Last season on Broadway, Stephen Adly Guirgis opened a high energy comedy play on Broadway abbreviated to The Mother with the Hat. Starring Chris Rock, Bobby Canavale, Yul Vasquez, and Elizabeth Rodriguez, the production went on to be nominated for six Tony awards and run for 112 performances. That's fantastic for a show that has a title that is censored in advertising, press coverage, and even on its own marquee. Fast forward to November 2011. Stephen Adly Guirgis writes a scathing message to the director of TheaterWorks production of the show in Hartford, Connecticut. His message? The production does not even come close to reflecting the integrity of the text by casting two non-Hispanic actors in the roles of two character partly defined by their Hispanic heritage. Guirgis promised to see the production to evaluate how the director worked around the casting to bring his text to life.
Director Tazwell Thomas responded in kind, explaining how Guirgis--essentially--had a lot of nerve to criticize a production he didn't see. He mentioned casting the best actors for the roles and how everyone involved was proud of the production they put on. He was convinced that Guirgis would change his tune if he saw the production.
Guess what? He did. And he's not impressed.
Being careful not to knock the actors for the casting director's decisions, Guirgis published an op-ed in the New York Times explaining his reaction to the show.
The facts of what occurred during the casting process for my play at TheaterWorks in Hartford are inarguable. They pre-cast two Caucasian actors in their 20’s to play the two late-30’s Latino leads in the play, and they never auditioned a single Latino actor for either role. When questioned about this, they blamed the casting director, they claimed the play was originally written for Caucasian actors, and, among other excuses and lies, they maintained that some Puerto Ricans have blonde hair and freckles (true enough), and that these were the two very best actors for the roles — even though they never allowed even one Latino actor to audition for roles that were literally written for them. Those are the facts...
What I do care about — deeply — is that I wrote a play where the two leads are clearly Latino, and Latino actors were completely shut out of the casting process for those two roles. TheaterWorks — intentionally or unintentionally — practiced de facto discrimination against Latino actors who get too few opportunities to compete for roles in the industry to begin with...
[What] I saw on that stage was young, white, otherwise talented actors who were regrettably ill-equipped to even approach a three dimensional rendering of the characters they were assigned to portray. And the entirely white audience on the night I saw the show ate it up like pie. It was surreal. I felt like I was in a time warp. It felt like I was witnessing something that I had only read about in history books. It felt like a modern day minstrel show. And all this in a city with a 40 percent Latino population, and in a play cast, not in Indiana or Wyoming, but New York City and Hartford.
So what is the takeaway from The Mother with the Hat casting controversy? Is it a statement against color-blind casting? No. Is it some undercover racist agenda of a strong regional theater company? No.
It is a question of understanding the text you are working with. In a play like The Mother with the Hat, much of the background of the two characters in question comes from an understanding of how a certain kind of person grows up and exists in NYC. Specifically, these two characters have a background that Giurgis believes relies on an understanding of Puerto Rican culture in America. Having not read the script of the show, I do not feel comfortable discussing whether or not this is the case.
This does not mean that a non-Hispanic actor could not portray one of these characters and do a fine job. However, in a situation like this, where NYC actors have routinely been called in to castings with TheaterWorks, it becomes less understandable how no Hispanic actors were called to play two clearly Hispanic roles in a major production of an in-demand work.
If you're going to work with a script at any level, you need to consider the demands of the casting. Some shows, like All Shook Up, actually license alternate versions of their script to allow for shows to be produced with color blind casting; those instances are rare. You should not be performing a show for an audience that requires a specific type of actor if you know that you are unable or unwilling to cast them.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.