In The Heights So White: How NYU Tisch is Preparing Actors of Color for the Real World / by Michela Wiley

Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

The following blog post is re-posted from the original after Mika Wiley moved domain hosts. The original article was posted on May 4th, 2016.

On April, 25 2016 NYU Tisch students received an email from the production office announcing the new StageWorks Season (Tisch Mainstage Shows), which included an audition notice for the first show of the season: In the Heights, by recent Hamilton success Lin Manuel-Miranda. Of course, when I received the email I couldn't help but groan out loud because I knew exactly what this meant: audition rooms full of white actors with tacky, racist accents all leaping up at a shot to play canonically Latin characters.

However, we would think that this wouldn't be a problem since casting directors would look at the script and immediately know who this story talks about and who should be representing it, right? Wrong. Just this past year, Tisch staged a production of Jonathan Larson's RENT, which included (you guessed it!), a white actor in a role they don't belong in the role of Mimi Marquez. Regardless of the amount of protest from students of color and allies, the show went ahead with the casting and erased Mimi's representation in RENT.

So, naturally, when the casting call went out for In the Heights, students of color were immediately on guard for another miscasting repeat. Groups like Radical Artists Aiming for Diversity sent emails to Dean Allyson Green and posted online notices asking white actors to please consider their responsibility to the entire Tisch community and not to accept any roles non-white.

Regardless of the outcry, many white Tisch actors continued to pursue these roles, and understanding that this would happen, students of color contacted Dean Green in order to bring attention to their outrage and fear. Dean Green wrote an email addressed to the entire Department, seemingly to clear up any misunderstandings, but included a tinge of justification for the audition and casting process:

"I also reached out to Tisch Drama alumnus Javier Munoz, who alternated with Lin Manuel Miranda for the lead role of Usnavi in In the Heights and is currently alternating with him in Hamilton. I discussed with Javier the current conversation in the department, and I asked him if he knew about Lin Manuel Miranda’s intent for casting. Javier told me that all should audition. He explained that while it’s wonderful to cast according to the Latinos/as characters, many who were not Latin were cast on Broadway. In that case, he said integrity should be maintained regarding accents and that our students should create authentic, fully fleshed out human beings."

Not only was this email very "All Live Matter"-toned, since it diminishes the problem of diversity and representation in theatre, but the main argument was: because it happened on Broadway, it's okay to happen at Tisch.

Broadway cannot be the standard that Tisch holds itself to. According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, in the 2014-2015 season of New York Theatre, only 30% of roles on New York Stages went to minority actors. The breakdown of this statistic being 17% African American, 9% Asian American, 3% Latino, and all other minorities (including disabled actors) at less than 1%. However, only 22% were Broadway actors -- therefore, 78% of actors on Broadway this past season were white. Though the statistics show a general upward trend from the past 2013-2014 season, which was only 24% on all New York stages, they also still shows a long way to go. Even at the Tony's they are already celebrating the great success of diversity in nominated shows like HamiltonEclipsed, and The Color Purple (especially considering the whole #OscarsSoWhite debacle in the recent past). However, as an aspiring actor and creator, the odds still aren't looking so great, especially considering that a lot these successful shows had roles that were meant specifically for people of color -- just like In the Heights. Even with the knowledge that shows like these can break the white-dominated mold, we are still plagued with whitewashing: Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, or the entire cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings.  Looking out into the real world ahead of non-white actors, I see a place that already has so many odds stacked against us -- and now I don't have to look very far anymore because I can see exactly where this kind of sentiment is now fostered: my very own Tisch Drama Department.

Now, the In the Heights casting process is getting down to the wire, since the announcement will arrive this Friday, so this is a last ditch effort to show what I have noticed that Tisch, and the white actors who are complicit or complacent in this casting process, just simply doesn't get. The fact of the matter is: In the Heights is one of the rare times in which the Latin community can tell their story, be authentically represented, and/or black and brown bodies can be seen on stage. If you are a white actor who wants a part in the show: look around -- there are so many plays and opportunities that await you besides this one. White actors: the math is in your favor, that is part of your white privilege benefiting you once again. Rather than to continually take advantage of that, I ask you to be a part of a movement to start here, at Tisch, to fight for change in the theatre. We will be the next generation of actors, writers, directors, producers, etc., so we need to set the standard -- not allow the standards to set us. I know that some of you may feel victimized because you think we want to take your opportunities away; this business is competitive, but we can't let it make us selfish and ignorant.

I came to Tisch because they promised to best prepare us for what the real world was going to be. I just never realized they would stick so wholeheartedly to that promise: an industry in which people of color are not given equal and or adequate spaces or opportunities to have their voices heard.

“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?" And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” - Junot Díaz