As a kid I loved the film West Side Story. Even then I thought the choreographed fight dancing was cheesy but I still finger snapped along in my uncle’s living room to the Sharks singing “America.” Only when I got older did I realize that the film was famous for Natalie Wood playing Maria. She was the lady my uncle and I poked fun at for her overacting and shitty Puerto Rican accent. I always knew she didn’t fit. Unlike Rita Moreno’s Academy Award winning performance of Anita, not only was Natalie Wood not Latina, she also didn’t sing any of her own songs. She was overdubbed and given brown foundation to appear more exotic. As a Puerto Rican, we like to say her performance was porqueria! The film became famous for something else, whitewashing Latinx roles.
When I found out the Des Moines Playhouse had picked West Side Story for their season I was immediately concerned. The theatre has no ties to the Latinx community and our presence there has been severely lacking. Just the season prior they whitewashed a Latinx role in a production of Sister Act. The character portrayed had to speak Spanish and his accent (or in this case, lack of) was the butt of many jokes. Knowing this, I brought my concerns to The Playhouse with hope that they would do the type of outreach required to cast the show appropriately and honestly. I auditioned, was called back, and offered the role of Bernardo. Then I found out only TWO actors whom identify as Latinx were cast. TWO. …as in 2 DOS.
That means that the rest of the ENTIRE production team and cast are not Latinx. Only after I voiced my concerns with casting was some reactive scrambling done. They tried a half-hearted attempt at outreach and a small second round of auditions. It was a ‘too little too late’ approach and didn’t fix the problem. No Latinos showed up. So, the show must go on right? As we Puerto Ricans also like to say, Mierda! We have a thriving Latinx community here in Central Iowa; one that even hosts a huge Latino Heritage festival once a year. I have been a part of the community for half a decade and I assure you there are plenty of actors of color that were available to play the roles required. The problem was due to a lack of outreach into our communities and accepting the act of whitewashing in previous productions. The Playhouse has been around for 100 years. That’s practically double the age of West Side Story. They have an established history in Des Moines and they made the conscious decision in choosing a show that requires a diverse cast with Latinx roles. They also made the conscious choice to NOT reach out into those communities beforehand. They must be held to a higher standard than this.
Whitewashing in theatre is notoriously frowned upon and creates environments of cultural erasure in the arts and our society. The excuse that “well, no one showed up” to audition therefore we just do it anyway sends the wrong message and is an act of acceptance for the greater problem of racism. I and the other Latinx actor cast in the show have chosen to walk away from this production because we cannot with good conscience allow this type of “business as usual” to continue. This means that the production has ZERO Latinx presence. The show is currently in rehearsals and my role and others have been replaced with white actors. We have been erased from this narrative just as we have been in other productions and adaptations time and time before. I’ve decided the time I would have spent in rehearsals I will now commit to ensuring that our Des Moines Latinx community be better represented in the arts. I am working to organize a forum to discuss this issue and similar issues with cultural misrepresentation in the local arts community. We have the right to tell our own narratives.
Pulitzer Prize winning Puerto Rican poet, composer, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda ends his masterpiece musical Hamilton with the line; “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” I’m here to make sure that we as proud Latinx people always have that opportunity.