Dear Muhlenberg College Theater Department,
Hey! How's it going? We've lost touch over the years, but we're finally back in contact, and I think it's time to tell you how I feel. I've sat back for a while because I felt like I wasn't "ethnic enough" to say anything, but when I finally found out the plot of "Wig Out", I knew it was time to say my piece. I want you to know that while I am half Italian, my other half is Puerto Rican and Irish. My mother is first-generation American on both sides, and while people have been telling me being a quarter Puerto Rican doesn't count, I'm done using that as an excuse to ignore racism. On behalf of myself and the other people of color in the Muhlenberg Community, no matter what color that is, I need to tell you what has happened so you can rectify the situation. So please, understand, this is not me, it's you, but I want us to still be friends. You just have to fix some things first.
Do you remember when you did Romeo and Juliet? You put on this amazing production with phenomenal acting, and I really wanted to love it. I almost did. But then I looked at one of my friends in the cast and realized that the only two Asian people in the show played waiters and servants. While I understand that the conversation was about #BlackLivesMatter, a movement I think is extremely important and valid, you didn't need to marginalize another group in order to get your point across. It was made when Act 1 ended. It was made when Paris was shot. It was made, but you took something away from that when you put down another group.
Then there was Gypsy. Gypsy was the Summer Music Theater's first production, one I was really looking forward to since it was the last time I would be seeing one of my friends perform on the Muhlenberg stage. And then the entire play was ruined because a white woman put on yellow face and pretended to be Chinese during the scene at the Chinese Restaurant. Her eye makeup was extremely offensive, and I'm not even Asian, let alone Chinese. My race being diminished to a costume would be so offensive to me, I was really glad that you didn't do that to my race. Oh wait, you did.
A month later, I came back for In the Heights, a production that means the world to me. My mother was raised in low-income communities in Brooklyn and Staten Island. She was the first in her family to go to college. She dated a man who wasn't her race and felt a lot of backlash from it, at least for a while (they have three kids now, thanks, Mom and Dad). My mother is Nina Rosario. So In the Heights has always meant the world to me, because it gives me an insight to how my mother's life was led. And I was so excited to see people like me go up on that stage. Did I see that? Not at all.
I saw my favorite character represented by a black woman. I saw Abuela Claudia represented by a black woman. I saw Carla portrayed by a white woman, though I will admit I really enjoyed Carla's portrayal. I recently found out that the actress behind her had worked every day with the actor who played Usnavi to perfect her accent so that she wouldn't come across as offensive. I'm really impressed by that, and I'm very grateful she took the time to do that, but that is not the point of this piece. I saw more than this, but this is where I want to start. Because of this, Muhlenberg, is your biggest problem: you don't understand that there are different shades of brown.
If we did a production of Miss Saigon, would you have cast a primarily Latin cast to play those parts? If we did a production of Aida, would you have cast an Asian-American actress to play the lead? So why, when you cast In the Heights, did you cast Black women to play two of the main female leads, women who are specifically Latina? I understood casting Vanessa as a Black woman because her race is never specified. But did you really think it was okay to cast a Cuban immigrant and the child of two Puerto Rican immigrants as black women? This isn't about their performances because I loved them. I cried during Abuela Claudia's ballad. This is about the fact that you cast people because they were of minority decent, but didn't bother to cast based on what that decent is. You took the entire Nina and Benny storyline and erased it because you didn't bother to understand the inherent racism between Latin and Black communities. You took a character that is meant to be the matriarch of a community, and a sign of inspiration that you can be an immigrant and still have a good life, and said her heritage didn't matter, it only mattered that she had light skin but curly hair. In the Heights was created by a Puerto Rican to represent Puerto Ricans and other Latinx people in a context where they are rarely represented other than as gangs. This show gives Latinx people a voice, and by ignoring the race of those characters, you ignore the message behind the entire show.
I know you're not going to agree with me. You're going to say "You don't understand the message of what we were trying to do". You're going to say "But we really wanted to follow Lin's policy of racially blind casting". To this I say, that isn't the point of In the Heights, that's the point of Hamilton. I was mad when Jordin Sparks and Corbin Bleu were cast too, don't think I'm reserving this aggression for just Muhlenberg. But this has become a pattern, and it's time to stop. When you make a point to explore plays that discuss racial struggles, please make sure to cast actors and actresses who fit that part. Representation for people of minorities is rare enough as is, and taking the few parts we do have away from each other isn't going to help anything.
I don't want you to think I'll stop seeing your shows, or that I'm ungrateful for what you've done for me. But I think that we need to understand that while representation matters, specific representation matters more. There are so many different shades of skin, not just Black and White. Muhlenberg, you've educated me in almost everything else, but it's time to let your students tell you something, too. I'm so happy that you've started to show representation in your shows, and having racially blind casting in almost all of them, but there's still work to be done.
So Muhlenberg Theater Department, let's make a deal. Here are three things you can do to help:
1) When a part calls for a specific race, cast that part with an actor who identifies with that race.
2) When you are making these shows, ask people of color if they are being properly represented, as you don't know how people feel if you aren't one of the people being represented.
3) Don't generalize people of color. We are many different colors, not just one.
I know we're just beginning to have this conversation, and I'm looking forward to your response. In fact, since this is an open letter, I want everyone to respond. I want to know if I'm going crazy, or if I'm completely off base, or if you share my opinions, or if I'm completely wrong. But Muhlenberg Theater, this letter is mostly for you. You are an award-winning theater department, the best in the country. But you can be even better if you see the different shades of brown, not just one. People of color deserve better. You deserve better. You can do better. And you will.
Quarter-Rican and Proud