The Whitewashing of In the Heights

Mirandollar, dollar bill, y’all.

This is a good, thoughtful piece by Alex Tuchi regarding Xavier College Prep putting on a primarily-white (only 3 of 12 lead roles went to Latinx performers) production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, set in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, a neighborhood populated mostly by Dominican-Americans.

It’s important to support young artists (I don’t blame the actors in Xavier’s production of In the Heights; their director and XCP’s Director of Theatre Faculty, Janice Robillard, put them in this awkward position) but Xanthia Walker provides some really great insight as to why color-conscious casting is important:

Xanthia Walker, a director and teacher I have worked with, is the co-founder of Rising Youth Theatre, and to her, Xavier’s casting doesn’t ring true. “To cast white young actors to play people of color enforces the idea that white bodies are the default onstage — that white is ‘neutral’ and ‘flexible’ and can tell (appropriate) anybody else’s story,” she comments. “It also tells students of color — in this case, Latinx students, that the theater isn’t for them — because we are telling them that their stories are powerful, but their bodies in performance, in the positions of power, are not.”

One other thing that’s kind of ridiculous:

While Xavier administrators are not available for comment until September 28 due to a licensing agreement, I was assured by the cast (specifically those playing the roles of Usnavi and Benny, who are both white) that they would be consulting with Latinx residents of Washington Heights.

This is a long way to go just to try to bring authenticity to the lead roles of In the Heights. What would have been great — if the director were really interested in bringing some kind of Latinx authenticity to this production — is some kind of collaboration between Xavier and another valley high school that actually has a bigger pool of Latinx actors. Having a really cool & interesting cross-cultural exchange could happen by working with North High School or reaching across the canal to Central High School instead of, say, Skyping with people 3000 miles away.

In any case, let’s keep it real: these whitewashed productions of a Broadway musical centered around Latinx experiences aren’t happening because mainstream theatres and high school theatre departments are interested in telling the stories of people of color. If that were the case, we’d see Xavier taking on the kind of works that Teatro Bravo and New Carpa Theater do locally. These productions are basically a cash-in on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popularity via Hamilton.

A postscript: Can we refer to whitewashed versions of In the Heights, Whitewashington Heights? Thanks.