Before Hamilton, esteemed actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda created the Tony Award-winning musical In The Heights. The Broadway production set in the predominately Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights naturally featured a predominantly Latino cast, but a Chicago rendition of the acclaimed show isn’t playing by the blueprint.
Latino performers have been vocal about their frustration surrounding Chicago’s Porchlight Musical Theatre’s decision to cast a white actor, Jack DeCesare, as lead in a city that is 28 percent Latino and home to an array of professional Latino theater companies. DeCesare will take on the role of Usnavi, the indisputable star of the show originally played by Miranda during In The “Heights‘ tenure in New York City’s prestigious theatre district, a grand opportunity that many Latino performers were excited to claim as their own.
“With [In The Heights], people felt excited, we felt like we had to show up and audition. It was important to be in a show that is from us, by us, with our own voice,” Chicago-based actor Tommy Rivera-Vega told NBC Latino. “We were excited about it and then seeing that lead role go to someone who was not Latino, we realized that it was not an equal playing field. How can a white person act Latino better than a Latino?”
Many have joined Rivera-Vega in voicing this question, while deeming the theatre company’s choice as a careless decision that promotes the deeply-rooted practice of whitewashing that often dilutes stories created by and for people of color.
“What seems to be Porchlight’s problem is that they are taking the universality of Hamilton and trying to apply it to [In The Heights],” Princeton University theater professor Brian Herrera said. Heights is a universal story too, but told specifically through Latino voices. Trying to get to universality by skipping the specific voices misses the whole point. There is a reason why Heights was told with Latino voices in the first place.”
Amid the controversy, the Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber released a statement to NBC Latino. “We are saddened that we have upset our colleagues, we acknowledge their concerns and we share their desire to help move the entire industry to a place of both better ethnic representation and more effective casting processes.”