“Everybody’s got a production of West Side Story or In The Heights under their belts because that’s all there is. There are not a lot of options,” says Ana Villafañe, who stars as Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet! on Broadway, about her almost entirely Latinx cast. “It’s great to be in a brand-new musical that gives us another opportunity to tell our story.”
In addition to On Your Feet!, the 2015-2016 Broadway season also saw the rise of Hamilton, written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, of course. This summer, Jaime Camil and Bianca Marroquín made history in Chicago as the first time two Mexican actors headlined a Broadway musical. Is this progress? “This past year has been so great, but I hope it isn’t a fad,” says Robin De Jesús, who has starred on Broadway in In The Heights and La Cage Aux Folles. “I’m still wary to see the consistency in it.”
While he thinks there is a greater mindfulness about diversity these days, DeJesús says that many Latinx roles that are written by non-Latinx writers still tend to be stereotypical gangsters and drug dealers.
“What’s an even bigger issue is the lack of complexity in a lot of the characters,” De Jesús explains. “A lot of time the characters are very one-dimensional, and I feel like a lot of the best work that happens for Hispanic actors is when a role is written with no ethnicity in mind—when a Hispanic actor happens to casually get cast in it.”
For example, the character he plays now—the Academic in Jordan Seavey’s Homos, or Everyone in America, at Labyrinth Theatre Company—can be played by any ethnicity, according to the script, and De Jesús says it’s the most complex, fascinating character he’s ever played.
De Jesús is conscious about the types of roles he takes, but at the same time, he says that sometimes actors have to “pick and choose when we sell out.” He admits that he sought out the role of Boq in Wicked, a role that is “open ethnically but rarely filled ethnically,” to pay the bills, but was surprised by the creatively fulfilling experience he had. More importantly, he would forget that he was one of the few Latinx Boqs until someone would bring it up.
“I was grateful that someone else saw that, noticed it, and appreciated it, but it was comforting that it wasn’t a conversation too, because I think ultimately that would be the ideal world,” he says. “I don’t think there will ever be a world where we don’t discuss race and ethnicity, because our uniqueness is what makes us all special and interesting, but I think it would be really cool to live in a world where you didn’t think it was cool that a person of a specific race got to play a certain role. It would be great if that was the norm for everyone.”
Mandy Gonzalez, who starred alongside De Jesús in In The Heights and is currently starring as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton on Broadway, has been able to perform roles not specifically written for Latinas, such as Elphaba in Wicked and Amneris in Aida. “I have been cast as many different things, but being Latina is always a part of me and will always be a part of whatever character I play because it’s who I am,” she says. Gonzalez actually moved to New York from California because she felt like there would be more opportunities. In Los Angeles, she was told that she would have to change her name to get work. “I decided to keep my last name because it’s important to me and it’s who I am, and my family fought very hard to be a part of this country,” she says.
Villafañe also lived in Los Angeles before moving to New York to do On Your Feet! and had similar challenges. “The auditions that I would get sometimes were very frustrating,” she says. “I didn’t want to go in to play a maid. I didn’t want to go in to play the victim of gang crime or the pregnant Latina. It was constantly the same narrative.”
She adds that playing Estefan on Broadway shows that it’s possible to move beyond the stereotype. “There is not one person on our stage in our show that has a knife or a gun, and that’s just unheard of,” she adds.
That’s also why In The Heights was so unusual at the time. “I felt very proud to be standing onstage with a Latino cast written by Latinos in a way that was very positive and a story that portrayed us as we are—people who are hardworking and trying to send our kids to college and trying to make it through the every day,” says Gonzalez.
Even after In The Heights, people often expect shows with diverse casts to deal overtly with race. Brian Quijada, whose one-man show Where Did We Sit on the Bus? was produced in the fall by Ensemble Studio Theatre, hopes that in the future, audiences won’t expect these plays to talk about victimization. “Nobody goes to a Eugene O’Neill play and says, ‘Oh man. Why didn’t that white character talk about their privilege?'” he says.
Where Did We Sit on the Bus? is about “how does this Latin kid fit into the black and white spectrum that is America,” as Quijada puts it, and premiered in March at Chicago’s Storefront Theater before coming to New York. Next it’s going to Boise Contemporary Theatre in January 2017 and then back to Chicago at the Victory Gardens Theater in summer 2017. Quijada is also currently working on a hip-hop adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper set in the future, when white is no longer the majority.
Culture Clash—a performance troupe blending comedy and theatre—has been creating its own opportunities for more than 30 years. Formed by Ric Salinas, Richard Montoya, and Herbert Siguenza in San Francisco in 1984, it relocated to Los Angeles in 1992. Though Gonzalez and Villafañe report having difficulty in California, Salinas thinks there are plenty of opportunities in Los Angeles right now, thanks to several small theatres and the opportunity to self-produce. Salinas says that part of his troupe’s success came from never turning down a gig, even if it meant following Alvin and the Chipmunks at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. Culture Clash’s satiric humor came out of its members feeling like second-class citizens.
“People have preconceived notions of what an American is,” Salinas says. “We just have to show that we are a part of this fabric. By being very specific about who we are, it becomes universal. People can relate to it. Woody Allen does a very Jewish type of film, but I can relate to some of it. And I think people can relate to our culture if they just care to open their eyes and their heart.”
But actors who don’t write have to wait for the right stories to tell. “We’re not as in charge as the directors, the writers, the producers,” says Villafañe. “They’re the ones that have the power to create these stories and to give us that voice. From the acting side, it’s a matter of staying hungry and staying alert and open.”
Gonzalez says that more Latinx people need to be in those positions as writers, directors, and producers, and it is up to the community to support them. “It’s no longer about us and them,” she says. “We’re bringing the work we believe in to the forefront and that changes everything. I think Hamilton is an incredible example of that.”
Although Hamilton is indeed changing the game, there is still racism in the theatre community, even if it is not typically blatant or malicious. For example, when Culture Clash tours the country, they are sometimes stopped backstage by security guards who do not realize they are performers. When De Jesús was at the Drama Desk Awards after-party the year he was nominated for La Cage, a man mistook him for a waiter and took a shrimp right off of his plate.
Sometimes even compliments can have racial undertones. Quijada is frequently compared to John Leguizamo and Miranda, which he finds flattering and humbling because he looks up to them. Still, he points out, the only common denominator among them and himself is ethnicity; otherwise they’re quite different performers. “Nobody compares Matt Damon to Jared Leto—they’re just white dudes,” he says. “I get it and it’s very nice, but maybe someday in the future, we’ll just compare the two because they are both American.”
At this uncertain and divided time in our country, this last point is especially important. “I want to make sure that my character’s feelings are being heard in the best way possible, so that if people are not being reflected themselves, they are at least discovering empathy for someone unlike themselves,” De Jesús says. “The biggest issue with our country right now is a lack of empathy or a lack of knowing anything unlike yourself, which is another reason why it is important to have more Hispanics and all minorities visible onstage. Otherwise, people have no way of knowing anything other than themselves, and that’s what’s slowing down a lot of the progress in the country.”