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?)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.