Race, Broadway, and Lin-Manuel Miranda

It’s been a while since I first came across this interview that Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, West Side Story, House) did with THNKR. I rewatched it recently and it really got me thinking about the intersection of race and theatre.

There’s probably no one I respect and admire more in the musical theatre world than Lin-Manuel Miranda¹, but I take serious issue with what he’s saying in this interview. In the opening clip, Lin claims that:

It’s a thorny issue, but I think that race and gender should be considered the same way height and age are. They’re a factor.

He goes on to explain that while there are roles in musicals that demand race- or gender-specific casting, the race/gender requirements should be suspended for high school productions. He continues by recounting his experiences playing traditionally white roles while in high school, despite being of Puerto-Rican descent. Later, Lin concludes the interview by stating that even in the professional theatre world, “[casting] is about getting the best person for the part first, and then the other things are factors that may tip them one way or the other.”

Lin’s “talent-first” mentality is fairly typical amongst white media producers who hold an undying faith in the moral integrity of colorblind casting. However, Lin’s perspective on the issue is particularly interesting (and confusing) — because he’s Latino and a person of color, yes, but moreso because he justifies his perspective by comparing his experiences as a PoC playing white roles with the hypothetical case of a “too-white” high school doing In the Heights. In other words, Lin argues that there is no difference between a PoC playing a white role and a white person playing a PoC role, and that casting a white person in a PoC role or vice versa has little consequence apart from the personal experience of the young actor who is casted in the role.

For someone who’s such a notable PoC figurehead within the musical theatre world, and for someone whose keystone work is one of the only major musicals featuring an all-PoC cast, Lin-Manuel Miranda has kept unusually silent when it comes to topics concerning race. This THNKR interview is probably the only real instance where Lin addresses the issue of race in theatre head-on. And I gotta say — I’m extremely disappointed. For one, I’m disappointed that Lin’s answer was so unsubstantial and wishy-washy. But I’m more disappointed that despite Lin’s honest and personal account of playing white roles as a non-white person, his conclusion with regards to the issue of colorblind casting was one that aligns perfectly and comfortably with that of white theatre-goers who balk at the idea of a black Cinderella, or believe that blackface is still perfectly acceptable (as seen in the comments section of the video embedded above. No, really. It’s there. Someone actually said that after watching this interview. See what I’m getting at?)

08-2-29 In The Heights

Let’s first talk about Lin’s experiences playing traditionally white roles while in high school — or, as he puts it, a “Puerto Rican son in Fiddler on the Roof.” He says:

I loved that I got to play Conrad Birdie, and that I got to play Captain Hook — roles where I might not be seen for that now in the professional world. But it’s your chance to have an African-American Maria in The Sound of Music, and I think school is where you get to really do all that fun stuff.

I can really relate to what Lin’s saying here. I played a bunch of traditionally white roles throughout middle and high school, and had a great time with it. But I knew at a young age that, if I ever wanted to pursue musical theatre professionally, I would be limited to roles in (highly fetishistic and Orientalist) musicals like Miss Saigon or Flower Drum Song.

(If I had to pinpoint the exact moment I figured this out, it would be the one audition in middle school where the directors asked me if I could do an accent immediately after I had finished my monologue. Turns out that they were looking for someone to play the minor role of an “immigrant” that recounts his/her journey of emigrating to the United States via Ellis Island during the early 20th century…even though virtually no Asians ever set foot in Ellis Island during the early 1900s, and even though almost all of the people who went through Ellis Island were, you know, white.)

So yeah — I totally understand Lin’s argument about high school being this great equalizer, and I especially appreciate that bit he threw in about the realities of the professional theatre world and the fact that PoC are almost never casted in “non-ethnic” roles. But I completely disagree with the idea of applying this principle to white actors casted in PoC roles, even within a high school production. To play off of the hypothetical situation Lin presents in the interview: is it okay for a predominantly white high school to perform a production of In the Heights with a predominantly white cast playing characters that were specifically written as Latino/a?

20130820_cmpatricia_heights6

My former high school performed In the Heights last year, and while I praised that production to the high heavens in this review, I was (and still am) rather uneasy with the fact that almost all of the cast (leads and ensemble) was white, and that almost all of the Latino/a characters in the show were played by white students. The characters weren’t casted that way on purpose; the high school itself is 87 percent white, and a Latina actress was casted as one of the lead roles. In the end, the fact that the cast was predominantly white was more as a matter of circumstance than anything else. Ultimately, it was no one’s fault that the cast was as white as it was.

Instead, I hold bigger issue with the directors’ decision to produce In the Heights in the first place, and the reason has a lot to do with the fact that the cast “accidentally” turned out so white. The directors knew that there wouldn’t be enough Latino/a students to fill the roles of the Latino/a characters in the show, so they would have to be filled by white students.

And at the risk of being accused of backtracking, I’m going to — surprise! — agree with Lin for a bit and say that that’s fine, as far as high school is concerned. Small, local high school productions have a much lower responsibility to promote fair and equal ethnic representation than professional productions do, so as long as there’s no brownface or other nuggets of cultural insensitivity going on, there’s nothing wrong with “seeing race as a factor” when casting a high school production.

But here’s the catch: The decision to cast a white student in a Latino/a role must be a reluctant decision, and the director must acknowledge that s/he is settling — no matter how talented or fit-for-the-part the white student might be.  The decision to cast white students in Latino/a roles must be presupposed by a meaningful, thorough, and sincere understanding of the racial issues presented in the show and the significance thereof, and that includes a meaningful, thorough, and sincere understanding of why the presence of an all-Latin cast in In the Heights is so important.

It is utterly essential that directors and cast take the time to closely examine the story presented through In the Heights, and recognize that, as non-Latinos/as, this story is not theirs to claim as their own. I probably wouldn’t come down so hard on this issue if it were any other show, but In the Heights is different in that its narrative is so closely tied with the cultural and societal experiences of the Latino community. Not the white community with ancestral ties to Irish immigrants in the 1800s; not the Asian immigrant community — the Latino community. Furthermore, the greater significance of In the Heights is that it tells a story and represents a community that is severely underrepresented and frequently erased within a white-dominated musical theatre world…and it features an entire cast of Latino/a characters that are ready and waiting to be filled by Latino/a actors and actresses who would be denied the opportunity to play “non-ethnic” roles elsewhere.

20130820_cmpatricia_heights2

It is okay for a white high school cast to do In the Heights. It is even okay for white or non-Latinos/as to relate to its story. But it is not their story, and they must fully understand that as a white cast, it will be impossible for them to deliver a production of In the Heights with the same amount of cultural and emotional depth and ownership as a Latin cast would. They are not bringing glory to themselves and their own history. To put it as nicely and forgivingly as possible, they are paying homage — and whether their homage is respectful or not fully depends on how successfully the directors and cast are able to acknowledge their privilege and realize that they are borrowing a story, not telling it.²

This then must translate to how the audience (which in the case of local high school productions, often equates to the surrounding community) receives this message, and whether or not they regard it with the same level of respect and deference as the cast (presumably) has. If a production of In the Heights played by a white cast fully conveys the message that the voice of the Latino/a community is important, complex, and demands to be heard (as seen throughout the narrative of Heights), then the production has succeeded on a culturally sensitive level, despite having a white cast. However, if a production of In the Heights played by a white cast does nothing apart from creating an audience that is only impressed by the “spicy dance numbers,” the “hip urban beat,” and the “kids’ phenomenal performance,” then the production isn’t only unsuccessful — it is highly disrespectful, and it is appropriative.

So yes, it is possible for a high school to cast white students in Heights and still be culturally sensitive and non-appropriative, but the demands are extremely high. For starters, it requires the complete acknowledgement and acceptance of privilege. But when you’re talking high schools like mine that are predominantly white to begin with, your chances of finding even one person who knows what it means to “check your privilege” are extremely slim. At my former high school, I had people asking me why Asians weren’t considered white if our skin was so light.

Most suburban, predominantly white high schools who wouldn’t have enough PoC students to properly cast Heights are simply not culturally mature enough to even think about doing Heights. That’s why I have a hard time buying Lin’s argument that race should be suspended when casting white students in PoC roles for a high school production. Most white high schools simply aren’t ready.

20130820_cmpatricia_heights3

Back to the interview. While I’m somewhat onboard with Lin’s opinion on colorblind casting in high school (not “aye-aye-captain”-onboard, mind you; more like “one-toe-on-the-boat”-onboard), he completely loses me once he starts talking about casting for his upcoming musical on Alexander Hamilton. Again, he tries to justify colorblind casting through the example of casting talented PoC performers in the traditionally white roles of America’s Founding Fathers. The problem with this is that he’s now applying the same principle that he previously only limited to high school productions to the professional theatre world. It’s not like he’s saying that casting Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in Miss Saigon and putting him in yellowface was totally okay and totally not racist, but he does say that “it’s about getting the best person for the part first” — which basically means the same thing.

Now you’ve got the usual issues that arise when you’re talking racial and ethnic representation in media — unemployed non-white actors being denied non-ethnic roles, portrayal of whiteness as the norm, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. We see this discussed all the time in film and television, and to an extent the same could be said about musical theatre. But the thing about musical theatre is that it gets away with the most amazingly racist shit, to the point where it seems almost fruitless to be talking about ethnic representation because we’ve still got folks in theatre who think blackface and yellowface is perfectly acceptable.

There are tons of PoCs working in musical theatre and tons of shows that feature PoC casts, but musical theatre has always been white folk territory. The reason for this is simple: Broadway is an extremely expensive hobby. Anyone with an internet connection can access a movie or a television show, which means that there’s greater diversity (race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, etc) in the people who can comment or criticize the movie or TV show and keep it accountable and culturally sensitive. But access to musical theatre is strictly limited to those people who can afford it — and those people tend to be wealthy and white.

20130820_cmpatricia_heights5

It frustrates me that it’s so difficult for people of all backgrounds to follow musical theatre and help keep it accountable. For one, it means that musical theatre becomes not only a haven for white privilege, but also a breeding ground for problematic shit that, if made public, would be worthy of a slow and painful death by Tumblr crucifixion. But because almost no one has access to the musical theatre world except for the white and the wealthy, all this stuff can go completely unchecked. White high school directors can continue to believe that yellowface or casting white kids in In the Heights with no regard paid to cultural sensitivity (both of which was the case at my high school) is completely okay.

At this point, the only people who can even begin to attempt breaking the cycle are the PoCs who somehow wormed their way into the musical theatre world and have collected enough clout and respect in the industry for their voices to matter. And even then, it’s a losing battle — like it is in any circumstance when PoC are forced to speak up against white privilege. If anything, Lin-Manuel Miranda would be the one PoC who I might expect to hold a hard stance against racism in musical theatre. He’s the writer of a provocative but successful musical, he uses the word “gentrification” in one of his songs, and he’s still a fresh face with a reputation for being a firecracker. And….he comes out with this shit on why colorblindness is a good thing when it comes to casting? Thanks, but no thanks.

—–

¹The person I respect most in the non-musical theatre world is David Henry Hwang, so that should explain why my musical-theatre-hero isn’t Stephen Sondheim or one of the three billion other white males with theatres in New York named after them.

²I originally closed my original Heights review with the line, “Thank you for telling our story.” Upon reflection, it’s clear that this line is problematic for many reasons — for one, I am not Latina; therefore, In the Heights is not my story to begin with. Furthermore, while the cast ought to be commended for pulling off a high quality production, it is not their job to tell a story that isn’t theirs. If anything, their performance ought to create a space for Latinos/as to tell their own stories, and for those stories to be just as respected as the cast’s performance of In the Heights.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather
  • Justin

    Great post. I could relate having played the role of Ching Ho in TMM as a white guy. For me, the idea of yellowface was uncomfortable and felt unnecessary. It was one thing having to try speaking a language I don’t know (and probably butchering it), but another having to try to “look the part”. It is certainly understandable that high schools will not always have the right person for each part, but trying to “correct” the racial/cultural differences with makeup and forced accents can lead to insensitive stereotypes.

  • David

    Tell a story that isn’t theirs? Hmmm…. Isn’t that what theater is?

    • It is, which is why I think that theater on the whole can’t ever be seen frivolously or for purposes of self-glorification. Apart from the writer of the show, every person involved in a production is borrowing from the writer. It’s kind of like playing classical music — the music itself doesn’t belong to the performer, but it is up to the performer to do the original composer justice. But that also doesn’t mean that the performer doesn’t deserve praise for his/her performance.

      I think musical theatre has done a pretty good job of this already, but I see Heights and other shows like it in a different light because this time, the story doesn’t just belong to the writer. With Heights, you have an entire community claiming ownership of the story — and rightfully so, because the story was originally written to represent that community and bring it to the public eye. In this case, you’ve gotta be a lot more careful, because it’s no longer a case of just “borrowing” from the writer as a matter of respecting that writer, but borrowing from a community and respecting that community. And while a writer might be cool with however a cast or production crew chooses to put on his/her show, an entire community might not be. That’s why it’s crucial for any cast who does Heights to know and study who this show belongs to, much like how a cast doing Phantom would make sure to study up on ALW before approaching the show. With Heights, however, the cast must answer to a community, a race — and that, obviously, needs to be handled much more delicately and tactfully.

      • David

        With that logic in mind, it would seem as though you should be upset that Thomas Kail (a white director) was the director of the show on Broadway. That Andy Blankenbuehler “stole” styles of dance to infuse in the show that “didn’t belong to his race.” How about Bill Sherman with those orchestrations? Theater is a collaborative process and that is what makes it so special. Beyond race, I think you miss that “In the Heights” is a show about community. If a bunch of white high schoolers can relate to that message, they have every right to perform this piece. Do you also feel that it is offensive to perform “Fiddler on the Roof” even if the cast is not Jewish?

        • I don’t have a problem with white people being involved in Heights, but I do have a problem with white people who don’t acknowledge their privilege first before doing so. I don’t doubt that Thomas Kail and Andy Blankenbuehler were fully cognizant of the cultural and social significance of Heights before doing the show. More importantly, when Kail and Blankenbuehler were working with the original cast of Heights, they were in the constant company with actors of color. Unlike many other productions that are dominated by white people, Heights was overwhelmingly produced by people of color, by Latinos/as. That makes all the difference. It ensures that even though a white director or choreographer is at the creative helm, it’s impossible for whiteness to normalize itself in the show (and whiteness has absolutely no place in a show like Heights) because the production is dominated by Latino voices, not white voices. The same simply can’t be said in the case of amateur productions where you might not have a Latino/a voice that can help navigate the cultural themes of the show. Put bluntly, an all-white cast and production team of Heights can easily become a situation where the blind is leading the blind.

          And I get that Heights is a story about community. I’d even go as far as to say that the theme of community is “bigger” than the themes about race and culture in the show simply because “community” as a concept is universal, whereas (minority) race and culture is not. But community as a concept or theme can’t be treated with the same amount of weightiness as race, and you can’t say that if a bunch of high school kids can relate to community but not race, then they still have the same right to do Heights because community and race are of equal importance.

          My high school tried to justify their production of Heights by applying their understanding of community in a white, suburban Connecticut neighborhood to Heights. Which is a logical connection to make when we’re talking about a local high school, but you can’t argue that a person whose view of community consists of living in a beachfront house near all their white friends is congruent with the view of community as presented in Heights. The definition of “community” is vague and variable. But the version of “community” presented in Heights is very specific, and not only that, it is specific to a particular ethnic group, a particular race.

          “Community” is universal, but in its universality it also holds little social consequence in comparison to race. No one is oppressed because of community, but tons of people are oppressed because of race. That’s why you can’t throw out or sacrifice race and replace it with “community” because when we’re talking about oppressed peoples in American society today, race holds much more importance than community.

          Look, the reason why I’m uncomfortable with white people doing Heights isn’t because I’m “racist against white people,” but because I see Heights as a show that was written for the Latino community. Its cast of characters is entirely composed of people of color. How often do you see that on Broadway? With musical theatre, there is so little for people of color to claim for themselves, and Heights is one of those few shows where people of color have their own space to tell their story, rather than just being a token Latino or token black character in a white-dominated show. So many people in the Latino or immigrant communities claim ownership of Heights because there’s just so little out there in theatre, in media that represents their voices. That said, it can be kind of irksome to see white people wanting ownership of this show as well, when the rest of Broadway features and celebrates the white experience left and right. It makes me wonder why white people fight so hard to justify their reasons for doing Heights when there are tons of other shows that are written just for them. That’s why I, as a person who has lived and breathed the immigrant experience for my entire life, am so reluctant to extend the olive branch here and “share” Heights because there’s so little out there that’s “just for us.” The fact that a group who can lay claim to anything else on Broadway with relative ease and lack-of-controversy wants so fervently to lay claim to Heights as well is really annoying and offensive.

  • Danny Castillo

    I’d rather be hired to play a role for my internalization, preparation, skill, and talent than to be cast in a show because I am brown. If a white person can sing the shit out of “insert Latino role here” and do it the best, then they should be allowed to. If I can sing the shit out of “insert non-Latino role here” and do it the best, then I should be allowed to. Sure, the odds are against us because rich white people want to see other white people on stage, but we are falling into the EXACT SAME THING by not hiring non-Latinos in Latino roles just because they aren’t Latino. We must lead by example, not retaliate with the same bullshit of making certain roles racially exclusive.

  • Nicholas Hoffnagle

    It’s does not work both ways. Lin is talking about colorblind casting as it pertains to poc playing white roles. It has been the other way around for too long.

  • Nicholas Hoffnagle

    It is really about whether there is something “harmful” in the interpretation. There is nothing harmful in the poc cast of Hamilton, just, like there might be nothing harmful about a white heights cast. It depends on the interpretation, not on the colorblindness of casting. Hamilton pays respect to our founding fathers in a way where colorblind casting is not seen a racist. More recently the position he has taken when prompted on recent racial issues in theater is “authors intent.” What the author wrote the part as goes. That is different than this stance here. For example, in the recent mlk musical, Martin Luther King was never intended/written to be played by a white guy. Therefore artistic intent wins. Musical theater of the past was not racist because whites were playing blacks, it was because black were not given the same opportunity to play whites and there culture was not respected on stage. In other words, it is not so much about race but about respect for the culture you are playing.

  • Nicholas Hoffnagle

    It allows a white cast to appreciate a culture in a way the could not have. Just like we learn about others cultures, putting on a musical about another culture is another way of learning about it. As long as that learning happens, the production was useful.