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Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights" is the latest battleground in the theater community's fight against whitewashing

Broadway Opening Of 'In The Heights' - Arrivals & Curtain Call
Creator and lead performer Lin-Manuel Miranda speaks to the audience on the opening night of ‘In the Heights’ on Broadway in 2008.
Photo by Steven Henry/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Lin-Manuel Miranda may be Broadway’s current favorite son, but not even his influence can prevent one of musical theater’s most pervasive problems from affecting one of his hit musicals.

Just a few months after a Hamilton casting notice drew debate because it explicitly encouraged nonwhite actors to audition, another of Miranda’s musicals — the Pulitzer-nominated In the Heights— is fanning controversy for the opposite reason: Chicago theater company Porchlight has given the lead role of Usnavi, which Miranda himself played in the original Broadway production of In the Heights, to a white actor.

As a result, actors within the Chicago theater community are voicing their concerns on Facebook and trying to spread awareness of the harm they claim such casting practices cause.

As written, In the Heights features a mostly Latino cast. The plot centers on a working-class neighborhood in New York City’s Washington Heights — where Miranda himself grew up — and reflects the diversity of the real-life place as well as Miranda’s personal experiences within Washington Heights’ Latino community. The Usnavi role is explicitly tied to the character’s ethnic identity: It revolves around the conflict between his desire to return to his birthplace, the Dominican Republic, and the ties to home he’s built in Manhattan.

So, it’s no surprise that Porchlight’s casting of white actor Jack DeCesare ruffled some feathers. The move comes on the heels of a similar controversy over another local Chicago production that whitewashed Hispanic characters. In March, the Marriott Theatre’s production of Evita also drew fire for casting white actors in nearly all of the show’s roles, continuing what has become an unfortunately common practice of erasing the ethnic identity of the actual Argentinian historical figures whose lives the play adapts.

Hispanic Studies professor Trevor Boffone described the ironies inherent in Porchlight’s whitewashing of the Usnavi role in a post about the casting on his website:

This casting decision gentrifies a show that is about a community fighting against gentrification. Evidently, Porchlight fails to comprehend the lived realities of Latin@s all across the nation who face many of the issues seen in Miranda and Hudes’ musical. This especially rings true when a white man is cast as Usnavi. These roles were written by Latin@s for Latin@ actors. [Note: many people collectively refer to the gendered stem endings of Latina/Latino using the ‘@’ symbol, while others prefer to stylize using the word "Latinx" to de-genderize the term.] The Latin@ community wants their stories told, but in an ethical way that speaks with the community in question. To gentrify In the Heights is to completely miss the point of the musical.

Chicago actor Madrid St. Angelo also responded to the casting, suggesting on Facebook that Porchlight’s whitewashing was motivated by financial concerns rather than a wish to honor the spirit of the play as written:

Porchlight's decision to produce In the Heights is a clear cut example of a theatre producing company producing a play for all of the wrong reasons … When we strip away the beautiful strokes of color, inherent in a playwright's work, we deliver a false gift. A gift that come less from the heart and more in the hope of putting dollars in pockets.

To these locals, the production company’s decision to prioritize a "raceblind" casting over the ethnic requirements of the role undermines the story the writers wanted told.

Porchlight’s whitewashed In the Heights casting undermines a key theater dictum: authorial intent matters

In the past, Miranda has vehemently defended the idea that a playwright’s intention must be heeded during the casting process for any stage production. In a 2015 interview with Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts director Howard Sherman, Miranda responded to several recent casting controversies in which the casting went directly against the intention of the playwright. In one instance, the role of Martin Luther King went to a white man; in another, a college production of a play called Jesus in India was canceled after the playwright raised strong objections to the casting of white actors in roles meant for Southeast Asian actors.

Miranda sided with the writers in both cases:

"My answer is: authorial intent wins. Period . . . As a Dramatists Guild Council member, I will tell you this. As an artist and as a human I will tell you this. Authorial intent wins. Katori Hall never intended for a Caucasian Martin Luther King. That’s the end of the discussion. In every case, the intent of the author always wins. If the author has specified the ethnicity of the part, that wins.

Sherman also quoted an email Miranda had sent to him which specifically discussed the joy of seeing an ethnically accurate production of In the Heights: "When I see a school with a huge Latino population do Heights," Miranda wrote, "I feel a surge of pride that the students get to perform something that may have a sliver of resonance in their daily lives."

Speaking to the New York Times in 2015 about the diversity of Hamilton, Miranda once again advocated for the importance of following playwrights’ intentions, stating, "That’ll be the note that goes with the school productions: If this show ends up looking like the actual founding fathers, you messed up."

Plenty of people feel Porchlight has likewise "messed up." A striking piece of artwork by Sophie Lucido Johnson drawn for the Chicago Art Institute’s F News magazine sums up what the practice of whitewashing does to the body physically. It emphasizes that simply donning a spray-tan, dying blonde hair black, and growing out facial hair can’t actually recreate the real experience of living in the world as Latinx.

Fanning the flames in Porchlight’s case was the Chicago Sun-Times’ inexplicable reference to the casting as "authentic," which baffled onlookers and provoked a discussion about whether "authenticity" has become a buzzword that undermines the point of diverse casting — which is, of course, not to cash in on a trend, but to more fully portray real lived experiences. In an open Facebook letter to Porchlight, Chicago actor Tommy Rivera-Vega summed up this feeling beautifully:

Being Latinx is not just putting an accent, getting a cool haircut, the prominent beard, lot of hair, shuffling your feet so it looks like you can salsa. It is about who we are as people. It is about growing up and trying to understand the reason why we have to work harder than everyone else. Asking our parent(s) why all the Latinxs that we see on tv are drug dealers, or criminals, or picking fights, never successful. We rap because it is the only way we will be heard. It is about understanding that no matter how well you are doing in life, you still go back to your community to spread that love and success. It is about respecting your Abuela because she is more powerful than the President of the United States, especially when she throws that flying chancla (flip-flop). By casting a non-Latinx Usnavi, and not even having an overwhelming Latinx support in the Production team, the backbone of the show suffers, because it was never lived. Being a Latinx will turn into devising what being Latinx is, instead of just being it. You have essentially gentrified Lin Manuel-Miranda's gentrification masterpiece. Should Porchlight be so lucky to have Mr. Miranda attend the production, I can only assume he would share our disappointment.

On Wednesday, Porchlight responded to the growing concerns in a Facebook comment addressed to the Chicago theater community at large:

To our colleagues in the Chicago Theatre community, please know that we at Porchlight Music Theatre have been intently listening to and have clearly received the messages of concern regarding our upcoming production of In the Heights.

The thoughts that have been expressed are accepted with the utmost seriousness and consideration, and we humbly wish to contribute to this needed conversation.

In the casting of In The Heights, as with all productions at Porchlight, we did not invite nor require potential employees to state their racial self-identification as part of our casting and hiring process. All actors who attended were considered based solely on the content of their audition.

Our continual objective is to create and encourage an environment of inclusion in all our work here at Porchlight Music Theatre.

Moving forward, we are committed to expand our efforts in regard to inclusion and representation as well as furthering our relationships with the diverse talent and institutions that make up the Chicago Theatre community.

The immediate response to Porchlight’s statement was largely critical. "In your mission statement you hope to be a place of education and opportunity, nurturing young artists," wrote performer Andres Romacho. "What exactly are you teaching artists by taking away Latino roles and giving them to white actors?"

Whitewashing has long been a pervasive problem in theater, from blackface minstrel shows in the 19th century to ongoing controversy surrounding modern yellowface productions of The Mikado. But as the industry and its productions grow more diverse, and more roles for a broader variety of characters reach our stages, actors and playwrights seem increasingly willing to speak out when a show’s casting undermines the point the show itself is making.