Hedy Weiss Responds to IN THE HEIGHTS Casting Controversy

Hedy Weiss Responds to IN THE HEIGHTS Casting Controversy

Hedy Weiss, theater and dance critic at the Chicago Sun-Times responded to an article on the Huffington Post about the recent controversy over Porchlight Music Theater’s casting of IN THE HEIGHTS in which an actor of Italian descent was placed in the lead role of “Usnavi”, a character hailing from the Dominican Republic. Weiss herself received some flack for a Sun-Times article announcing the cast of the musical as “unusually ‘authentic'”:

Weiss-post

Those quote marks in her status, and the use of the word “authentic” itself being much discussed on social media.

Now, on a Huffington Post piece titled Why White Actors Should Not Be Cast In Latinx Roles—On Broadway Or OffWeiss has made her first response to the casting issue in the comments section, saying “Do you think Jonathan Pryce should be banned from playing Shylock because he is not Jewish? Do you think you should only recruit murderers in Cook County jail to play Macbeth? It is called acting.”

Hedy Comment

Pryce, a white actor, was the subject of a controversy during the original London production of MISS SAIGON when he was cast as “The Engineer”, which he performed in heavy makeup to transform into the Asian character. When Pryce was to lead the original Broadway cast, Actor’s Equity Association barred him from performing the role. Producer Cameron Mackintosh then threatened to cancel the entire production, and Equity balked.

“This [is a] deeply troubling response from a chief theater critic” said Chay Yew, artistic director of Victory Gardens in a Facebook post. “By her ‘argument’, then Mr. Pryce was right to play the Engineer in MISS SAIGON. What next? More brown face? Black face? Yellow face?”

The casting of IN THE HEIGHTS, which to our knowledge is otherwise appropriately Latinx, has been the subject of much discussion recently in the Chicago theater community and beyond. Porchlight responded to the casting decision citing the legalities and community outreach in a PerformInk blog post.

Update: 7/31/16 11:25 A.M
A previous version of this article stated that the comment had been taken down. It has not. We also failed to mention Jonathan Pryce was eventually allowed to perform in the original Broadway Production of Miss Saigon. The article has been updated to reflect both points.

Update: 7/31/16 2:05 p.m. 
Hedi Weiss has since addressed the backlash from her comment via her Facebook page. 

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 2.04.56 PM

About author

Abigail Trabue

Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue

Comments
  • Howard Sherman#1

    July 31, 2016

    Jonathan Pryce was not barred by Actors Equity from performing in MISS SAIGON. He originated the role of The Engineer on Broadway, despite significant protest over the utilization of yellowface, and won The Tony Award for his performance.

    Reply
  • Abigail Trabue#2

    July 31, 2016

    I have added an update that more clearly defines what happened with Pryce regarding Saigon. AEA initially barred Pryce from the role, but after much controversy, including Mackintosh threatening to pull Saigon and not even open it, AEA allowed Pryce to perform the role.
    http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/10/theater/jonathan-pryce-miss-saigon-and-equity-s-decision.html?pagewanted=all

    Howard, thanks for the comment as I can see that without more backstory it could be interpreted that Pryce never played the role, which as we all know, is inaccurate.

    Reply
  • Wm. Bullion#3

    July 31, 2016

    Interesting too, besides putting quotes around “authentic” is the subtle dig at Porchlight for this being “UNUSUALLY” “authentic.” She manages to insult just about everybody here.

    Reply
    • Stefan Brün#4

      July 31, 2016

      perhaps, like some rabbinical commentaries, you go way deeper, insightful no doubt, than her ability would allow intended. I suspect a far drumpfer belligerent privileged loud-mouthedness, hitting levers of known buzz, in a grigiod haze.

      Reply
  • John G#5

    July 31, 2016

    Something to note in all of this is that the man chosen to play Usnavy looks Italian only after the fact. Had this actor came into the audition room and read for the role I would not have asked him his ethnicity nor would that be allowed. Knowing what the auditors knew and assuming he was the most talented I’m not sure if anyone who would have made a different in that moment. Also the original complaint came from an actor who did not get the role.

    Reply
    • Marie Y#6

      August 1, 2016

      So the assumption that any actor who doesn’t get a role and “complains” about it is doing so bc of sour grapes (when it could be that that actor for reasons unknown to us decided not to audition and protested anyway on behalf of the community is, in your opinion, untenable? If so, I would recommend a reconsideration. Otherwise the implication you are suggesting is (for Chicago-area actors anyway, I can’t speak for actors anywhere else) a gross injustice/stereotype/slam to actors everywhere (bc there is more collaboration in the industry than one might automatically think). Not everyone in this industry is as competitive and back-stabbing as such a comment implies, for if that were the case nothing would EVER get produced and/or the conditions under which anything GOT produced would be miserable indeed.

      Reply
  • Norman Jackson#7

    August 1, 2016

    Interesting to note that a Caucasian actor played the same role in the West End production of In the Heights, to which Mr. Miranda attended and thoroughly enjoyed. Guess the whitewashing was okay to LMM just as long as the cash is pouring in. But very interesting that Hedy Weiss has been able to deflect a lot of the vitriol that should be kept on Brenda Didier and the Porchlight production team. I really feel for the young man and the rest of the cast who are being bombarded with so much hate, and, for the most part, from their own friends.

    Some of the comments on FB have been absolutely horrendous! But interesting to see that virtually none of these comments made by Chicago’s actors are being directed towards the actual members of the team (director, music director, choreographer) who did the actual hiring. These actors surely know which side of the bread their butter is on. Real easy for many of them shouting for the young man to step down from the role, yet no one refusing to ever audition for this company ever again. Hmmmm…

    Many have posted that white directors and producers should not even be mounting such a show because they don’t have the background. Wow! So, should these people only do shows about the “white experience” (whatever that is)? So even if a white director grew up in squalor with a single mom and there are POC directors who grew up in affluent suburbs with both parents; then just by shear virtue of their race/color the POC are better suited to direct a show set in an impoverished neighborhood with POC characters? And as for the white director? They should just stick to directing Pride and Prejudice and Okla*freakin*homa, right?

    Reply
    • Norman Jackson#8

      August 1, 2016

      And this just in…when Corbin Bleu, a non-Latinx actor was chosen as his Broadway replacement for the same role that has caused such an uproar here, LMM responded to all the negative comments left on Broadwayworld’s website, defending his choice for hiring not only him, but other non-Latinx performers for HIS show.
      First of all, thank you for taking the time
      to write a message in full sentences, much less make it rhyme.
      You’d be amazed at all the horrid punctuation I see
      e.g. “I-L-Y, ROTFL, OK G2G.”
      Now as for Corbin Bleu, chalk it up to ambition.
      The dude came in and straight SMASHED his audition.
      But can he “hold the flow?” Well, I know the part, I did it.
      We’d NEVER cast someone unless they proved that they could spit it.
      When he came in the room, I ain’t think that he would get it.
      He won us over, pa. You can tell the haters I said it.

      Now THIS is sensitive, and I’m hesitant to begin again
      But I’m a Puerto Rican-Mexican; I PLAYED Dominican.
      And everyone’s from everywhere, we are reppin’ so many things
      Andrea’s Venezuelan and Jewish, Karen’s like twenty things
      So yes, I see your point, but ethnicity’s just a factor
      They’ve gotta play the part: in the end, dude is an ACTOR.

      Javi is amazing. Jon Rua is too.
      Michael Balderrama makes the drama ring true.
      They’re big footsteps; I wrote a really big shoe.
      This one is Lin-approved: Mr. Corbin Bleu.

      Reply

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