Stephen Adly Guirgis, the New York playwright responsible for such works as Jesus Hopped the A Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, has built a career on gritty, foul mouthed, often heartbreaking plays about the lower depths of New York City. His diverse casts of characters usually reflect the ethnic makeup of the City’s less affluent neighborhoods. His latest play, The Motherf*cker with the Hat, tells the story of a Puerto Rican man trying to get his life straight after being released from prison, struggling with his family and girlfriend as their habits threaten to drag him back down. On Broadway, the play starred Bobby Cannavale, Yul Vasquez, Elizabeth Rodriguez and, famously, Chris Rock in his Broadway debut. The latest production, in Hartford, CT, is not nearly so…um…colorful?
Guirgis isn’t happy with that, and he’s taken to Facebook.
This morning, Guirgis posted the following:
IN HARTFORD CONNECTICUT, THE MAYOR IS PUERTO RICAN. BUT IN THEATERWORKS PRODUCTION OF MY PLAY IN HARTFORD — THE 2 LEAD PUERTO RICAN CHARACTERS ARE PLAYED BY WHITE ACTORS. THE PLAY WAS CAST IN NYC & CONN, AND IF YOU LOOK AT THE BREAKDOWN HERE, YOU WILL SEE THAT NOT ONLY DID THEY NOT CAST LATINOS, THEY DIDN’T EVEN SEEK LATINOS FOR THE 2 LATINO LEADS!!! IF THIS DISTURBS YOU, PLEASE REPOST. NOTHING AGAINST THE ACTORS CAST, BUT THIS IS INDEFENSIBLE BULLSHIT. PLEASE SHARE MY HEADSHAKING ANGER. THANKS!
The post was accompanied by a link to the casting call, which we’ve taken a screenshot of before it gets taken down…
To be fair, the casting for Cousin Julio does specify his Puerto Rican-ness, but it’s worth noting that while it’s considered relevant information for the supporting role, it’s not mentioned in the description of the lead, Jackie. The message is clear, and all too common in casting both in theater and in film; the belief appears to be that audiences will not watch a story with minorities in the lead. This leads to a lack of mainstream movies and television featuring black characters – besides Will Smith, whereas for Latinos, non-Latino actors are all too often cast if they can be browned up, put on an accent, and fake some Spanish. I’ve written about this a couple of times before. The stated policy of “considering actors of all ethnicities” makes the most sense when the cultural makeup of the play’s world isn’t so important to the world of the story.
I’m sure the actors cast will give great performances, but the roles are, notwithstanding, Latino roles in a landscape severely lacking in Latino roles. Given the rare opportunity to put Latino actors on stage actually playing Latino characters, Theaterworks has simply decided not to.
UPDATE: Below is Stephen Adly Guirgis’ statement regarding the casting situation at Theaterworks, posted to his Facebook page this morning.
The two romantic leads in my play were written very specifically as Latinos in their late 30’s — Nuyoricans to be exact. When HOLA contacted me about the casting of the regional premiere of my play in Hartford, it seemed curious to me that Theaterworks had cast two young white actors in their early 20’s to play characters who were quite different from them both age-wise and ethnicity-wise. Since the play was cast in NYC and Hartford, it seemed even more curious to me that actors closer in age and ethnicity could apparently not be found. I believe firmly in casting the best actors for the roles, but when you write a play about two characters who are of a certain age and ethnicity — and it is cast in NYC — it is not unreasonable to expect that the actors who get cast will match up fairly squarely with what you wrote and intended. When HOLA sent me the response they had received from Theaterworks about the casting situation, I was immediately struck by the dismissive tone, the blame shifting, the denial, and quite frankly, the outright lies that Theaterworks response contained. And then I saw Theaterworks’ character breakdowns for the roles that went out for the auditions, and there was no mention of the ethnicity of the two characters in question. It became clear to me that perhaps Theaterworks had no intention of casting Latinos in the first place since they weren’t asking agents to submit Latino actors for these Latino roles. I then began my own dialogue with Theaterworks. The director quickly admitted that his actions were “indefensible”, but Theaterworks itself continued to refuse any accountability or responsibility for the situation, and after several attempts at productive discourse, I came to the unfortunate conclusion that Theaterworks would never cop to any responsibility and that they seemed to be clinging to some logic-challenged notion of; “If we don’t admit fault, then there is no fault”. I am sincerely grateful to Theaterwoks for having produced my play, but my gratitude does not extend to sitting silently while nonsense like this happens. My mother always taught me that there are sins of commission, and sins of omission. I feel strongly that had I just let this situation be swept under a rug, I would have been committing a sin of omission. I believe in casting the best actor for the role regardless of anything — including race. But it is my firm contention that this is not what happened here. Latino actors were willfully denied the opportunity to audition and play the roles that were explicitly written for them in my play. This was not an “artistic choice” to go white and younger with these roles — and if it was, it was a terrible, exclusionary choice that goes directly against the logic of the script. It would have been nice if they had respected me and my play, but this is not about that. It has become about something else. I’ve got nothing to gain from getting involved in this controversy. But right is right. And I believe that anybody who takes the time to learn more about this situation will quickly see that this is not about race or color blind casting or reverse racism or affirmative action. And yet, sadly, the more I reflect on this, the more the words of Bob Dylan keep echoing in my ears; ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. The wind blew foul here. And I will not lend my silence to it. My mother raised me better. And I thank God she did.
Respectfully, Stephen Adly Guirgis
UPDATE 2: HOLA, the Hispanic Organization of Latino Actors, has officially responded to the controversy, after alerting Guirgis to the problem to begin with.
Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) Denounces Inappropriate Casting of TheaterWorks of Hartford, CT’s Production of The Motherf**ker with the Hat
(New York, NY) – The Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) denounces the inappropriate casting of two non-Latinos in the Latino specific roles of “Jackie” and Veronica” in TheaterWorks of Hartford’s current production of The Motherf**ker with the Hat.
As the nation’s longest running arts service and advocacy organization, HOLA is dedicated to expanding the presence of Latino artists in entertainment and media through the cultivation, education and recognition of emerging artists. As such, HOLA strives for accurate, informed and non-stereotyped portrayal of the full spectrum of Latino culture and heritage in all entertainment and media industries. As a trusted organization of the Latino community with a long history of advocacy on behalf of Latino actors and Latino portrayals across all media, HOLA was contacted by audience members for TheaterWorks’ production who were outraged at the casting choices that resulted in the casting efforts made by the theater, the play’s director and the play’s casting director, Pat McCorkle.
Broadway World added:
Especially troubling to HOLA is the fact that while the casting breakdown for the production did not state the ethnicity of the play’s two lead characters, Jackie and Veronica, as Latinos – despite having been written as specifically Latino- that omission stands in stark contrast to the accurate description of the character of “Cousin Julio” (who is Jackie’s cousin) who was cited as specifically Latino, most probably by virtue of the fact that his name makes his ethnicity hard to avoid. Given that the two actors hired to play Jackie and Veronica are also former students of the director, Mr. Thompson, it seems to indicate that the casting efforts made by the director and the casting agency for this production may have been disingenuous at best and exclusionary of Latino acting professionals at worst.
This gets worse and worse.
UPDATE 3: Guirgis himself had a piece in the New York Times this weekend regarding the controversy.
TheaterWorks — intentionally or unintentionally — practiced de facto discrimination against Latino actors who get too few opportunities to compete for roles in the industry to begin with. These roles were specifically Nuyoricans in their late 30’s, and not a single actor of that stripe was even invited to audition. I saw the production. I took the cast out for drinks afterwards. They are talented, nice people.
But what I saw on that stage was young, white, otherwise talented actors who were regrettably ill-equipped to even approach a three dimensional rendering of the characters they were assigned to portray. And the entirely white audience on the night I saw the show ate it up like pie. It was surreal. I felt like I was in a time warp. It felt like I was witnessing something that I had only read about in history books. It felt like a modern day minstrel show. And all this in a city with a 40 percent Latino population, and in a play cast, not in Indiana or Wyoming, but New York City and Hartford.
Read the whole piece. It’s great!