Open Forum

In The Heights with race blind casting?

  • 1.  In The Heights with race blind casting?

    Posted 04-24-2019 09:27
    I teach at a Boston Public School that is about 50% White 28% Asian 12%Hispanic 8%Black and then the rest is mixed race non-hispanic.

    I would like to do In The Heights next year for musical for a variety of reasons. Leading of which is that I feel like the world needs positive immigrant stories in the world right now, additionally the hype that will come with the movie and a lot of students at the school saw a nearby semi-professional production last year.

    When I mention the idea of doing it to some of my students in the theatre company, I am getting a lot of fear reactions (they don't think it's fear but it definitely is) at the idea that we would need to do some race blind casting in the show (they know I'm not dumb enough to do anything like brown face, don't worry) and that people are going to get offended.

    Has anyone done In The Heights at their school facing a similar situation? I know of schools with 95% white populations doing it. and to paraphrase Lin Manuel about those instances "I love the idea of a bunch of kids in Iowa having to track down Dominican flags and actually learn something about someone else's experiences" but clearly my school is a bit more complicated.

    WOuld love any feedback from people who have done the show in similar situations to mine

    Joseph Gels
    Theatre Teacher
    Boston Latin School
    Boston MA

  • 2.  RE: In The Heights with race blind casting?

    Posted 04-24-2019 21:35
    Edited by Jennifer DeRosa 04-24-2019 21:40
    Hi Joseph,
    I am a theater teacher in Brooklyn at a school that is predominantly Black and Hispanic. I think it's great that you are exposing your students to this show and they love it. You're right; we do need more exposure to positive immigrant stories and this musical certainly is that.
    I know you are seeking feedback specifically from people who have done the show and I have not, but (as you say) I do see the one difference here for you would be that your school is in Boston and you do have students of color in your school.  I can't find the context of Lin Manuel Miranda's quote, but I would interpret it to mean that if a predominantly white school in Iowa wanted to work on this show, he'd love it because that school might have kids who would otherwise have no opportunity to get a glimpse into other cultures.
    Given that my school is in a large, multi-ethnic city, I would not produce this show, and if I had to produce it, I would not produce this show with white students in the lead/speaking roles.
    I hope you don't mind my response since, again, I know you requested advice from people who have done the show, but since we both work in urban schools, I thought my note might be relevant in a different way.

    Jennifer DeRosa
    Theater Teacher
    Brooklyn NY

  • 3.  RE: In The Heights with race blind casting?

    Posted 04-25-2019 01:43
    Every situation is different, of course, so you and your students would have a better instinct on this than others, I suspect. We did the show last year at my international school in Nairobi. We have over 50 countries represented here, but with a fairly small percentage Latino. The whole notion of ethnic and national identity is pretty complicated for most of our kids, with many biracial or binational kids, and even those who carry only one passport, many have lived abroad their whole lives, and so if you ask them "Where are you from?"...that is a complicated question. One factor in choosing the show is that we had several excellent seniors who are from at least part Latino heritage and are native Spanish speakers; we felt like this really honored their culture and language, which was really fun, and they brought a richness to those performances and helped a lot with accents. But others, we didn't really stress about. Benny was first played by Chris Jackson (I looked up his ethnicity but couldn't find it...he appears biracial), but our Benny was white. It didn't seem critical to the role. For the kids at my international school, a major reason it resonated with all of us is that sense that we are displaced people, that our cultural identity markers are complicated, that we don't quite fit anywhere. This sense of displacement and constant change that is so much a part of ITH is very real to my community here, so it felt right and we cast the best people for each role.

    Steven Slaughter
    Rosslyn Academy
    Nairobi, Kenya

    "Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts." - W Berry

  • 4.  RE: In The Heights with race blind casting?

    Posted 04-25-2019 08:02
    Lin-Manuel and I discussed race and casting several years ago, and our conversation can be found in a blog post I wrote at the time. Conversations about authenticity in racial and ethnic casting have evolved since then in significant ways, and every school community is different, but for Lin's perspective on the casting of IN THE HEIGHTS in high schools, you can find it here.

    Howard Sherman
    Arts Integrity Initiative
    New York NY

  • 5.  RE: In The Heights with race blind casting?

    Posted 04-25-2019 08:40
    I work in a school that is 43 % AA, 23% Latino, 20% White, 17% Other (This is a mostly Asian population.) Our musical program skews whiter than our population. We tried to encourage more POC to come out by choosing diverse shows such as The Wiz. This was disastrous as our talent pool didn't change and some AA members of our community were upset with our choice to include Caucasion and Asian students in the performance. I'd love to do In the Heights or Once on This Island but definitely would not at our school. My suggestion is to go ahead and ask for community input from some parents you trust to be honest with you. Ask them to ask around and get some feedback. I wish that I had but lesson learned.

    Bernadette MacLeod
    Charlotte NC

  • 6.  RE: In The Heights with race blind casting?

    Posted 04-25-2019 08:53
    Thanks for all the feedback so far y'all. I am definitely putting together practically a binder of best practices around this stocked with a bunch of Miranda and Hudes quotes. Even specifically found his thnkr interview on youtube discussing this topic.

    I have already reached out to my admin team to help me connect up with some of the Latinx focused student groups at the school. Part of my intent is definitely similar to yours Bernadette. My numbers skew very white but have had some success in the past with smaller shows such as For Colored Girls and Da Kink in My Hair. Though being the musical that I usually cast everyone who auditions in, its definitely gonna be a bit more complicated and need a lot of community buy in way before I even have auditions, thus my beginning this discussion now when I don't have auditions til next March.

    Thanks all

    Joseph Gels
    Theatre Teacher
    Boston Latin School
    Boston MA

  • 7.  RE: In The Heights with race blind casting?

    Posted 04-25-2019 09:55
    I am a strong advocate for doing the show.

    I teach in an independent school on Staten Island and although we do have a diverse population,  the percentage of Hispanic students is small.  We produced "In the Heights" four years ago and it was a huge success and a great learning experience for the students.  Yes,  we did have a Black Benny,  but he earned the role because of his talent, not because of his race. We discussed issues of immigration and even had someone come in to talk about Washington Heights and the diversity among the community that lives there.

    I feel that as an educator,  I have to expose my students to a great diversity of theatrical experiences.  If I were to limit the shows I choose based on race,  my choices would become very limiting.  If I were in a professional or community theater environment,  I would certainly think twice about race blind casting in shows like "In the Heights".  But in a school setting,  I feel I have to do what's best for the student talent available to me.  Should I not produce "Fiddler on the Roof" or "West Side Story" because I don't have the appropriate ethnicities to cast all of the roles?  Should I not cast a Black or Asian actor as John Proctor in "The Crucible"?  Or how should I deal with Tituba in such a situation?

    In a school setting,  I think it is our responsibility to educate and if that is done properly,  there should be no problem.

    Mark Weissman
    Staten Island NY

  • 8.  RE: In The Heights with race blind casting?

    Posted 04-25-2019 15:54
    I have a very diverse school, but not a lot of Hispanic students audition for the after school shows.  When I cast our production in 2016. My Usnavi was white, but his mother was an immigrant from Russia. My beauty salon girls were African American; Mr. Rosario was Asian, Mrs. Rosario was Jewish, and Nina was Hispanic (but adopted by white parents) Benny and Sonny were African American.  One of the cast member's father was from Washington Heights (grew up there) and said that we captured the spirit of the neighborhood that he grew up in...  I am grateful that Miranda gives his blessing to schools who want to produce his show and tell his story without worrying if your school is "racially challenged" in terms of talent pool.

    Marla Blasko
    Director/Teacher Theatre Arts
    Long Reach High School
    Columbia, Maryland