Acting is about inhabiting another person’s life. When stories explore universal themes – most of Shakespeare fits this category – few would disagree that an actor can give an insightful performance in these stories, regardless of their ethnic background.
The appeal of “colour blind” casting, however, collapses entirely when telling the stories of marginalised groups.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights follows the routines, dreams, and struggles of the mostly Latino inhabitants of Washington Heights, Manhattan. Far from the uneducated, sexualised thugs Latino actors are often forced to play, these characters are fully realised characters written by a man who shares their background. Miranda has used In The Heights and Hamilton (which very deliberately casts non-white actors as America’s founding fathers) to empower actors who too rarely get the opportunity to inhabit three-dimensional characters with their own stories to tell.
“It has resulted in an uncomfortable production featuring white performers rapping with generic Latino accents”
In MTSoc’s production of In The Heights, however, the majority of roles are played by white actors. This includes Benny, a young black driver whose love interest’s parents disapprove of their relationship due to his race. One Spanish actor has been cast in the show, although – to the best of my knowledge – none of the cast or directorial team is Latino.
This has resulted in an uncomfortable production featuring white performers rapping with generic Latino accents and boasting of their diverse South American heritage. Some cast members have posted on social media making light of the fact that they are pretending to be Latino. Perhaps this indicates self-awareness and embarrassment, but then again, perhaps not.
Other theatre companies have made the same mistake: last year a semi-professional Australian production of In The Heights was cancelled after being flooded with criticism for its prominently white cast (which still had more Latino cast members than MTSoc’s production). In a tweet, Miranda acknowledged that primarily white productions of In The Heights are the price to pay for making the rights available. This does not vindicate the groups choosing to do it.
“Colour blind casting can open up white roles, but is hoggish and oppressive when it erases representation for specific minorities”
Ethnicity is not a costume; it is something you live with. Even if you are not painting your face with shoe polish and wearing an afro wig, putting on an ethnicity and taking it off when the curtain falls is just as disingenuous, if not as crassly offensive.
The cast of MTSoc’s In The Heights is not entirely white. A sizeable fraction of the cast is Asian, but Asians and Latinos are not interchangeable, slightly tan ethnic minorities. This short-sighted mistake has been made before – such as when Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán played Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan – and should not be made again.
Imperial College is among the most diverse universities in the country, and, to its credit, MTSoc has never shied away from casting their most talented performers as traditionally white characters no matter their ethnicity. Colour blind casting can be good for representation when it opens up traditionally white roles to all, but is hoggish and oppressive when it means erasing representation for specific minorities within a musical meant to do the very opposite.
MTSoc know that they would not have enough black students signing up for them to cast Hairspray appropriately. If they knew they would not be able to give the majority of roles to Latino students, why attempt to put on a musical about Latinos?