About Garfield Theatre’s Production of In The Heights
A note on minority representation in casting a play about Latinx immigrant stories: Garfield HS has few students of Latinx heritage, despite being a school with significant racial diversity. Most of the roles in In The Heights were specifically written for Latinx actors, which was one of the ground-breaking features of the play. Until recently, there have been very few roles in musicals that have been written for actors of color, much less actors of Latinx heritage; historically, even those roles have often been played by white actors.
Theatre has a long and disturbing history of “whitewashing” the stories and experiences of people of color, and like any institution, is slow to change. Having roles written for and cast with actors of color is critical to increasing opportunities for these groups. Well-meaning attempts at “color blind casting” have not proven to result in greater opportunities for actors of color in musical theatre. Casting non-Latinx actors of color doesn’t resolve the issue, it merely perpetuates a binary way of thinking: “white” or “not white.” Achieving Latinx representation on the stage is only accomplished by purposefully seeking out and casting Latinx actors, which was where we put our efforts in casting this year’s show. Nevertheless, we have actors of non-Latinx backgrounds portraying many of the characters. We have tried to avoid using tools of cultural appropriation and stereotyping to “Latinize” our non-Latinx actors, while maintaining as much authenticity as possible.
Our cast has spent significant time in dialogue amongst themselves and with their teachers about all of these issues, and those discussions are ongoing. Not even everyone within the cast agrees on everything. We know you may not either. Please remember as you watch the show that although we are trying our best to accurately represent the cultures of the people of Washington Heights, we will in many ways fall short. Knowing this, we are still committed to this show. Telling and listening to immigrant stories is important in our current political climate. Immigrants have been and continue to be integral to the strength and beauty of the United States, and we need to emphasize that now more than ever.
There are limitations to being a high school theatre department. There are also certain freedoms from limitations, although with those freedoms come great responsibility. While professional theatre companies are rightfully held to the standard of casting specific ethnicities for this show, high school productions are not. We are not satisfied to be let off the hook so easily though, and we fully acknowledge that we have not done all we could do to avoid appropriation, rather than appreciation, of the Latinx people depicted on stage. We regret that profoundly, and are determined to take the lessons we have learned from this experience into our future.
You might wonder what the intentions of the show’s creators were in licensing this show for high school use, knowing that high schools can only draw on the student populations they have. The authors of In The Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hughes, have specifically addressed the production of this play by high school casts, both Latinx and not. In an interview over the controversial casting of a non-Latinx actor in a professional theatre, Alegría Hughes stated her opposition to that casting, but also stated: “I’m happy for schools and communities who do not have these actors on hand to use In The Heights as an educational experience for participants of all stripes.”
In correspondence with noted arts administrator Howard Sherman, Miranda wrote:
“When I see a school production with not a lot of Latino students doing it, I know they’re learning things about Latino culture that go beyond what they’re fed in the media every day. They have to learn those things to play their parts correctly. And when I see a school with a huge Latino population do HEIGHTS, I feel a surge of pride that the students get to perform something that may have a sliver of resonance in their daily lives. Just please God, tell them that tanning and bad 50’s style Shark makeup isn’t necessary. Latinos come in every color of the rainbow, thanks very much.
“And I’ve said this a million times, but it bears repeating: high school’s the ONE CHANCE YOU GET, as an actor, to play any role you want, before the world tells you what ‘type’ you are. The audience is going to suspend disbelief: they’re there to see their kids, whom they already love, in a play. Honor that sacred time as educators, and use it change their lives. You’ll be glad you did.”
And a two-minute excerpt from an interview with THINKR, again speaking about high school productions:
Not everyone will agree with Alegría Hughes and Miranda, or with our decision to mount this production given the challenges of doing so. We invite you to see the play for yourself and share your feedback with us. We also urge you to further educate yourselves about the rich history of Latinx immigrants in the United States. May we all learn from and enjoy the opportunities for growth that this show has presented.
For more on the history of Latinx peoples in North America/the United States, see this six-part documentary on PBS. Episode 4, in particular, follows the wave of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican American immigration, including the story of a 20 year old university student who brings his family to New York and the Washington Heights neighborhood, and that of the author Julia Alvarez, who writes of her own and other Dominicans’ immigrant experiences as a hybrid identity emerges from a new generation.
Learn more about the Latinx community in Seattle with Visit Seattle’s Guide to Latino Cultural Heritage.