Constantine Maroulis (Che) and the cast of “Evita” at North Shore Music Theatre thru October 8, 2017. Photos©Paul Lyden
Amid accusations of whitewashing and brownface, North Shore Music Theatre opens Evita
With the announcement of North Shore Music Theatre’s cast for Evita earlier this month came nearly instantaneous backlash over the decision to cast the show with almost entirely white actors. North Shore isn’t the first theater to be accused of whitewashing Evita, and questions of cultural appropriation can be traced back to the late 1970s when the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical first premiered.
Both Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, the stars of the original Broadway production, had Evita to thank for launching their careers. And although the outrage then was muted, 1979 was—in many ways—a very, very different time.
North Shore’s production will run from through Oct 8 and stars Briana Carlson-Goodman as Eva and Tony nominee Constantine Maroulis as Che.
Situations like this can prove to be invaluable in terms of the kinds of conversations they inspire.
But not always.
Aside from the problematic way in which NSMT has chosen to cast Evita, equally disturbing has been the way that the theater and owner/producer Bill Hanney have chosen to respond.
Friendly, non-confrontational comments challenging the casting of the show were repeatedly deleted from the comments on the theater’s Facebook page. Luis Eduardo Mora, an actor and activist who did not audition for the show, wrote an article for onstageblog.com condemning both the casting and the deletion of comments—which foreshadowed just how unwilling the theater would prove to be in terms of fostering any meaningful conversation. In his article, he writes that comments as innocuous as “No Latinos in the cast?” were banished.
Some of the charming comments that were allowed to remain? “Left wing libtards are at it again,” “Go away snowflake,” and “I could care less what you or your liberal cohorts think.” Lovely little endorsements.
Lauren Villegas, an actress and activist who founded Project Am I Right?, which seeks to increase awareness within the acting community to end the whitewashing of roles in general, quickly spoke up, and plenty of vitriol was thrown her way. I’m not just talking about disagreements, I’m talking, ugly, frightening stuff that she has asked me not to make public.
While it was already in poor taste for the theater to silently endorse confrontational and antagonistic comments, even more disturbing is how Villegas was targeted by some close to the theater.
One such example came in a since-deleted Facebook post by Matthew Chappell, a (white) Evita cast member who happens to be married to Kevin P. Hill, NSMT’s producing artistic director. (Uh oh.)
“Lauren, sweetie, you weren’t in the room,” wrote Chappell. “For you to say they had no intention to hire Latinx actors is not only reckless but also just plain false. Get your shit together.”
The delightful tirade continued privately.
“The fact that they’re encouraging that sort of support by their fans and their community … that’s clearly the sort of thing they foster,” said Villegas.
Hanney issued a formal statement, citing an almost 15-year-old award for diversity that NSMT received a decade prior to Hanney taking over as proof that he couldn’t possibly be guilty of whitewashing, and he then gave a few interviews and appeared on WBUR with Villegas. But Hanney didn’t allow for the possibility of any type of discussion and instead stood by his decision to cast almost entirely white actors.
His best defense? Eva was played by Patti LuPone.
Hanney declined to be interviewed by me, although I was encouraged to send along my questions by email. I did, and he declined to answer those, too.
There have been a few official lines of reasoning given by Hanney as to why more care wasn’t taken to cast Latinx actors in these roles. One such
excuse reason is that Hanney employs colorblind casting, where shows are cast irrespective of the actors’ race or skin color.
Okay. So here what he’s saying is that the best person gets the job, regardless of race, unless the show is about race, such as is the case with something like South Pacific, The Color Purple, or Miss Saigon. This is bullshit. Unless NSMT’s casting consistently reflected this ideal (it doesn’t), then the implication is that all the white people that have auditioned are—across the board—more talented than actors of color. Also? It’s not actually possible to look at a person and not see their color or race.
Hanney’s answer to that? A production of Beauty and the Beast that he produced had an African-American Cogsworth, a little person as LeFou, and an Asian Chip. That’s like saying, “I’m not racist, I have a black friend.”
Along the same lines, Hanney told WBUR: “I never even thought about that—that type of casting.”
Hold on a minute. So the owner and producer of a major regional theater is saying that it never crossed his mind to cast Latinx actors in a musical that takes place in South America. Got it.
But a Latino actor was cast as Che, and he turned it down due to a prior commitment. Maroulis, who is extraordinarily talented, was called in after the fact without even having auditioned. So, yeah, that type of casting had crossed Hanney’s mind.
The assertion that Evita is not about race, and can therefore be cast without Latinx actors, is another claim that Hanney has made.
“The Latinx community isn’t a race, it’s a culture, so I would have to say it’s absolutely, incredibly about culture,” said Brandon Contreras, a New York City based actor. “This woman, she came from the ‘descamisados,’ the shirtless ones, the dirty, the poor. Of course she had light skin and dark features. [One excuse] is that she was from the Basque region. Listen. Did she walk around saying she was French? No. She was an Argentinian woman.”
Villegas has a similar if more pointed take on the notion that Evita isn’t about race.
“By nature, Latin people are very ethnically mixed. So, yeah, I agree with them when they say this isn’t a play about race. Yup. Fine. Great. It’s not. But it is definitely a play about a shared Latin experience,” she said. “I think that it’s just really sort of scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for excuses to continue to erase things when you need to be pulling out DNA charts and telling me that her grandparents were Basque or whatever. I’m not really interested in that conversation. I don’t understand how it’s even up for debate.”
Let’s just say that Evita isn’t about race. Let’s also say that Evita isn’t about culture. Why is white the default? Why do Latinx actors only get cast when there’s no choice? The general attitude is, unless it’s a show about race, then everyone can—and should—just be white.
And—not for nothing—but wouldn’t you want your production of Evita to be as authentic as possible? There is an indescribable cheesiness to watching white actors pretend to be Latinx.
Villegas agrees. “You think it’s going to be good for the production to have white people singing in Spanish with bad accents? You think that’s going to serve your production? Okay. That’s your choice,” she said.
“White actors that take these roles and wear our culture like a coat are able to have their cake and eat it too,” said Contreras. “We are left to be okay with the crumbs.”
Hanney has also implied that every effort was made to cast Latinx performers but that they didn’t really come out to the auditions. “I can’t drag them out of their homes,” he said on WBUR.
But during the same interview, Hanney claims that 3-4,000 auditioned for the show.
Listen. There are roughly three musicals that actors of color stand a shot to get seen for: In the Heights, West Side Story, and Evita. You better believe that the Latinx community comes out in droves for these auditions.
“We’re tired of being the best friend, the supporting character, the humor, the punchline. So when we have these incredible roles, we’re like, ‘No. That’s ours,’” said Contreras. “And we’re finally speaking up. A problem that’s happening with the Latinx community is that because we come in such various colors, we’re often, at times, not considered. Our culture and ethnicity can be replaced by someone else, by a white actor who looks like us.”
But, it turns out, there actually may be some truth in Hanney’s assertion.
Just because you show up to an audition doesn’t mean you get seen. Sometimes, an actor’s agent will submit them to the production and the production will either grant them an audition or not. That’s to be expected. But a problematic aspect to the way that auditions are held is that—particularly if thousands of actors show up—people are sent home, or “typed out” even before they get to stand before a table and sing their 16 bars.
Typing out based on a headshot alone is not legal, so, according to Contreras, Villegas, Mora, and other professional actors I talked to, those running the auditions will often eliminate based on resume.
Not having a Broadway credit makes it much, much harder to get seen at auditions, even for regional productions. A recent study put out by Actors’ Equity Association says that over 70 percent of musical roles go to white actors, 8 percent to African American actors, and just 3 percent to Latinx or Asian actors. So if 70 percent of the roles go to white actors, this business of typing out based on resume disproportionately favors white actors. If an actor can’t get seen at an audition (which often has nothing to do with talent), then their resume cannot be boosted. It’s a maddening catch-22.
But the theater is partly to blame for who shows up to the auditions. Nowhere in NSMT’s audition notice for Evita did the character breakdowns specify “Latino” or “Latina.” There are major productions of the show all over the country that specifically include that type of language in their notices. And guess what? It works.
“Generally speaking, actors of color don’t bother going in for shows unless it’s really spelled out that they want us,” said Villegas. “If they don’t spell that out then we assume it’s because they’re going to be casting white people. That’s just the truth. If every single character description says ‘this character is not white’ then that’s a good little deterrent.”
There are a lot of things that NSMT could have done that they chose not to, according to Villegas.
So while it is not practical to expect that the ways in which auditions are conducted will change overnight, there is something that can be done to affect change now. Villegas contends that it has to be up to white actors to pass on roles that they should not be playing.
“They have to know when to turn something down and start a conversation rather than auditioning,” she said.
Contreras agrees. “This cast that [NSMT] chose is absolutely incredible,” Contreras said. “They wouldn’t have gotten the roles if they weren’t incredible. But there has to be allies. We can’t do this alone. Essentially we are relying on white creative teams or white casting, and for this we have to [have] allies. With that being said, it’s very important to say that I understand what it’s like to not have a job. I get it. But there are inherently more opportunities for you than there are for me.”
For Constantine Maroulis, American Idol finalist and two-time Tony nominee who plays Che in North Shore’s production, he says that he wishes he were in a position to be able to turn down roles, as Villegas and Contreras suggest.
“That’s not where I’m at,” Maroulis said. “I’m a hard-working actor. I’m a father. I understand people’s concerns, and I don’t think anyone understands it more than I do. I’ve always stood up for equality on every level, and I’m just really happy to get a chance to do this part. If I felt there was extreme prejudice going on here, you fucking know I wouldn’t be here.”
Villegas has no patience for such arguments.
“If you as an actor are okay with continuing to be a part of the problem, that’s fine,” Villegas said. “That’s your choice. But also know that next time you want to say something like ‘fuck Trump,’ I’m going to laugh at you because you don’t put your money where your mouth is. You can’t have it both ways. Be consistent. If you want to support silenced populations, then do it in every aspect of your life.”
If the response and refusal to foster any meaningful dialogue from NSMT hasn’t been reprehensible enough, I came across something far more disturbing by way of Instagram.
Greer Gisy is a member of the ensemble of North Shore’s Evita who has made a career out of performing in the likes of In the Heights and West Side Story. In several Instagram posts that were until very recently public, she is shown repeatedly covered in what appears to be some sort of bronzer or self-tanner for the purpose of passing as Latina on stage.
One caption refers to the fact that she frequently plays Latina roles; a couple of photos show bad, uneven spray tans. Gisy uses hashtags like #gringa, #stillirish, #forthecraft, and #honorarylatinaproblems.
The most recent photo on her Instagram account was of her in costume for Evita, looking similarly bronzed. Which begs the question, if North Shore feels that you don’t need to cast Latinx performers in Evita, then why is one of their actresses employing brownface to—it seems—“pass?”
“We are a community of people who have been marginalized and erased throughout history,” said Luis Eduardo Mora, whose article on onstageblog.com ignited this entire debate. “The theater is no exception. All we ask is that our culture be respected and protected from appropriation. This particular musical was created from appropriation. Giving the community the chance to tell this story is a way to reclaim what was ours to begin with.”
At a time of such cultural precariousness, the theater’s tone-deaf response to the outcry remains staggering to me. Members of the Latinx community are regularly reminded—by our lawmakers and others—they they do not matter and that their stories have no value.
It’s time for North Shore to step up to the plate. Nothing is gained by being on the white side of history.
EVITA. THROUGH 10.8 AT NORTH SHORE MUSIC THEATRE, 62 DUNHAM RD., BEVERLY. NSMT.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.