In wake of controversial shows, theater artists gather to discuss equitable casting | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In wake of controversial shows, theater artists gather to discuss equitable casting

“Artistic directors and boards [of directors] must be aware something has to happen, not should.”

Ricardo Vila-Rogers in the Stephen Collins Foster theater at Pitt
Ricardo Vila-Rogers in the Stephen Collins Foster theater at Pitt

This past July, Little Lake Theatre Company staged a production of Anna in the Tropics, Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer-winning 2003 play about Cuban immigrants, and cast all the roles with white actors. That casting provoked a response on Facebook from Sol Crespo, a Puerto Rico-born, New York-based theater artist who often works in Pittsburgh. Seeing white actors in roles written for people of color “makes me feel like I don’t matter, like I’m invisible, like my voice doesn’t need to be heard,” she later said.

Crespo’s posts attracted the attention of others concerned about diversity and equitable casting in local theater. These perennial issues also flared regionally last year, when playwright Lloyd Suh withdrew permission for Clarion University to stage his Jesus in India because white actors were cast as Indian characters. And last summer, New York-based Bay Street Theater Co. canceled a performance of The Prince of Egypt after critics noted a lack of diversity in its cast. "Controversy over equitable casting has also touched Hollywood, with white actors playing nonwhite characters in recent films like Exodus: Gods and Kings and Doctor Strange

Now Crespo is among those organizing Equitable Casting: A Town Hall for Pittsburgh’s Theater Community, on Mon., Dec. 12, at the University of Pittsburgh’s Charity Randall Theatre. The free event, open to the public, aims to explore authors’ rights, representation, racial justice in theater, and the consequences of cultural appropriation.

Diep Tran, an associate editor at American Theatre magazine, will facilitate what organizers call a “firestarter” panel including Crespo and four locally based artists: performer Siovhan Christensen; playwright Gab Cody; actor, director and playwright Monteze Freeland; and Adil Mansoor, of Hatch Arts Collective. And in breakout groups led by City Theatre artistic producer Reginald Douglas, guests will share ideas and resources.  

The program is hosted by the Dramatists Guild in partnership Pitt, Bricolage Production Company, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The idea is to show how equitable casting affects everyone, accountability is essential, and inclusivity is required to advance theater in Pittsburgh. Co-organizer Ricardo Vila-Roger, a performer, director and theater-arts professor at Pitt, wants the dialogue “to raise awareness and offer guidance to those who are struggling to attract more artists of color.” 

Such was the challenge facing Little Lake with Anna in the Tropics — the first work by a Latino playwright ever staged by the long-running, Canonsburg-based troupe. Artistic director Jena Oberg says Little Lake had always intended to use Latino actors in the production, but “[t]wo of the Latino actors cast dropped [out],” she says. She adds that the Latino community in Washington County is small, and that “papers that published our casting notice took the phrase ‘Cuban actors’ out of the press release.” When Crespo posted her objections on Little Lake’s Facebook page, Little Lake initially responded, in part, “Anna is not a play about being Cuban — it is a play about love and relationships, and the power of ideas through language,” before deleting the entire thread. 

Today, Oberg tells City Paper that the controversy over the show hasn’t “impacted next season, and we will choose [plays] based on what we want to do artistically and hope more resources will be created to connect companies and performers.” She says she fully supports the Equitable Casting town hall and “its goals to connect the community.”

Vila-Roger emphasizes that the response to Little Lake’s Anna was not an attack on the company, but rather the calling-out of a bigger problem. The Dec. 12 town hall’s organizers agree that if companies want to do shows about people of color, they should do everything in their power to find the right actors, but if they cannot cast the show appropriately, they should cancel those productions. (Full disclosure: Some Facebook critics of Little Lake’s Anna in the Tropics noted that City Paper’s own positive review of the production failed to mention the casting of whites as Latinos.)

The problem isn’t solely “whitewashing” — casting whites as nonwhite characters — but also representation: what sort of characters and experiences get portrayed, and how. “We need to make room for more people of color,” says Bricolage general manager Jackie Baker. “This will continue to be a problem as long as we aren’t mindful about who is in the room, and, most importantly, who is not.” 

Indeed, a lack of diversity of plays, playwrights, producers and directors has long been at least as big a concern as who’s on stage. In his 1996 speech “The Ground on Which I Stand,” playwright August Wilson famously blasted color-blind casting — often used to put black actors in roles originally conceived for whites — as cultural imperialism. (“To cast us in the role of mimics is to deny us our own competence.”) The real challenge, said the Pittsburgh-born Pulitzer-winner, is to support black voices: “We do not need colorblind casting; we need some theatres to develop our playwrights.”

Notwithstanding the unique case of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton — a mega-hit hip-hop musical in which the founding fathers are played by men of color — ours remains a world where most producers and playwrights are white. That puts nonwhite performers especially at risk of stereotyping. Crespo, for instance, says that in casting rooms she’s been told, “You don’t look Puerto Rican,” that she’s “too dark” or “not dark enough,” and been asked to be more “spicy.” So when a company stages that rare play written, for instance, about Cuban characters, by a Cuban-born playwright (as was Anna in the Tropics), and then casts it with whites, it is doubly painful. 

Asked about diversity in casting in Pittsburgh, Tomé Cousin, an internationally known performer and choreographer and Carnegie Mellon University associate professor, says, “certain artistic directors in the city should be ashamed.”

“People must speak up,” adds Cousin, who’s writing a book on diversity and nontraditional casting. “Artistic directors and boards [of directors] must be aware something has to happen, not should.” 

Vila-Rogers adds that some companies select works that are primarily white and then each season stage one “diversity show,” usually one with an all-black cast. He doesn’t consider this diversity; rather, he says, “it’s more like segregation.” 

But responsibility in casting extends beyond race. “Theater is still considered an elitist art form,” says Vila-Rogers, citing high ticket prices. And Crespo recalls reading about a production of Marathan of Hope, a musical about an amputee, in which the lead role was played by an able-bodied man. “We need,” she says, “to make space for actors with disabilities.” 

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