North Shore Music Theatre is the latest regional company to come under fire for casting non-Latinx actors in a production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical Evita, a fast-paced dramatization of real-life Argentinian political leaders Eva and Juan Peron.
The theatre drew criticism on social media last week with the September 5 announcement that it had cast Briana Carlson-Goodman in the show’s starring role, with John Cudia as Juan Peron, Tony Award nominee Constantine Maroulis as Che, and Nick Adams as Magaldi.
None of the actors identify as being of Latinx descent.
North Shore’s Facebook page began filling with posts from members of the Latinx theatre community and their allies, calling the theatre out for whitewashing Latinx history.
The theatre later deleted critical posts from its page.
Lauren Villegas, a New York-based actress and activist who runs the blog Project Am I Right, and fellow actor-activist Luis E. Mora were among those protesting comments were deleted from North Shore’s Facebook page last week. They both wrote about the casting controversy on their respective blogs.
“I think that they underestimated the voice of the Latinx community,” Mora says, noting that the theatre’s decision to remove critical posts on Facebook “has resonated with so many Latinx people who feel silenced. I don’t think that they expected this to become a national conversation, truth be told neither did I, but their unwillingness to have a discussion with us tells me that they do feel at fault.”
In an interview with the Boston Globe, Bill Hanney, the owner and producer of North Shore Music Theatre, stated that he casts all of his productions “colorblind,” and makes every effort to hire the most qualified actor for the role.
Playbill asked Hanney to clarify, citing previous North Shore productions of West Side Story and Bye, Bye, Birdie which specifically cast Latinx actors in racially appropriate roles.
Hanney insists that Evita is not a story about race, which separates it from such works as West Side Story, Dreamgirls, and Miss Saigon. “Shows like West Side Story, Dreamgirls, The Color Purple, and Miss Saigon, etc. are shows where the character’s race is part of the narrative,” he says. “The events being told in the story on stage are centered on, motivated by, or driven by the character’s race. In those cases, casting performers with a specific ethnicity is not debatable. The story of Evita is not one driven by or motivated by Eva Perón’s race.
He continues, “There is no part of the story that speaks to events happening to her or not happening to her because of her race, nor are her actions motivated by her race. Yes, Eva Perón, was a real person with a nationality and a race, so are Maria von Trapp, Maria Callas, and other real life people portrayed in stage shows. When the character’s race is not part of the narrative of the piece being presented on stage, anyone of any race should have the opportunity to play them on stage or screen.”
“Latinx is not a race,” Villegas responds.” It is a culture. We don’t think it’s up for debate whether or not Argentinians are Latinx. Latinx people come in all shades and all races. By their very nature Latinx people are a complex mix of ethnic groups from indigenous American peoples who survived genocide, African peoples who survived slavery, and European colonizers. The mixed ethnic background of Latinx people throughout Latin American—including Argentina—is a shared Latinx experience. Latinx people are not all unified by skin color or ethnic background. What unifies Latinx people is their shared culture. And it is a culture that deserves to be protected from appropriation as much as any other.”
Villegas also notes that within the text Eva Peron “frequently describes herself as being ‘of the people,’ with ‘the people,’ she is referring to being largely phenotypically and culturally non-European. She addresses the people who support her—in Spanish—as “mis descamisados.’”
This situation is familiar to Villegas, who was an outspoken critic of a 2016 Chicago-area production of Evita at the Marriott Theater Lincolnshire, which also cast a majority of non-Latinx actors. In that instance, the outcry ultimately led to a meaningful dialogue between the theatre and members of the Latinx community.
Villegas and Mora aren’t as hopeful for North Shore. “This has been a first for a company to straight up try to pretend it’s not happening,” Villegas says, adding that she’s received personal attacks online, and notices that there have been attempts to hack her accounts.
“Marriott last year resisted at first but quickly opened up to civil public discourse, but no one was harassed,” she says.
For Mora and Villegas, casting is only part of the problem—one that belies the greater issue of diversity in the workplace and within creative spaces. “I think education is key, this is a conversation that should be a part of every theatrical curriculum in this country,” Mora says. “I also understand that diversifying the creative teams behind these productions would help this immensely. Perhaps if this team would've had a dramaturg or a single Latinx person on their team we would've avoided this whole thing.”