Back in November 2011, Tlaloc Rivas, a theatre director and professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, called attention to an incident where Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) in Washington, DC decided to change the names of two characters to Latino names that were, needless to say, offensive to many of us Latino theatre artists. At the same time, TheaterWorks, a company in Hartford, CT decided to ignore the Latino nationality of the two main characters in the play, The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis.
Tlaloc’s decision to confront the Shakespeare company called the attention of many of us, including Peter Marks from the Washington Post, who wrote an article on the issue. At the same time, the playwright of “TMWTH,” along with HOLA (Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors) in New York City and many of us, went after the TheaterWorks decision to cast white actors in Latino roles, and many different short postings appeared in The New York Times. At the end, some letters were sent out, some responses were received, some discussions took place, and all the brouhaha came and went. In short, time passed and life moved on.
A few days ago, The New York Times published an article regarding how Asian-American actors go uncast on the Broadway stage while Randy Gener—renowned lecturer and speaker in art, culture, and international theatre, talked about such fact in a NPR report.
When I saw such article, I sent a link of it to all my theatre contacts, via email, Facebook, and twitter. The link was accompanied with a set of questions: “Why is it that Latino artists aren’t even considered for an article in the NYT? Why are we so ignored? Why are we so behind? Why am I so angry about this?” My purpose was to initiate a conversation about an issue we’re facing as we speak.
Among the few responses there was one answer which brought to my attention a more troubling issue. It happens to be that Miracle Theatre Group (El Milagro Theatre) a Latino theatre company in Portland OR is producing a play by Jose Rivera titled, Boleros for the Disenchanted. This play has all Latino characters, from Puerto Rico, who at some point migrate to the United States, a great opportunity for any theatre director to take advantage and cast the best Latino actors they can find. Yet, sadly to say, El Milagro Theatre’s production seems to have cast actors who are not Latino.
Because I don’t know anything about the actors, I realized that I am basing my assumptions simply on their names, yet Kylie Clark Johnson, Logan Loughmiller, Ted Schultz, and Luisa Sermol do not sound like Latino actors who should be playing roles name: Flora and Eusebio, Puerto Rican immigrants living in Alabama; although Luisa Sermol sounds the closest to a Latino nationality, but my gut tells me is just ‘wishful thinking.”
And so, here are my thoughts on this issue: While many of us Latino artist are constantly fighting to have equality on the theatre stage, there seems to be at least one Latino theatre company who doesn’t mind that casting non-Latino actors in Latino roles is a problem. So I ask, ‘If a Latino theatre company does not care about taking the opportunity away from Latino actors, why should a non-Latino theatre company even take the time to think about it?” I mean, why wait for “them” to screw us over when we can do it ourselves?
This dilemma only emphasizes my belief on why we, as a Latino community in this country, are so far behind from every other minority group. We may be the fastest-largest growing community in the nation but we seem to be the most divided too. And although this entry is not about politics, this is exactly our problem as a political force.
But I digress.
Many of us have been trying for quite some time to come to grasps with the harsh reality that we, as a community of Latino theatre artists are being ignored left and right. And to see a Latino theatre company to suddenly do the same is not only a disappointment but also a slap on the face to the many efforts and goals we have been trying to accomplish. Although I admit, Miracle Theater is a very small company compared to others in Portland. But every little counts, doesn't it?
I mean, what the hell do we need to do? Isn’t it enough we’re already fighting against the ignorance of non-Latino theatre companies that now we have to add a Latino theatre company to the list of our ‘frenemies?’
And what message that such action from “El Milagro” sends to the rest of the companies in the nation? I can see it now: “Look, they did it! Why can’t we?” or “If Latino theatre companies “brownfaced” why can’t we? If they complain, we can always call them off on their shit, right?”
It is frustrating and difficult to talk about this matter, mainly because I’m a playwright and I know I am going to feel the backlash from many of my own artist friends. If Miracle Theatre did not know about my work, now they’re really not going to care. But I rather call it as I see it, and mainly because the founders, the artistic directors, and associate directors are Latino, and one of them even serves in the Executive Committee for Theatre Communications Group's Board of Directors TCG, an organization dedicated to the promotion of non-profit professional theater in the country.
I know I’m opening a can of worms, I know it. But I’m only doing it because if I am going to point the finger to those non-Latino theatre companies who decide to ‘brownface”, then it is only fair to do the same to Latino theatre companies who also dare to do it, no matter how small.
Will I be hated? I don’t know, but better hated for what I believe than be silent for not engaging in the conversation. I may be wrong about all this, including the fact that the actors in the aforementioned production AREN’T Latino and also because I don't know the reasons why the company decided to do what they did. I'm also well aware of the danger I have set myself up to because I'm solely basing my argument on the actors' last names. There are, after all, "non-Spanish" sound last names for Latinos, so I seem to be assuming. Then again, I could be right about my assumption regarding this casting. I don’t know. I only hope that when the time comes, a “milagro” can save me.