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Oh What a Circus

This past week, Marriott Theatre announced the cast for their upcoming production of Evita . To the surprise and dismay of some in the community, only one person of Latino heritage was included. In an open letter to Marriott Theatre, Chicago actor, Bear Bellinger invited the institution to "explain and address the situation" and charged that they "have fallen out of touch with the need for minority perspectives in our stage conversations." Marriott executive producer, Terry James replied in an emailed statement that they were"deeply saddened by the letter that Mr. Bellinger posted," and that "it undermines a continuing partnership with Actors‘ Equity Association in efforts to encourage ALL ethnicities to join in the audition process. The theatre announced Latino director/choreographer Alex Sanchez for Evita and encouraged all ethnicities to audition. The same is done for every production and stated in the audition notice."

The theater's response triggered many reactions within the Chicago theater community. Below are a few of the artists who graciously gave us their time to provide a response...

I'm grateful to Bear Bellinger for penning his open letter calling attention to Marriot's poor work in casting Evita. It would seem that Marriot should be more deeply saddened by their lack of effectivness in properly staffing their artistic team in one of the most culturally diverse artistic communities in the world, rather than by the negative attention their shoddy work has drawn. We can only assume the insensitive and inadequate response to Mr. Bellinger's letter is due to their deep sadness.­­

– Aaron Todd Douglas

Actor, Director, Ensemble Member at Congo Square Theater

I'm tired of being asked why my UNCLE VANYA adaptation states that an all-white cast is not permitted. The answer is - because those are my politics. Because work that represents the city we live in leads to a better conversation. Because it's the right damn thing to do. Some day, when we are done with controversies like this - or Nightingale, or Circle's "Bollywood" Pippin, etc, etc - maybe I won't have to explicitly state that. But today, I do. The playing field needs to be aggressively leveled - possibly razed - and until it is, postings that state "we are seeking a diverse cast" are simply not enough.

– Lavina Jadhwani

Director, Artistic Associate at Oak Park Festival Theatre& Silk Road Rising

I think the thing that bugs me the most about this whole situation are the people who confuse representation with skin tone. I've talked to many people who defend the choice under the argument of "Well, Argentineans of that time were closer to white than Latino" They say this without considering that it's not about skin tone. My Grandmother was 100% puerto rican and white AF. Latinos come in all colors. They claim a white person in these roles looks more "accurate". To my eyes, I can't understand how a white woman named Hannah is more accurate than an ACTUAL Latina. The thing that bugs me second is that its tiiiiiired. It's safe and pandering and will never have an artistic impact on the community which is the whole point of making art, right?

– Diego Colón

Actor, Musician, Ensemble Member with Barrel of Monkeys

It's incorrect to say "it's easy" to find the culturally appropriate cast, to find the talent that encompasses the singing, dancing, storytelling abilities needed to put on your production, to enrich your database with new faces and body types and different pool of actors you had ten years ago. But it IS possible and it IS the right thing to do and it IS how we can continue to move forward. Creating an ensemble can be a frustrating puzzle in any scenario. But if it is truly important to you, you do the leg work -- you attend productions featuring diverse talent, you leave your neighborhood, you have conversations, whatever you were doing before, you do things differently. The talent doesn't always know you're looking for them. But you have to truly be looking for them. The right thing to do is sometimes the hard thing to do. But please do the right thing. And if you did all those things...We would all love for you to outline your inclusive casting practice - I welcome that explanation. But it has to be more than adding the required AEA copy of "all ethnicities encouraged to audition" tagged on to the end of a casting call. We have to hold each other up to higher standards than this. You do good work. You can do better. We can do better.

- Emjoy Gavino

Actress, Casting Director at Gift Theatre

It is difficult to imagine a way forward if we can’t take accountability for decision-making or hear criticism as an opportunity to have a frank dialogue and improve together. It is a constant and absolutely imperfect process, but we as allies must all take responsibility and listen openly in order to affect real and immediate change in the representation of diverse artists on our stages and beyond.

- Marti Lyons

Director, Ensemble Member with Gift Theatre and Sideshow Theatre

The Marriott's response to Bear Bellinger's open letter criticizing their predominantly non-Latino cast of EVITA is sadly what one comes to expect from an institutionalized, commercial theatre. While some (like Goodman and Steppenwolf) are active and valuable participants in the conversation for inclusive casting, the Marriott's response is systemic of the greater problem. It seems as if the concept of casting this piece true heritage was never a part of their conversation and if it was, they didn't make enough of a commitment to see it through. It is not merely enough to "encourage all ethnicities to audition", you will at some point have to invite us to sit at the table. And not just when you need to "add color" to a show, but for every show. Unfortunately, it seems as if institutions like the Marriott only take this issue seriously when they are called out on it. I hope that moving forward all theatre companies, regardless of size or budget, have these conversations sooner rather than later in preproduction and understand the effects how such insensitivity impacts our community and industry.

– Danny Bernardo Actor, Playwright, Artistic Associate Emeritus at Porchlight Music Theater

I thought the artistic director totally missed the point when he was proud of the fact he cast a Latino in role of the King of Siam. Just because you have a couple of people of color here and there, you should not think that is enough. You would think with all the reactions to other theaters (around the country) casting of white actor in non-white roles, they would be more sensitive or aware. They seem to be in a suburban bubble. I think people are tired of business as usual. Also it makes good business sense when people see people that look like them on stage they tend to show up. When I designed the workshop of the King of Yees, I never saw so many Asians at the theater. Another thing is that the people who work behind the scenes tend to be mostly white also. Slowly I am seeing more designers and crew of color but it is still mostly white. The thing about lack of designers of color is more complicated. I just don't see a lot of people of color studying theater design. If the director and production team are all white then the danger is that we see the story and the characters through a white gaze no matter how enlightened, well intentioned, well research, well prepared the designer is. I am not saying you should always hire a designer of color but it It helps to have people of color on the team, be it the dramaturg, assistant director or director you can go to ask the straight questions. Also you can talk to the actor themselves.

– Christine Pascual

Freelance Costume Designer currently at American Players Theatre

They basically said we have read your letter and want you to know we did legal bare minimum to reach out to persons of color for casting and are not going to mention any intention of changing our behavior. He goes on to mention his personal injury for the reputation but no mention of effort to amend that reputation. Also, responsible casting is not a ratio. What is this 22 out of 26 BS? You don't get to do a white lead in an August Wilson play and claim it was mostly black. You don't get to do one "diverse show" a season and say we speak for the people. It's about the specific roles. People of color are not just quotas when telling their own stories. Promoting advocacy and awareness and responsibility comes from the top down. The problem with privilege is that defense makes more money than change. Apologies are not profitable. Unfortunately, this response wreaks of privilege and it is the community's responsibility to reduce the fiscal and employee reinforcement they receive for irresponsible and frankly, out of touch, behavior. It's 2016. What rock are they under? His response makes no mention of any effort for responsible casting in shows that don't list persons of color in the breakdown. So not only are you failing in shows that technically and ethically require POC, but as an organization, their effort outside the are minimum seems to be less than even the bare minimum. And it is typical of the privileged mindset to blame the POC for not turning out to their auditions.... Ugh, sorry, my mind is just tossing and I'm just so disappointed in their reply to a letter that was just so respectful and sincerely seemed to aim to start a much needed conversation.

- Hannah Gomez Freelance Actress, currently working at 16th Street Theatre

I find it incredibly insulting and difficult to believe that an organization with that amount of resources couldn't take the time, effort and thought to seek out the appropriate actors for their roles. One sentence in an audition notice simply does not suffice.Furthermore, their insistence that they "don't give much thought," to the diversity of playwrights and actors they decide to produce or employ is, well, just that, thoughtless.

What we do is a privilege and responsibility. It is a responsibility to be both reflective and instructive. Reflective of the world we actually live in, instructive to its participants in that we should all be able to learn some thing about who we are and who we want to be. By white washing "Evita," the Marriott has shirked this responsibility and regarded that privilege carelessly. It is disappointing, to say the least, and we as a community are right to question them. This is a prime example of the problems that occur when diversity in every way, at every level of our industry is not prioritized. When leadership is homogeneous, and unable to empathize with the experiences of the larger and more diverse community in which they act as "gatekeepers," their actions reflect that, and nothing changes.

– Deanna Myers

Actress, Ensemble Member with Barrel of Monkeys

The producers of the Marriott are ignorant of their current events as well as the past. Eva Peron, a descendent of Basque immigrants to Argentina, was a champion of the poor, the workers, and other disenfranchised communities. To cast someone from the dominant culture (European and White) as Evita, a whitewashing narrative is taking place in the name of artistic license.

This Hemisphere of the Americas – that includes North, South, and Central territories – is not the same one that allowed EVITA to emerge in the 80’s. The world is much more fluid, dynamic, multiethnic – and to ignore that in 21st century is akin to claiming men should only perform the works of Shakespeare.

Has EVITA, along with WEST SIDE STORY, reached its MIKADO moment? Has those musical’s origins – with its inauthentic portrayal of ethnic or foreign life, written by white men and originally played by a predominantly white casts - to be done today? Or should it not be done if it can’t be cast authentically?

Musicals that take place within a Hispanic/ Latino culture but that have historically excluded any creative or artistic input from Hispanic / Latino artists and performers haven’t necessarily had to face such a measurement in any significant way. Until today. Because today, there are no excuses, and to claim that all efforts were made for diversity in casting falls rings false. I’m surprised that the producers didn’t cite the recent casting call of ‘Hamilton’ in Chicago as the reason they couldn’t find any performers of color.

- Tlaloc Rivas

Director, Playwright, Co-Founder of The Latina/o Commons

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