In late July, Porchlight Music Theatre was met with strong criticism after it was announced that its upcoming production of In the Heights would feature a non-Latino actor in the role of Usnavi.
American Theatre Magazine picked up on the story, noting that Porchlight’s casting notice for the Lin-Manuel Miranda-Quiara Alegría Hudes musical stated that they were “especially seeking actors/actresses who identify as Latino.” One of the issues is that legally, like any other employer, Porchlight creative team members are not allowed to inquire about an actor’s ethnicity during the audition process.
Actor Jack DeCesare was cast as Usnavi in a company of actors who predominantly identify as people of color.
The Chicago Sun Times characterized it as an “authentic” cast, citing artistic director Michael Weber’s statement in a press release announcing the show’s casting.
“After an exhaustive audition process seeing hundreds of the Chicago-area’s diverse established and new music theatre talent, and even reaching out to our city’s vast hip-hop dance community, we are excited to introduce the cast of Chicago’s newest production of Lin Manuel Miranda’s revelatory musical,” Weber’s statement read. “We have made every effort to present a company that reflects the true spirit of this story of community and family as we build an immersive, one-of-a-kind experience that will place our audiences right in the middle of all the excitement and music found in the barrio of Washington Heights. Featuring a cast of nineteen actors, the largest company in many years here at Porchlight, all but one of our actors is making their Porchlight Mainstage debut with this production.”
American Theatre Magazine called it a “whitewashing” and included an email interview with the show’s book writer, Hudes, who stated that “I’m happy for schools and communities who do not have [Latino] actors on hand to use In the Heights as an educational experience for participants of all stripes.” For professional productions, she added, “Casting the roles appropriately is of fundamental importance… You cannot just put out a casting call and hope people come and then shrug if they don’t show up. You may need to add extra casting calls (I do this all the time), go do outreach in communities you haven’t worked with before. You may need to reach out to the Latino theatres and artists and build partnerships to share resources and information. You may need to fly in actors from out of town if you’ve exhausted local avenues, and house them during the run…. When faced with these expensive obstacles, an organization’s status quo sometimes wins because it’s cheaper and less trouble. The Latino community has the right to be disappointed and depressed that an opportunity like this was lost.”
Playbill.com reached out to representatives for Hudes and Miranda, both of whom were unavailable to comment for this article.
Actors' Equity Association explained to Playbill.com that the decision regarding casting ultimately fell to the show’s producers and creative team, who had to abide by any casting specifics noted within the script of a show. “It’s a question for the producers about what they understand their obligations to be and how they handle those obligations,” the union said.
Playbill.com reached out to Porchlight artistic director Weber, who agreed to answer questions via email. The interview follows:
Can you tell me how you selected In the Heights for Porchlight’s season and what drew you to the material?
Michael Weber: In the Heights is a story about human relationships, and the effect that a community can have on the destiny of the people within it. As a small theatre company that produces in an intimate setting of 150 seats, we believe that In the Heights fits with our history of taking large musicals – Ragtime, Dreamgirls and Sweeney Todd, to name a few – and presenting them in an up-close environment that gives unique focus to the various elements of the work. As a more modern work, the show also fits with our mission to celebrate the music theatre genre’s past, present and future while giving Chicago audiences an opportunity to see two Lin-Manuel Miranda works playing at the same time.
Did you have any initial reservations that casting could be a challenge?
MW: We knew that the work had specific casting needs to find actors to best interpret the experience of these characters living in contemporary Washington Heights. With this in mind we sought advice from a variety of noted local Latino theatre leaders to make suggestions and offer guidance on how we could best communicate our interest and intent to encourage Latino artists to audition and we implemented those suggestions in our casting notices and process.
Are you able to tell me how many cast members in your production are of Latino descent?
MW: We cannot give you a definitive answer at this time as we have not yet received post-hiring PR questionnaires back from all company members. We can confirm that 18 of the 19 cast members do self-identify as people of color.
Did anyone involved in the production raise concerns once casting was underway or finalized?
MW: During the casting process, Porchlight’s artistic leadership and the production’s creative team had vigorous discussions of the potential ethnicities of artists under casting consideration. While working within the established parameters of legal hiring practices, we attempted to the best of our ability to assemble a representative cast. Only after offers were made and jobs accepted were the nuances of the artists’ ethnic backgrounds definitively revealed through our standard post-hiring PR questionnaires. Since the revelation that not all cast members self-identify as Latino, Porchlight has been encouraging an open dialog among the artists and staff.
Did Porchlight ever consider canceling the production? After the outcry from the public and members of the Latino community, what prompted you to move forward with the show?
MW: We have been intently listening and responding to the conversation within our community. The possibility of canceling this production — and depriving the In the Heights company from proceeding with the work already in process — was put on the table for open consideration, but was dismissed. The focus quickly moved to supporting the artists that were hired while supplementing cultural representation and guidance on our creative team. We are committed to learning and evolving and becoming a stronger organization through the lessons learned from this experience as well as the work we are intending to do moving beyond this production.
Have you spoken to the writers?
MW: We have not but we intend to invite them to participate in this process and production to any degree that they desire.
Other theatres that have faced similar situations have created a diversity policy. Is there one in place at Porchlight, or are there plans to do so?
MW: Porchlight has a history of diverse hiring across our various projects and productions. We will continue to take advantage [of] opportunities for collaboration and partnership with individuals and organizations that can further expand opportunities for inclusion within our staff and artists. We are examining all of our existing approaches and do plan to develop a formal diversity policy for the organization.
In the Heights begins performances September 9 for a run through October 16. Visit porchlightmusictheatre.org.