Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theater is in hot water for their recent decision to cast a white actor in a Latino role, first played by the show’s writer Lin-Manuel Miranda. Their production of In the Heights will star Jack DeCesare, of Italian heritage, as Usnavi. The show is set in Dominican-American neighborhood in New York’s Washington Heights, so casting a white actor makes no sense to the story.
Unfortunately, this is not the first theater company to cast a white actor as Usnavi. The current production of In the Heights at London’s King’s Cross Theatre stars Sam Mackay in the role. Despite some backlash and questions from the press, Mackay defended his casting as Usnavi by saying he “can flow with the best of ’em.” To most people of color, saying you can dance and sing with “soul” is not reason enough to appropriate and try to represent their cultures.
These choices come at an especially awkward time, as diversity in the arts is a hot topic this year. The year began with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and Miranda’s own hit Hamilton is one of the most diverse Broadway shows in history. This year’s Tony Awards saw more wins for black actors than ever before. Most recently, a one-night-only concert based on the 1998 film The Prince of Egypt because it received so much backlash; the film is based in Africa but the majority of the cast and all of the stars were white.