Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” tells the story of three days in a Dominican barrio of New York City. It’s a world away from Roanoke, Virginia. And it’s a story that nearly wasn’t told because a white actress was cast as its Latina female lead.
But because of its outspoken cast, the show is going on and it’s going on “united, from a place of understanding through really listening,” said Brenda Ortiz, who recently stepped into that role.
Mill Mountain Theatre, Roanoke’s professional regional theater, announced it was opening its 2022 season with the show but after being accused of whitewashing the character of Vanessa by casting a white actress initially, the theater toyed with canceling the production altogether before recasting and finding a new director.
“Mill Mountain Theatre apologizes for the brief cancelation of In the Heights,” said an official statement. “We understand and acknowledge the mistakes made in the show’s pre-production regarding casting as well as subsequent actions that led to this decision. This was not the right action to take, and we are sorry. Respecting and creating opportunities for diverse voices is critical, especially for this production. The theatre is committed to learning from this experience as we move forward with the cast.”
The opening has been pushed back a week to allow rehearsal and will now run April 13-24.
“In the Heights” opened on Broadway on 2008 after a successful run and was nominated for 13 Tony awards, winning four. By Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, the story is set over the course of three days, in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. The film adaptation was released last year.
It’s a play that’s described as a “dream” by Ortiz and her fellow actors, for its representation of Latinx characters as love interests and aspirational professionals, and for its complex musical arrangements and deft lyrics.
Prior to the cancellation, the venue released a statement on March 16 stating the actor playing Vanessa “has respectfully withdrawn from the show, effective immediately out of respect for the role and in support of the Latinx community” and promising to “do better and focus on telling diverse stories and building a better community.”
Previously, multiple members of the cast spoke out on social media about the issues of casting in the play and the ups and downs of cancellation. Robert Gabriel, who is playing the Piragua Guy, was among the cast members who spoke out on social media last weekend, tagging Miranda and getting the attention of Broadway media. Broadway World broke the story early this week.
He was troubled, as the rest of the cast was, that Vanessa—the most sought-after role after lead Usnavi in the play—was not “latinx… but a blonde haired blue eyed Italian woman.”
After making their position known, they were called into a meeting, which he described:
“We, 16 latinx people, showed up in our sweatpants and sandals only to be met by very well-dressed board members the moment we walked into the room. We sat facing them. It literal [sic] looked like a page from a history book. White people on one side of the room and brown people on the other.”
He tweeted that after the cast spoke out and the show was briefly canceled, he felt that that decision was a message to “Latinix actors… you’re not worth the trouble.”
Following the discussion, on Sunday the theater contacted cast members to let them know they were canceling the production. But on Monday afternoon, the board had reversed their decision, with the production pushed back to accommodate the new talent.
“There is no easy way out. The most beautiful thing about this situation is that the cast is willing to push forward and work through this instead of looking for an easy out because that’s how much this show means to us,” he tweeted.
“We want to make sure the cast is heard,” said theater board president David Allen. “There are hard lessons here,” he said. “This show is going to go on and it will go on with the integrity and representation it demands.”
This is not the first production to cast a white actor in a main role for “In the Heights.” Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre drew backlash for casting a white actor as Usnavi in 2016, according to the Chicago Tribune. That production went ahead with its original cast.
The part was originally played by Miranda himself on Broadway, and the original cast was predominately Latinx.
The film, too, received backlash for its portrayal of Dominican immigrants. Critics said it lacked dark-skinned Afro-Latinx performers in any of the film’s major roles. The main Latinx characters were instead portrayed by light-skinned and white-passing actors, which they said shows an inaccurate depiction of Washington Heights.
Miranda apologized on Twitter.
“I started writing In the Heights because I didn’t feel seen,” read his statement. “And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us — ALL of us — to feel seen. I’m seeing the discussion around Afro-Latino representation in our film this weekend, and it is clear that many in our dark-skinned Afro-Latino community don’t feel sufficiently represented within it, particularly among the leading roles. I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling unseen in the feedback…In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry…I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.”
The casting of Vanessa not only ran against the sensibilities of the cast, but also of the licensing agreement for the play. Concord Theatricals deals with the rights to “In the Heights.”
A spokesperson for Concord Theatricals said: “It states both on the Concord Theatricals website and in a theatre’s licensing agreement that In the Heights celebrates, uplifts, and amplifies a Latinx community in New York City. To honor the authors’ vision and to clearly and appropriately tell that story, the roles should be cast accordingly. Company members must match the character definitions as written in the script. Note: the use of make-up to portray Black and Latinx characters (e.g. blackface and brownface) is not permitted.”
Allen said casting took place over five weeks, beginning in January. Final decisions were made by the show’s director, who has since been replaced, and the theater’s own producing director. As a professional theater, they don’t rely on local talent alone and put out calls to actors across the U.S. Allen said they followed Concord’s requirements as best they could without asking about the actor’s background and didn’t know her ethnicity until the cast showed up to rehearse.
Along with Ortiz joining the cast as Vanessa, three new professionals — director and choreographer Hector Flores, Jr., associate director and choreographer Michael Anthony Sylvester, and music director John Daniels — have been brought on to drive the artistic vision of the piece.
Allen said they also plan to bring in a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant to work with the theater on making a more sustainable future, Allen said.
Ortiz originally auditioned for the role of Vanessa but was passed over. Mill Mountain called her Wednesday and asked her to step in. She’s worked with the theater previously a production of “Tomas and the Library Lady,” a youth show there in June 2021, and separately has been in the ensemble of “In the Heights.” She was working on another production when they called, but dropped everything for the character because, “this is just one of those shows. As a Latina actress, I know all the words. I’ve been practicing for Vanessa in my car, singing, for years.”
When she auditioned for college as a musical theater major, she sang Vanessa’s solo song “It Won’t Be Long Now.” Now, being cast as the character she feels like it won’t be long now —for her career, and for Latinx representation on stage.
“For girls like me, there needs to be that one person who looks like you up there so you know you can do it, too.”
The goal is twofold: inspiration and acceptance. “It’s important for people to see us as people, people who like in this show, fall in love. It’s not only skinny, white people who are deserving of love. And seeing it like this, in a small town starts this journey for the audience.”