Wellesley Theatre Project‘s performances this past weekend of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights had audiences cheering, but the theatre company’s decision to present this musical that is set in a mainly Dominican-American neighborhood also has predictably sparked discussion in town about how race plays into casting.
Given Pulitzer Prize-winning Miranda’s great popularity these days thanks to his smash Broadway hit Hamilton, it’s not surprising that local theatre outfits and schools would choose to perform In the Heights, a Miranda work that won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008. But the fact that productions like the one in Wellesley have not featured more people of color in their casts has upset some, with controversies emerging across the country, including in Chicago and Phoenix.
Recent Wellesley High School graduate Lexie Lehmann posted her objections on Facebook and pointed us to it, and a lively and largely civil discussion (involving many students) has ensued. (Note: only friends of Lehmann can post on the page, so other discussions and posts about this issue have surfaced elsewhere on Facebook.)
Lehmann wrote in part:
“Let me first say that I respect Wellesley Theater Project’s mission to ‘cultivate community education and participation’ (taken from their website). Theater has given so much to me and I am happy to see students of all ages participating in such a beautiful craft. I’m also respectful of the couple of friends I have in the show. I know they worked hard on the production and I would never be one to devalue hard work.
I do not, however, respect Wellesley Theater Project’s decision to put on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘In the Heights’ with a predominantly white cast.
When a script of any sort is written for people of color, it is for a very important reason. We live in a world where people of color are vastly underrepresented in theater, and when they are represented, it is most often to play a caricature or stereotype.”
Lehmann, whose post has generated dozens of comments, goes on to link to articles about the casting authenticity debate, and she also cites Miranda saying that an author’s original intentions are what should be honored in a production.
As for the non-profit Wellesley Theatre Project, which provides performing arts education to youths pre-K-12th grade, it acknowledges that race and casting is a big issue in the theatre community. But WTP defends its decision to present In the Heights, both on Lehmann’s Facebook page and in an email to The Swellesley Report. WTP Executive Director Hillary Drew tells us that “The consensus in the theatre world is that educational productions are not held to the same standard as professional theatre” in areas such as casting authenticity. WTP points to Miranda himself saying “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 to change their lives. You’ll be glad you did.”
Drew adds that WTP’s decision to present In the Heights “attracted the most diverse group of student actors in WTP history. And, we were sure to make doing the show accessible for anyone with interest.” Members of the cast say they learned a lot about the Latina community in working on In the Heights.
Drew also cited numerous local productions recently of shows such as The Wiz without an all African-American cast and Evita, without Hispanics, that seem to be in line with Miranda’s philosophy as stated above.
Between race & casting issues, racy content in modern shows and outdated themes in older ones, choosing which plays to perform is never easy for student productions. Beauty & the Beast is up next for Wellesley High School, and at least one commenter questioned how WHS will pull that show off without resorting to tortured French accents.
On tap for Wellesley Theatre Project: High School Musical 2, Jr., and A Christmas Carol. Those seem pretty safe, but you never know.