Mill Mountain Theatre is housed in Center in the Square in downtown Roanoke. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

When the infamous blackface photo on then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page surfaced, everybody – and I do mean everybody – understood just how offensive that was.

People may have argued over whether that was really Northam in the picture, and what the proper remedy should be, but I never heard a single person defend a white person appearing in blackface.

Yet when Roanoke’s professional theater, Mill Mountain Theatre, found itself embroiled in controversy last week for initially casting a white actress in a Latina role for the musical “In The Heights” – written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes and depicting a mostly Caribbean neighborhood in New York – there were a surprising number of people who didn’t understand why that was a big deal.

Some of the comments from our Facebook page:

“So what does actress mean?”

“Oh, the horror of it all!”

“It’s called acting … lol … get over it.”

“Wokeanoke, of course …”

This is disappointing but perhaps understandable.

The basic point here is that an actor – or an actress; some prefer the feminine version, others prefer “actor” to cover everyone – can act happy or act sad. An actor can act a range of emotions or actions – but you can’t act a race or ethnicity.

And you shouldn’t try.

We all clearly understand that when it comes to blackface, but that point is obviously not so clearly understood when it comes to a white actor trying to pretend to be Latinx or Asian.

It’s not quite the same as blackface but it’s close enough that for practical purposes it’s the same. I don’t think that has anything to do with “wokeness” – unless you consider objecting to blackface to be “woke.” We didn’t when Northam’s yearbook photo came to light – or when then-Attorney General Mark Herring confessed to something similar – so why is casting a white actress for a Latina role considered something to be laughed off here?

The short answer is it’s taken us as a society a long time to get to this point on blackface – Herring wore blackface at a college party in 1980, Northam’s yearbook photo was 1984. That’s pretty uncomfortably recent but not the most recent. Until 2015, the Metropolitan Opera in New York routinely performed Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” – based on William Shakespeare’s “Othello” – with the main character in blackface. The Met didn’t intend its previous productions in blackface to be mockery but merely to emphasize that Othello is a Moor and his Moorishness is very much part of his character and the plot of the story (just as Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles darkened their faces when they performed Shakespeare’s version). Still, standards have changed. That’s just not done today. We’re not living in Al Jolson’s era anymore. Even then, the Met didn’t cast a Black singer; it cast a Latvian tenor. That, too, prompted criticism. One published commentary was headlined: “Met’s Otello casting begs the question: Is whitewash better than blackface?”

If it’s taken us that long to understand that dressing up a white actor to look like a Black one – or simply casting a white actor as a character who is clearly identified as Black – is offensive, it’s taken even longer to understand that it’s just as offensive to have white actors pretending to be Asian or Latinx.

There’s a long, long, long list of this happening, so much so that it’s hard to pick the highlights – or the lowlights. Mickey Rooney played a Japanese landlord in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1961. When the musical “Little Saigon” opened in London 1989, a white actor was cast in the lead role and, according to the Los Angeles Times, “wore prosthetics to change the shape of his eyes.” Now, 1961 was a long time ago but 1989 is still pretty recent, and 2016 and 2017 is more recent yet. In 2016, Tilda Swinton played The Ancient One – a Tibetan – in “Doctor Strange.” The next year, Scarlett Johansson starred in the movie “Ghost in the Shell,” playing the cybernetic recreation of a Japanese woman Motoko Kusanagi. In the former, the character’s ethnicity was switched to Celtic to alleviate the awkwardness and in the latter the casting was excused on the grounds that Johannson was playing a robotic version of a Japanese woman, so that made things OK.

I’m not going to spend much time – or any time – on arguing over the ethnicity of fictional robots but the point still seems the same. If it’s not cool to put a white actor in blackface to pretend to be Black – and it’s not – then it’s not cool to have a white actor pretend to be Asian. Or, in this case, Latina.

Yet obviously it still happens.

Yes, a good actor can play anything but the question is should he (or she)? Yes, yes, there are all sorts of inventive castings that challenge our thinking of characters. I’ve seen a woman play “Hamlet” in London, maybe the best “Hamlet” I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen an all-female version of “Macbeth” at Hollins University. Miranda’s “Hamilton” is certainly famous for not just its story and its songs but its cross-racial casting, with Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers played by non-white actors. However, having women play men in a male-dominated culture or non-white actors playing white characters in a white-dominated culture isn’t quite the same thing as having a white actor play a non-white character. The latter isn’t simply offensive; it’s also a form of theft, depriving that minority actor of one of the relatively few roles written specifically for them.

Mill Mountain has already gotten an unfortunate share of negative publicity in the New York theater world over this casting controversy – the story was first broken by Broadway World. That’s too bad because Mill Mountain could have been getting praise for breaking out of the old standards to present a new and important story. As bad as that initial coverage in the nation’s theater capital is, it could have been worse. In this case, the licensing materials from Concord Theatricals – which controls the performance rights to “In The Heights” – clearly require that Latinx characters be played by Latinx actors. (Latinx is the preferred phrase. In Spanish, nouns have gender — Latino refers to male, Latina refers to female. In Spanish, Latino can also refer to both just as we in English use “mankind” to refer to all of humankind. English is more gender-neutral but to avoid confusion, Latinx has come to be preferred in the United States as a clearer, gender-neutral word. I don’t consider that “wokeness,” either, just clear language). The New York-based OnStage Blog suggests Mill Mountain might have come dangerously close here to getting the rights to the show pulled, which would have brought the venue even more bad publicity and possibly difficulties in securing rights to future shows. Indeed, many of the cast members who were objecting to the white actress initially cast as Vanessa were tagging Miranda on Twitter; Mill Mountain might have been one tweet away from a condemnation from the famous co-author himself, which would have brought even more unwanted publicity.

If you’re wondering how those licensing provisions square with civil rights laws banning job discrimination, a lengthy post on OnStage Blog explains: “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from engaging in hiring practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, and sex (amongst others). But the second part of that law would give the clearance for casting professionals to ensure these roles are properly filled.”

In other words, if you’re a professional theater and you’re doing a show that requires a cast member of a particular ethnicity, you can say that. OnStage Blog points out that the initial casting call for Mill Mountain’s “In The Heights” listed the ethnicity of some characters, but it did not list any ethnicity for Vanessa and wondered why not. Instead, the casting call said only “female-identifying, 20s to 30s … strong dancer with an excellent high belt to E5.” OnStage Blog notes that a second character also was advertised with no ethnic description and asks: “Does this mean the creative team was thinking of having these two characters be portrayed by non-Latina performers? It’s fair to ask that question.” We may never know the exact details and, for our purposes here today, those details of who was responsible don’t matter. My point here today is to explain the underlying principles involved – i.e., why it’s such a big deal.

Chris Peterson of OnStage Blog writes that “while Hudes and Miranda have stated that they are fine with school productions that don’t feature Latinx performers, they draw the line with productions like the one Mill Mountain was trying to stage.” Indeed, Roanoke’s Patrick Henry High School staged “In The Heights”in 2017 with a mostly white cast. I saw the show; it was a joyous performance and I doubt anybody objected to not having a cast of Latinx actors. (If I remember correctly, the Black characters were played by Black students.) I’m glad Hudes and Miranda grant those exceptions. But the distinction should be clear to all: Schools can only deal with the students they have; a professional theater can go out and hire anyone it can afford. Yes, this requires some subtle thinking – why is it OK for schools to have a white actor play a Latinx character but not a professional theater? But we’re all adults here, right? We ought to be able to engage in that kind of subtle thinking. But we shouldn’t be confused about the basic premise here: White people shouldn’t be pretending to be non-white. That’s only “woke” if you think objecting to Northam’s yearbook photo was “woke.” We didn’t think that then with that so we shouldn’t think that now with this.

(Disclosure: I’m actually a little bit more than a fan of theater. In my personal life I’m a playwright. I’ve volunteered for occasional events at Mill Mountain Theatre. Back during the George W. Bush administration, I acted in two non-speaking roles there, the biggest being the part of a homeless man living in the woods. Apparently I looked the part, which has given me a good excuse for not getting my hair cut as often as I should. You never know when opportunity will knock. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.