Casting: Does Race and Ethnicity Matter?

“Do Better or Step Down” – Stephen Adly Guirgis, playwright

Stephen Adly Guirgis

Should a white actor play a Latino role?

The question is immediate for the Fountain. Rehearsals for our next production — opening next month in January —  are underway.  The play, set in Mexico, is the West Coast Premiere of  El Nogalar by Latina playwright Tanya Saracho. The characters in the play are all Mexican. Our cast of five actors are Latina/Hispanic/Latino.  We would cast it no other way.

The cast of "El Nogalar".

At the Fountain, reflecting cultural diversity on our stage is at the heart of our artistic mission.  We believe that the culture from which any play is drawn is core to the story it is telling and the characters that inhabit that story.

We are who we are. And we are where we come from. Our racial/ethnic/cultural/tribal/spiritual/religious DNA is core to influencing who we are and helps dictate the stories we tell. For the Fountain, our allegiance is to the truth of the voice of the playwright.

This issue has resurfaced  because playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis recently spoke out against the casting of two white actors as the Puerto Rican lead characters in a professional production of his Tony-nominated play The Motherfucker With the Hat at TheaterWorks in Hartford, CT. The Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors complained to the theater, TheaterWorks, noting that the production had casting calls in New York City, a training ground for many Hispanic actors, and yet still cast two Caucasians.

Guirgis, who discussed his concerns with the play’s director, Tazewell Thompson, and executives at TheaterWorks for weeks, said in an interview that he decided to make his concerns public because the TheaterWorks executives “are in a position of accountability and yet refuse to take responsibility for mistakes in the casting.” The production has ended, but Mr. Guirgis decided it was still worth speaking up because he hoped other theaters would make the effort to cast Hispanic actors, when available, in the two lead roles.

“I know there are parts of the country where it’s harder to find a lot of Latino actors,” Mr. Guirgis said. “But this play was cast in New York City and in Hartford, and you can’t tell me that there weren’t qualified Latino actors to play characters who are Puerto Rican.”

In Hartford, Connecticut, the mayor is Puerto Rican.

Steve Campo, the executive director of TheaterWorks, said “The actors that ended up being cast were, from the perspective of the director, the two best actors for the roles. Now is that debatable? Well, it’s certainly debatable in a hypothetical sense. But it’s ultimately a matter of very subjective and complex judgment calls.”

Manuel Alfaro, executive director of the Hispanic Organization of Latino Actors, says: “From all I’ve learned it sounds like the director hired two actors with whom he had worked before, and as a result he essentially discriminated against well-qualified Hispanic actors across the New York region.”

Stephen Adly Guirgis spoke for himself in a recent post on the NY Times blog, ArtsBeat:

The facts of what occurred during the casting process for my play at TheaterWorks in Hartford are inarguable. They pre-cast two Caucasian actors in their 20’s to play the two late-30’s Latino leads in the play, and they never auditioned a single Latino actor for either role. When questioned about this, they blamed the casting director, they claimed the play was originally written for Caucasian actors, and, among other excuses and lies, they maintained that some Puerto Ricans have blonde hair and freckles (true enough), and that these were the two very best actors for the roles — even though they never allowed even one Latino actor to audition for roles that were literally written for them. Those are the facts.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “What’s the problem? It’s their theater; they can do what they want.”

So what’s the big deal here then? The theater made an “artistic choice.” Denzel Washington played Brutus on Broadway and this is America, and “color blind casting goes both ways” so shut up and be grateful your play got produced. Well, fair enough, except this is not about Denzel Washington. Or James Earl Jones. Or “Miss Saigon.” Or Joe the Plumber. Or Joe the Theater Professor spouting off about Albee and Beckett and blackface on Twitter. I don’t care about any of that.

What I do care about — deeply — is that I wrote a play where the two leads are clearly Latino, and Latino actors were completely shut out of the casting process for those two roles. TheaterWorks — intentionally or unintentionally — practiced de facto discrimination against Latino actors who get too few opportunities to compete for roles in the industry to begin with. These roles were specifically Nuyoricans in their late 30’s, and not a single actor of that stripe was even invited to audition. I saw the production. I took the cast out for drinks afterwards. They are talented, nice people.

Ben Cole and Clea Alsip in the TheaterWorks production.

But what I saw on that stage was young, white, otherwise talented actors who were regrettably ill-equipped to even approach a three dimensional rendering of the characters they were assigned to portray. And the entirely white audience on the night I saw the show ate it up like pie. It was surreal. I felt like I was in a time warp. It felt like I was witnessing something that I had only read about in history books. It felt like a modern day minstrel show. And all this in a city with a 40 percent Latino population, and in a play cast, not in Indiana or Wyoming, but New York City and Hartford.

Theaters always talk about “broadening” their audiences. Well TheaterWorks picked a decent play to do that with, but then they they did the most non-inclusive thing possible.

Bobby Cannavale and Elizabeth Rodriguez in the New York production.

When we did the play in New York, we had the most genuinely diverse audience in town, and it was amazing, and everyone felt it , and it felt like we had an audience that was representative of the city we lived in. Yes, Chris Rock had something to do with that. But the audience, for whatever reason, they liked the play. And old and young and black and white and Latin and gay and straight and tourists and bridge and tunnel and New Yorkers sat side by side — and the only other place that regularly happens is on the subway. I profoundly wish it could have been like that in Hartford.

Part of why I tend to write multi-ethnic plays is exactly for that reason — so that on stage and off, people of different backgrounds might share an experience together in a theater that they otherwise might not have. I’m not a fanatic about casting. I’ve seen all types of folks successfully play all types of characters in my plays. If Latinos had been seen for these roles in Hartford, you’d get little argument from me. If I had been invited to the auditions and Ben Cole and Clea Alsip were far and away better than everyone else who came in, I would have fought for them. But that is decidedly not what happened.

As always, there are no winners here. If TheaterWorks had really wanted to protect their director, they would have taken some responsibility. And if the director wanted to protect these unfairly scrutinized actors, he would have cast them in another play. And perhaps if I wanted to protect myself, I would have stayed off of Facebook. But I do not care about that. Because right is right. This is America in the year 2011. Do better or step down.

What can small theaters conclude from this not-so-small drama? Well, for those casting my plays my suggestion is that if the part calls for a specific race or ethnicity, make it a point to cast it that way if at all possible. Sometimes it is not possible to find exactly who you’re looking for, and that’s okay. But you cheat yourself and the audience and the experience if you fail to try. Casting is always a challenge, but know that my plays work best and come alive most often when populated by actors of beautifully contrasting sizes, shapes, colors, and biographies.

We agree. The notion of “color blind casting” can sometimes be admirable. Sometimes, it makes no sense. But the Fountain chooses not to be blind. We prefer to see. We choose the authenticity of seeing all the colors that enrich the  palette of human beings — and to reflect that marvelous diversity on our stage.

Tanya Saracho

El Nogalar playwright Tanya Saracho recently founded and launched the Alliance of Latino Theatre Artists in Chicago. ALTA is a service organization dedicated to furthering the Chicago Latino Theatre movement by promoting, educating, representing, and unifying Latino & Latina artists and their allies.

Ms. Saracho has strong feelings about the issue of authentic casting.

“In many ways, playwrights have little power when they lease out a play,” says Tanya. “And that’s exactly what it is when a play is mounted; the leasing of a script to a producing theater. You can’t be as involved in the experience as you might with the first production.”

“In Chicago, I’ve been blessed to work with amazing casting directors who have taken my career trajectory in the Latino Theater movement into consideration when casting my plays at their institutions. And now that I start to venture out of the Midwest, every theater I’ve worked with has been more than accommodating, they have been downright unwavering in their support. Basically, my casting breakdowns have always been more than respected and for this I am more than grateful.”

“But that is not always the case. I have been following the controversy regarding Stephen Adly Guirgis’ public protest regarding his Motherfucker with a Hat casting at Theaterworks in Hartford and it has been surprising to see the “Well, why doesn’t the playwright pull the play if he doesn’t like it” reaction. As if Adly Guirgis was crying wolf in some way, or being ungrateful. It’s been mind boggling. So has the reaction from fellow artists who keep throwing out the notion of color blind casting during the classical plays; it isn’t the same argument. It’s a bit sickening, all of it, because you’d think artists with open minds would understand where the playwright is coming from when he defends his intent. I couldn’t stand with Stephen more on this issue, because it’s not only about the art of it, it is about the maladministration and the malicious omission of the playwright’s intent when it comes to his creation; his characters. I think the whole thing has been massively mismanaged on the part of the theater and I’m so proud that Stephen had the agallas to speak out against it in a public forum.”

“Because all a playwright can do is hope and trust that the lessee whom he entrusted his words to will have the best interest at heart. She or he can only go on faith that his intentions will be respected. And I’m not talking merely hers/his artistic intentions, I’m talking about her/his view of the world, which intrinsically involves gender and race and ethnicity as it did in the casting breakdown of The Motherfucker with the Hat. By omitting – and not even allowing Latin@s to audition for the parts as required – the theater violated the view of the world it was intended to represent. If Theatreworks Executive Director, Steve Campo (is he Latin by the way?) and those people crying foul cannot see that THAT is the crux of this argument then we are in bad shape.”

3 responses to “Casting: Does Race and Ethnicity Matter?

  1. Please DO NOT use the expression WHITE ACTORS when you say they are not Puerto Ricans. Or colombian, peruvian, argentines, uruguayans, or spaniards. And find out who are Hispanics. And what that means. I’m from spaniard, jewish, english and native american born in Argentina. As many of us actors. We speack Spanish. And also German, hebrow, english, italian. LATINOS, many of us. But not “NON WHITE”. Pleaseeeee….!!!!

  2. I agree with Mr. Villarreal. The word Caucasian encompasses many people, including Mexicans and many other Latinos who carry a myriad of bloodlines–including white European. I, whose parents were born in Northern Mexico, according to my recent DNA test have not only 38% Native American roots, but also 17 % Greek, 16% Roman, and 16% Iberian peninsula. I am many people and that is liberating! In the Theater, you might do blind casting, but the soul on stage must connect to the culture, the rhythm, and ethos of the play–no matter who is playing who.

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