wins,” Stovall declared. “If the writer says it’s important for the role to be played by an actor of a certain background, it should be played by that actor.” Duncan noted, though, that it was more difficult to determine the intentions of a playwright who was dead. (Neither Hudes nor Miranda has made any public comment about Porchlight’s casting of In the Heights.) “You need to look at the context of the play,” said Acosta.

After the panel discussion, the audience broke up into smaller groups to brainstorm ideas about what various members of the theater community, including critics, teachers, and audience members, could do to promote more equality on Chicago’s stages. 

Most of the recommendations focused on making an effort to choose plays by nonwhite playwrights and actively seek out actors and other theater professionals of color. Many of the small groups also suggested that people examine their motives for choosing to be involved with a certain work. There was a distinction, they said, between appropriation, such as using another ethnic group or race for self-gain (like, say, deciding to do In the Heights solely because Miranda’s current show, Hamilton, is Broadway’s hottest ticket), and appreciation, the feeling that you have a good reason for telling this particular story (doing In the Heights because the issues it raises are universal and speak to all immigrants, Dominican or otherwise).

One audience member suggested that the casting issue was like a pendulum. For 400 years, the theater has overwhelmingly favored white men and their stories. Maybe in the future it won’t matter if a white actor plays Usnavi, but only when there are an equal number of opportunities for nonwhite actors. “We have to be hypervigilant,” she said, “about getting different people’s stories told.”

But for now it was time to lay a foundation for the future. “We need to be active, not passive,” said Acosta. “We need to think about who’s coming after us.”

The discussion will continue online, on Facebook and Twitter under the hashtag #BeyondDiversity and on ALTA’s website. For more information write to Brian Eugenio Herrera, a professor at Princeton, will be leading a conversation about the history of casting, Latinx edition, on Sat. 8/13 at 8:30 PM at the Palmer House Hilton.

Correction: Quiara Alegría Hudes spoke to American Theatre magazine about the controversy over Porchlight’s casting. “Casting the roles appropriately is of fundamental importance,” she said. “The Latino community has the right to be disappointed and depressed that an opportunity like this was lost.”