Colorblind casting is wrong in a diverse city
MusicalFare Theatre’s season opener, “In the Heights,” the 2008 Broadway hit by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is set in the largely Dominican New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. Miranda, of Puerto Rican heritage, led a pan-Latin ensemble on Broadway. He has publicly defended colorblind casting – in high schools, where casting options are framed and limited by the context of a specific educational setting. MusicalFare, however, is no school. Its “healthy cross-section” of whites alongside Latinos and African-Americans is anything but. It is whitewashing, the latest chapter in American theater’s long, troubled history with race.
Claiming the talent of the performers is more important than race, or working with actors you’re more familiar with, are common excuses – often used to defend productions that rely on racist tropes, such as “The Mikado” and its tradition of yellowface. MusicalFare is not engaged in outright brownface, but having a white actor play a Latino part, Usnavi, is not only disingenuous to the material, it is the appropriation of the Latino experience by whites, presenting a colorblind world that does not exist.
I celebrate MusicalFare’s collaboration with the Latina-led Raíces Theatre, but wonder about the power dynamic between MusicalFare’s Randy Kramer and Raíces’ Victoria Perez. In Buffalo, an incredibly diverse city frequently divided by race, such casting serves to reinforce structural inequalities. At worst, this is willful ignorance and racism. At best, it’s being too lazy to find appropriate actors.
Matthew Clinton Sekellick