By Lauren Villegas
Generally speaking, the American theater is already on the right track to becoming a beacon of representation and inclusion. American theater—American musical theater in particular—has come a long way from its origins in minstrelsy. It’s been a journey, and the journey continues. Along that journey, issues of representation in casting have always been heated and touchy subjects. Though it’s generally understood in theaters today that blackface is absolutely unacceptable in any circumstance (and yellowface is also falling by the wayside in most professional settings), for some reason it’s still considered acceptable practice to cast non-Latinx actors in Latinx roles, cisgender actors in transgender roles, and able-bodied actors in roles for people with disabilities. It’s 2017. It’s time to do better.
In that regard, this practical and dramaturgical guide aims to serve allies in theater leadership as they tackle casting for one show where assumptions to the contrary have proved to be especially entrenched: Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita.
Yes, historically speaking, many non-Latinx actors have led this show: Patti Lupone, Elaine Paige, Madonna, Mandy Patinkin, Jonathan Pryce, Michael Cerveris. This isn’t about attacking past practices. This isn’t about shaming anyone. What’s past is past. Let’s look to today and what we can do to move forward together.
In a time when people of color—and in particular people of Latin heritage—have been dismissed and insulted by the new presidential administration, slating any non-Latinx actor in such a powerful and political role is a missed opportunity to counter pervasive narratives of exclusion. Furthermore, it is a missed opportunity to minister positive Latinx representation, and provide needed jobs to dedicated and accomplished Latinx artists.
Perhaps creatives think it’s acceptable to cast non-Latinx actors in Evita because they are under the impression that Argentine people are “mostly of European descent.” While the ethnic and cultural history of Argentina is a complicated one with a heavier European influence than much of the rest of South America, the historical facts of Eva Peron’s life, as well as the text by Tim Rice used to tell her story in this context, do not support casting a non-Latinx actor in the role.
The notion that Argentine people are “more European” or “look white” is a narrative that erases the history of the indigenous peoples who predate the generally white immigrants who sought to colonize the land. Unlike in the United States, the indigenous peoples of South America were not entirely wiped out and intermarrying was much more common from the start. The cultural and phenotypical influence of the indigenous peoples of South American is ubiquitous—even in Argentina.
Eva Peron’s parents were descended from Basque immigrants. While, yes, Basque peoples are indigenous in Europe, and they were historically considered non-white in Europe and experienced discrimination as such. Beyond that, Eva Peron’s parents were several generations removed from any European heritage. Eva Peron grew up in a rural part of the country where European cultural influence (not to mention phenotypical appearance) was less widespread than in the urban areas—hence the lyrical content placing emphasis on her inexperience with the big city early in the show.
In the text, Eva repeatedly expresses her disdain for the middle classes (generally the more phenotypically white, European-looking Argentine elites) as well as their disdain for her: “Screw the middle classes! I will never accept them! … My father’s other family were middle class / And we were kept out of sight, hidden from view at his funeral.”
In other words, Eva’s distance from the more phenotypically European middle classes, and their rejection of her, is anything but tangential to the musical. On the contrary, it is central both to the plot and to Eva’s character development. The fact that she bleached her naturally dark hair blonde for her entire adult life is illustrative of the tension between her naturally more indigenous appearance and background and that of the ruling class she opposed.
Even if a company casts a “multi-cultural” production of Evita, the impact of having a non-Latinx actor in the title role cannot be overstated. In the text, Evita frequently describes herself as being “of the people,” with “the people” she is referring to being largely phenotypically and culturally non-European. She addresses the people who support her—in Spanish—as “mis descamisados.” Having a non-Latinx actor speak these words in Spanish to a cast of Latinx actors is frankly cringe-worthy. It would be equivalent to having a non-Black actor address a crowd of Black actors as “my negroes.”
To claim that Latinx is not a race, and that those two situations are therefore not equivalent, is to produce a distinction without a difference. Yes, Latinx people are indeed not a “race” on the US Census. Yes, Latinx people can be of different races. And yes, Latinidad is a culture and not a race. The argument about the Census, in particular, comes up a lot.
If Eva Peron were alive today in the United States one could argue that on the Census she would likely check a box that said “white” for race and another box for “of hispanic origin”. But how might she feel about that? She who so often says she is “of the people?”
Many Latinx people in the United States today feel actively erased by the language of the Census. Being more or less forced into checking a box that says “white” doesn’t feel accurate to the multitudes who do not live a life touched by the privileges attached to whiteness. Many Latinx people feel treated as a race apart from whiteness in everyday life but not recognized as one by the State. Latinx people are denied the chance to name ourselves on official documents. Many Latinx people resent the term “Hispanic” to begin with. So it is not only profoundly insensitive but also deeply ironic to use this language of erasure to justify erasing Latinx people once again—this time from their own stories on stage.
Of course, all of this is complicated by the fact that creatives and leadership cannot legally ask an actor about their background. No one can police another person’s identity. It is up to each and every actor to act in good faith, to be honest with themselves and with those responsible for casting decisions. Most creatives are not intentionally trying to erase anyone. Most creatives have good intentions about casting inclusively. But their hands are legally tied and they must be able to trust actors to be forthcoming with them.
To create an environment that encourages that self-reflection, honesty, and integrity in actors, theater companies choosing to produce works like Evita should consider hiring Latinx creatives before beginning to process of casting. If creatives involved in that process, if at least someone behind the table identifies as Latinx, a non-Latinx actor walking into that room might see that they don’t reflect the perspective of the story, and recognize that perhaps it’s not their story to tell. If inclusive casting is important, then having Latinx creatives behind the table is essential. A guinea pig might pass as a hamster to a rabbit, but a guinea pig likely won’t even try to pass as a hamster to a hamster. If a non-Latinx actor walks into a room and sees only other non-Latinx creatives and leadership, they see themselves reflected. Nothing leads them to question their whiteness as neutral. Nothing leads them to question whether they should tell the story.
Mission statements, pledges, and commitments to inclusion are easy. Changing habits is hard. Admitting when we’re wrong is harder. Very often the right thing isn’t the easy thing in the short term. But in the long term, it’s what is best for everyone.