Because It’s 2016? Boundaries of Propriety in Race, Experience, and Representation on Stage and Screen

Over in Vancouver, an unlikely controversy has sprung up over a small co-op production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2011 play The Motherfucker with the Hat, by a group of artists operating under the name The Haberdashery Company (Get it? Haberdashers, hats…).

The controversy doesn’t spring from the curse word in the title or the play’s themes of sex and drug addiction; instead a group of Vancouver artists have taken issue with the fact that the group of artists who originally came together to create this play are all white Canadians (or at least they all read as sort of white Canadians; at least one is part Middle Eastern and another appears to be mixed-race) despite the fact that three of the characters in the play are Puerto Rican (Haberdashery recast one of the parts with a Chilean-Canadian actor after the controversy first broke).

The artists who wrote and circulated an open letter have (in a charmingly Canadian way) not made any demands or called for a boycott of the show, but instead were trying to spark a discussion about casting practices in BC – although it’s quite clear that the implied demand is that no non-Latino ever play a Latino character.

The letter was covered in the Georgia Straight and then in The Globe and Mail, and eventually led to an open forum held to discuss the issue last week, which was livestreamed.

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Photo of the Because It’s 2016 forum, taken from Chris Gatchalian’s Facebook.

My gut reaction when I saw all this was that it was all very silly, and was a very reductive view about how theatre is made and consumed, and what the work of the actor is, and I said as much in places where it came up on Facebook (and perhaps sometimes not very diplomatically). I was invited to watch the livestream of last Monday’s discussion and participate via Twitter and I did, although the questions and comments I raised online weren’t addressed in the room (very few online comments were taken; the event was not very well moderated and there was consequently not enough time for even the people in the room to all have a chance to speak). I found the forum to be generally constructive and informative, but it did leave some difficult questions unanswered.

So instead, I’m going to try to tease out some of the thoughts I had on this discussion in this space, by posing some open questions for consideration by all the artists involved.

But Why Do I Care?

Ok, ok, fair question. I’m a white guy in Toronto. Why should I care about this? And what right do I have at all to chime in on an issue of concern in the Latino community?

Well, for starters, this isn’t an issue that occurs in a Latino bubble. It’s intrinsically about constraining the artistic choices that non-Latinos can make. Everyone should have a stake in this discussion, even if priority should be given to the aggrieved parties. I bristle at the suggestion that anyone’s artistic expression should be limited.

But beyond that, this is a line of discussion about representation that is increasingly becoming relevant in other minority communities, including in the LGBT community. Hollywood movies about LGBT people are increasingly subject to criticism that LGBT parts are going to non-LGBT people. The same issues of “pinkface” or lost work opportunities for LGBT performers are routinely brought up. We haven’t yet seen this on the stage, but it could come. And this line of thinking is equally wrong.

Some Points that We Can Agree on

Yes, blackface minstrelsy is bad. All minstrelsy is bad because it by definition is performance that exists to demean another group of people. Minstrelsy can be done against any race or group of people.

Yes, I agree that visible minority artists are under-represented on the stage and they face challenges in getting onto stages that white artists do not face. The fact that not all white artists are handed opportunities and they have to struggle too is irrelevant to this fact.

Question 1: Who is allowed to represent “A Latino?” And follow-up: Where are the boundaries around what a performer can present?

This is a core question in this discussion, but it can be a pretty confusing one. We’ve generally taken it as given that if you’re presenting a Black character, you should cast a Black actor, and if you’re presenting an Asian character, you should cast an Asian actor – not that it’s always so clear cut.

Some people think Zoe Saldana (left and centre) is more authentic as a green-skinned Zen-Whoberian than as another famous Black woman, Nina Simone (right). 

But it’s not so clear what to do with a Latino character. After all, “Latino” is a status ascribed to about 600 million people who come from 21 countries across 2 continents spanning millions of square miles and with 2 major language groups. Latin Americans come in all races – even more diverse than Canada/USA, really – and have a very wide variety of cultures and experiences. Do you assume that a Latin American character is brown-skinned, absent any specific cues from the text? If the text indicates that the character is a specific nationality, say, Puerto Rican, is it appropriate for someone who is, say, Chilean to represent them?

When forming your answer, please consider that Puerto Ricans are statistically more likely (though obviously not exclusively) brown-skinned than Chileans, who are almost exclusively white-skinned or white-mestizo, and that Chile and Puerto Rico are 6000 km apart (approximately the distance from Marseilles to Nairobi).

Chilean-Canadian Playwright and Actress Carmen Aguirre has become the sort of figurehead of this discussion (although she co-wrote the letter, she says it was other artists who first raised the question to her; she said at the forum that she was uncomfortable being labelled as the person behind the group, although she’s the one whose name appears in the Georgia Straight headline, and she certainly seemed to be the leader at last week’s forum). She’s kind of an awkward figurehead, as someone who’s played the lead in this play before (at Alberta Theatre Projects, for which she won a Jessie award), and as someone who, after bringing this problem to the attention of Haberdashery, auditioned for a part in the show and then didn’t get it. One could probably be forgiven for thinking her big public stance is more than just a little self-serving or vindictive.

Aguirre seems to take the hard-line stance that it is not appropriate for a Latino role to be played by a non-Latino, and that a Latino of any national or racial background would be appropriate for any Latino role. Aguirre agreed that Latinos are not a race (using the unfortunate term “Aryan nation” to explain that some Latinos are blonde and blue-eyed), but stressed that Latino is still an ethnic identity, and a powerful, unifying one at that. Anyone who self-identifies as Latino, is therefore, more appropriate to playing a Latino than someone who does not, no matter what their race.

[Here we see a bit of inconsistency in Aguirre’s argument, because she apparently never argued that *all* the Latino parts in Motherfucker needed to be played by Latinos. Indeed, she auditioned knowing that only two of the three Latino parts were under consideration for re-casting, and in the ATC production for which she won her Jessie, she was the only Latino performer. The uncharitable view would be that to her it’s ok to cross-cast Latino parts as long as she gets a part in the show.]

At this point, someone in the forum (my apologies, I do not know Vancouver performers by sight), explained that despite the vast differences in cultures across Latin America, any Latin American performer would be able to access more authenticity than a non-Latin American because the performer would have access to “blood memory” that unites all the cultures south of the Rio Grande.

For those who don’t know, “blood memory” is a performance theory popularized by acting coach Larry Moss in The Intent to Live. It is a very popular theory in West Coast acting circles, although to be honest I’ve never heard anyone talk about it in Toronto. The idea is that a performer can and should draw on the experiences and stories of their ancestors and cultural roots to inform their performances. It is a tool in the actor’s kit, but it’s not Mjolnir. Indeed, in some senses, it’s a particularly regressive and reductive approach (it’s been a while since I read The Intent to Live and I don’t have it handy, but I vaguely recall a passage where Moss urges a Black actress to call on her blood memory to make her performance more sexual, for example). But what I do recall of the idea was that it was absolutely not meant to limit actors to playing within their national groups (another example was that Jewish performers could draw on their cultural memory of oppression and resilience when performing a character who has to be tough and overcome obstacles). It’s meant to be a tool that expands a performer’s range, not reduce it.

Is it wrong to interpret a Latino character as white, and then cast a non-Latino white person? Is it wrong to interpret a Latino character as Arab or Asian, and then cast a non-Latino Arab or Asian person? Is it wrong to interpret a Latino character as mixed-race, and then cast a non-Latino mixed-race person who frequently gets “read” as Latino? We all know someone who when we met them, we were unsure if they were Latino, or Filipino, or West Asian, or South Asian, or Italian (as Princess Isabella put it “ethnically hard to pin down”); should this person limit herself to only playing the nationalit(ies) that she is actually descended from?

When you get down to it, it’s kind of bizarre to say that a performer can’t play anything except what they actually are. The craft of acting is embodying that which you are not – whether that’s a Latino, or a woman, or a child, or a homosexual, or disabled, or supernatural, or a lawyer, or a drug addict, or a robot, or a Norse God, or a cat, or an inanimate object.

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Or a knight, squire, and princess in medieval Europe.

Acting is the art of telling the truth while lying. As long as the performance is done well and respectfully — as long as you are telling the truth with your performance — what is the issue?

I am a gay, Italian-Jewish Canadian. What roles am I allowed to stretch myself to perform, if Latino is off the table? I assume Italians and Jews are ok, and probably Poles since that where the Jewish half comes from. I’m gonna just assume WASPy Canadians and Americans are ok, too. Is it ok for me to play Portuguese or Greek? Russian? Turkish? Israeli? Sephardic Jew? Armenian? Lebanese?  Unidentified Nationality In A Desert Somewhere That’s Probably In The Middle East (i.e., Scorched)? White Alabamian Klansman? White South African? White Trinidadian? What really are the boundaries around what a performer can get away with?

This isn’t just me being cute; some of the participants in the Because It’s 2016 forum were very rigid and restrictive about what was appropriate. A woman who identified herself as a representative of Canadian Actors’ Equity Association (who was offscreen in the webcast, so I couldn’t see her face) went so far as to say that she didn’t think it would be appropriate for her as a Jewish woman to play an Italian. That sounds ludicrous to this mutt, and would probably be shocking to anyone who laughed at Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza on Seinfeld.

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[As a side note, there seemed to be a lot of upset in the room about the frequent casting of dark-featured Italians as Latino or Middle Eastern characters on stage and screen, because even though these people may have dark skin and coarse hair, they are European. There is very little outrage when casting goes the other way. As Haberdashery’s John Cassini noted, his Chilean-Canadian castmate Francisco Trujillo was prominently featured in a recent Firehall production of Mambo Italiano. Side-side note: The film Mambo Italiano features a cast of almost no real Italians, and while the inauthenticity sticks out quite a bit when Mary Walsh is playing a Sicilian, you can’t deny they do the script justice.]

Left, Trujillo in Firehall’s 2011 Production of Mambo Italiano, which seems to have been marketed as a drama about alcoholism and depression, instead of as a slapstick farce about parents trying to control their children’s sex lives. To be fair, there’s only like 5 Italians in Greater Vancouver. The producers of the 2003 film do not have that excuse. 

While this discussion has not been absent from Toronto theatre (arigato, Arigato, Tokyo), it seems that there really isn’t much concern when it comes to Latino roles. Motherfucker was produced here with only one Latino (an Argentinian-Canadian) in the cast in 2014, for which Italian-Canadian Sergio DiZio won a Dora Award for his portrayal of a Puerto Rican. And Chilean-Canadian playwright/actress Rosa Laborde is evidently much less concerned about about cross-casting than her fellow countrywoman; her breakthrough play, Leo, toured Canada and won much acclaim while featuring an all non-Latino cast (DiZio was also nominated for this one).

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The 2007 Tarragon Theatre cast of Leo.

Question 2: Are there other legitimate ways “into” a role, besides race?

Part of the discussion hinges on a belief that authenticity can only come from the ethnic heritage of the performer. Another part of the discussion comes from the sense that cross-casting silences and denies opportunity to marginalized people. Both of these arguments have legitimate aspects, but they don’t tell the whole story.

There are an infinite number of reasons why we can be attracted to stories and characters beyond “they kind of look like us.” Indeed, most people would find it grotesque if a white person said, “I’m only interested in stories about people who are white.” Such a line of thinking is reductive and dehumanizing.

Taking the example of Motherfucker, beyond being a story about a trio of Latinos, it’s also a story about addiction, recovery, criminal stigma, fidelity, sexuality, and immigration (similarly, I’d say Mambo Italiano is a play about coming-of-age late, coming out, sexuality, and stepping out of your family’s reach before I said it was about being Italian. Sidenote: If we do start limiting actors to playing within their nationalities, we need more/better parts for Italians).

An actor who has dealt with substance abuse either personally or within his family/social circle, and wants to share a story about it, could do worse that land on the role of Jackie. An actress who deals with body image issues and aging (so, in other words, an actress) might find strength or comfort in Veronica’s monologue about just that subject.

Cousin Julio really steals the show with a long monologue about his experience as a young boy being lost in a new city and being unable to speak the language. Would this really be inauthentic coming from an actor who immigrated to Canada from Romania or Vietnam? Another “in” to Julio is his barely repressed homosexuality, which made him a target within his macho culture, which leads him to overcompensate with bodybuilding and tall tales about his sexual conquests. Do you think a gay Persian or Greek actor wouldn’t understand that?

If race is to be the prime consideration because non-white people are marginalized, does that limit the opportunity for expression of other marginalized voices: sexual minorities, immigrants, people dealing with addiction and mental health issues?

Of course, actors don’t generally wear their mental health issues or sexual orientations on their sleeves (because marginalization!), so it’s hard to judge the authenticity of their representation by anything other than their performances, which complicates the discussion. Or makes it much simpler.

Question 3: What does this mean for Latino/minority playwrights and stories?

The Because It’s 2016 forum really glossed over the issues of authorial intent and ownership, in part, I suspect, because they’re inconvenient (indeed, they spent several minutes arguing over whether it would be appropriate to even share Guirgis’ written note about the controversy, ultimately deciding not to share it until the very end, after which Aguirre dismissed his comments because he didn’t reach out to her group first before writing them).

Motherfucker is a strange example to draw on for this argument because its writer is not actually Latino. Guirgis is Egyptian-Irish-American. So an extremist might question why he feels he has the right to pen a story about Latinos, or to rule on issues about their representation. But in any event, the published script has a note about casting:

“The characters … are meant to be Puerto Rican. But if you get cast in the play, and you’re not Puerto Rican, don’t worry about trying to ‘be’ Puerto Rican. Just focus on living truthfully and fully through the circumstances of the play and of your character” (quoted from the Globe story).

Guirgis protested when white non-Latino actors were cast in Latino roles in a production in Hartford, but his criticism was somewhat nuanced. “I know there are parts of the country where it’s harder to find a lot of Latino actors. But this play was cast in New York City and in Hartford, and you can’t tell me that there weren’t qualified Latino actors to play characters who are Puerto Rican,” he told the New York Times.

By contrast, Guirgis has given his explicit blessing to the Vancouver production and its cast (which includes several actors he knows from their time in New York), noting that Vancouver has a Latin population of under 1.5%.

Also relevant to this discussion is that this particular production is a co-op of actors who are putting a show on as a lark for very little money. It does not seem like they held auditions when forming their co-op – doing so actually runs contrary to the spirit of an Equity co-op. This is not a large, heavily resourced organization shutting people out of a lucrative gig. Naturally, online and at the forum, Aguirre has repeatedly denied that this is true or relevant, insisting that it is a Firehall Theatre production, when all evidence points to that being true in name only. (Why on earth would this group of actors form a company and name it after this specific production if it weren’t really a co-op?)

If this specific group of actors hadn’t come together and decided to do this show, it probably wouldn’t have been made at all in Vancouver. Would that be better – to not have a story written by a minority playwright, featuring Latino characters (at least) on stage? Would it be better if these actors just did another George F. Walker script about white people suffering from addiction and struggling with the law?

This seems to limit the rights and opportunities for playwrights of colour to tell (and sell) their stories. After all, you’re going to have a hard time finding actors of certain colours in certain parts of North America (Canadian cities may have a lot of non-white people, but each city tends to have a specific type of diversity; and there’s a whole range of places that are much smaller than cities where the range of diversity is very small indeed).

Do you really want to limit any script to being performed only in certain cities, or by companies with large enough budgets to cast out-of-province? Should playwrights be limited to selling their scripts only to interested members of their own defined ethno-racial communities?

Wrapping Up

By now I’ve written much more on this topic than I had intended to when I set out, and I’ve left some open-ended questions, so I’ll just wrap up with a few thoughts.

I don’t believe in many strict rules for making art, although generally, I would agree with the simple rule that art shouldn’t set out to demean the marginalized.

I don’t believe cross-cultural, colour- or gender-blind casting is always a good thing, or always a bad thing. It ultimately depends on the context and artistic statement being made. In fact, watching a performer straddle those borders between cultures, genders, and experiences, is often the site of the frisson of performance (think of Alec Baldwin’s Emmy-winning turn as Jack Donaghy role-playing as Tracy Jordan’s entire family; Robert Downey Jr’s Oscar-nominated role as a white Australian method actor performing a role in Blackface; Cate Blanchette’s Oscar-nominated performance as Bob Dylan; Idris Elba playing a (sort of) Norse God; Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall’s heartbreaking Oscar-nominated performances as gay cowboys; John Travolta in Hairspray or the Wayans brothers in White Chicks; Felicity Huffman and Jeffrey Tambor as old transgender people; to say nothing of stage, if only to keep this list to examples everyone’s familiar with).

I generally worry that pushing an emphasis on realism/naturalism on racial/ethnic casting – besides being a difficult shell game of constantly moving targets – will restrict dissemination of stories that need to be told. Turning performance into pseudo-documentary atrophies the craft of performance and restricts the ability for performer and audience alike to recognize difference and commonality. I worry that the long-term consequence of this trend will be playwrights limiting their dramatis personae to bland, racially and sexually neutral (read: white, non-trans, heterosexual) characters (or, ahem, continuing to do so), if only to make sure that their plays are infinitely castable in the flyover parts of North America.

But I recognize I’m not the final word on this. I’d really like to hear your thoughts – especially if you are a self-identified minority, ethnic, or person of colour performer – in the comments below.

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