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Should Latina/o Roles Be Cast with Non-Latina/o Actors?

While issues of casting and diversity in theater have likely always been around, several recent controversies in 2015 have led to a new crop of discussions about casting white actors in ethnically-specific roles.

This year alone, issues arose  after the New York Gilbert & Sullivan  Players released promotional materials for The Mikado that used yellow face, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop was cast with a white actor playing Martin Luther King, Jr., and Llyod Suh’s Jesus in India was cast with two white actors and one mixed-raced actor playing roles specifically written for South Asian characters.

In light of these controversies, playwright Marisela Treviño Orta and I began brainstorming one night on Facebook about how Café Onda and the Latina/o Theatre Commons could intervene in this discussion. We asked the following questions to 5 Latina/o playwrights: Magdalena Gómez, Irma Mayorga, Marisela Treviño Orta, Elaine Romero, and Martín Zimmerman.

Should Latina/o roles be cast with non-Latina/o actors? How do you approach productions at colleges and universities when your play calls for characters of color but the acting pool at the university may or may not have the actors? How are you thinking about casting?

The responses that we received are rich in their content, diversity, and style. It’s worth checking out the essay for Magdalena Gómez’s poem, “Casting Call,” alone. Here are a few teasers:

“I’ve been fortunate enough to see university faculty lead efforts to diversify departments by programming work they needed to go outside their known actor pool to cast. These faculties just firmly believed they would find good actors of color to fill those roles if they worked hard enough. And 100 percent of the time they found those actors of color.” — Martín Zimmerman

“Can my work be done at a university level without causing harm? And by harm I mean perpetuating brown face?” —Marisela Treviño Orta

 

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Sleeping Weazel’s Badass Festival at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, featuring Robbie MCauley, Magdalena Gomez, and Kate Snodgrass. Photo by David Marshall. 

 

Please visit Café Onda for the entire essay and to add your voice to the discussion!

Interview with Josefina López

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Chicana playwright Josefina López about her work as a playwright, mentor, and community leader at CASA 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights.

López founded CASA 0101Boyle Heights Her@s Josefina Lopez - JC De Luna, August 2010 Theater in Boyle Heights in 2000 to nurture the future storytellers of Los Angeles and to provide a space for Latin@ art-making on Los Angeles’s Eastside. This year marks the company’s fifteenth year—its quinceañera—of producing community-engaged theatre and cultural arts production. Here, López reflects on the past, present, and future of CASA 0101 as well as on her own position as a playwright, mentor, and community leader.

“One way we heal ourselves is by giving to others that which we wish was given to us. When our heart can expand to be big enough to be of service to others, our problems tend to disappear, because most of our problems come from being and seeing ourselves as small and insignificant.” – Josefina López

Please see Café Onda to read the entire interview.

Luis Valdez’ Actos and El Teatro Campesino

In 1965, Luis Valdez ushered in a new movement of civil rights protest with his formation of El Teatro Campesino, or the Farmworkers’ Theatre. Valdez’ theatre movement served as the cultural ambassador to Cesar Chávez’ civil rights activism by creating actos and performing them for other farmworkers in an attempt to bolster the strength of the union.

El Teatro Campesino was a troupe of striking farmworkers who performed brief actos, or commedia dell’arte-style sketches as a form of agit-prop theatre. This was a political theatre firmly based on improvisations of socio-political issues of the time. Nothing was traditional about this movement; these were Mexican-American/Chicano farmworkers who were eager to develop theatrical statements about their condition in an effort to ignite change.

On the surface, actos are essentially skits, but they transcend the simplicity of skits due to their social justice background. Valdez states, “We could have called them ‘skits,’ but we lived and talked in San Joaquín Spanish so we needed a name that name sense to the Raza.” Valdez’ actos were for the people by the people created to both educate and entertain. Its roots are in Bertolt Brecht’s lehrstucke (learning pieces) and agit-prop theatre of revolutionary Russia. Chicanos had issues that need to be expressed and the acto was the most efficient way to make a political statement and demonstrate the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo in the United States.

According to Valdez, the 5 goals of the acto are:

  1. Inspire the audience to social action
  2. Illuminate specific points about social problems
  3. Satirize the opposition
  4. Show or hint at a solution
  5. Express what people are thinking

Perhaps most notable is that the actos were created primarily through improvisation based on the experiences of the participants. Therefore, there was hardly a distinction between the worker and the actor; they were one in the same. By utilizing the personal experiences and stories of the workers, El Teatro Campesino was capable of creating theatre that accurately reflected its participants and audience. Valdez affirms, “In a Mexican way, we have discovered what Brecht is all about. If you want unbourgeois theater, find unbourgeois people to do it.” This aspect helped the Teatro to be more effective.

The acto in its most basic form only needs 2 characters and a conflict – information about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing. The conflict is the essential element that is necessary; through the acto, the participants seek a solution to the conflict. The actos worked to expose the problems of Chicano/Mexican-American workers. For decades, if not centuries, they had been an important workforce in the United States, especially in California. Far too often, their struggles had gone unnoticed or ignored. The Chicano Teatro Movement sought to eradicate their absence from history by giving the group voice. El Teatro Campesino marked the birth of the contemporary Chicano Theatre Movement and inspired other similar groups to follow their lead and illustrate the problems surrounding the farm workers.

El Teatro Campesino would travel around California and perform their actos at farms, fields, college campuses, churches, theaters, and community halls in an effort to create a cathartic experience for theatergoers.