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Controversy Over *Whitewashed* Casting Of Tony Award-Nominated Play That Co-Starred Chris Rock

by Tambay A. Obenson
December 5, 2011 2:50 PM
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We debate it happening in cinema almost whenever it does - most recently and notably, the casting of Akira, and The Last Airbender; but you'll be *glad* to know that it also apparently happens in theater.

I heard about this last week while I was out, but forgot to research it when I got home. You should recall that Chris Rock co-starred in the multiple Tony Award nominated Broadway production of the play.

Broadway World has the details below:

As TheaterWorks' production of THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT comes to a close, the controversy surrounding the casting process does not. The Hartford-based theatre company, presenting the regional premiere of the show, attracted attention when the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) and playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis questioned the casting decisions made by the company. 

"The two romantic leads in my play were written very specifically as Latinos in their late 30's...I saw Theaterworks' character breakdowns for the roles that went out for the auditions, and there was no mention of the ethnicity of the two characters in question," Guirgis said... "It became clear to me that perhaps Theaterworks had no intention of casting Latinos in the first place since they weren't asking agents to submit Latino actors for these Latino roles."

And how does TheaterWorks respond? The artistic director, Steve Campo, explains, and rather weakly I might add:

"It is a tribute to his skill that Stephen Adly Guirgis, though not Hispanic, is able to so credibly depict a culture not his own, as he does in The Motherf[------] With the Hat. How gracious it would be of him to allow that actors of whatever heritage might succeed in acting, much as he has in writing."

Like I said, weak! You know damn well their intent was to cast 2 Caucasian in the romantic lead roles, likely because they believe doing so will sell more tickets. Even in theater, where I thought writers, above all else, are always given their due... evidently not so.

Playright Stephen Adly Guirgis (who describes himself as half-Egyptian/half Irish-American) responded to TheaterWorks' reply on Saturday with this piece of sweet salvo:

"It's interesting that mr. campo calls me out for not being latino. it's interesting that he categorizes me as being ungracious. I am a half-egyptian, half irish-american new yorker who wrote a play about new yorkers who are multi-ethnic, and yes, three of those characters are latino. I will be at the theater in hartford to support the actors & to see the show. I'm sure all the actors have worked hard and have given their all, and I look forward to meeting them afterwards and giving them some love. it will also be interesting to see if I will see mr campo there. perhaps he can teach me more about how to be gracious, and he can school me on all the other ethnicities that I am not a member of. I will say this: if mr campo can give me the list of every latino actor in nyc that they saw for the roles of jackie & veronica before they decided that these two caucasian actors were far and away the best choice, then I will be happy to make a sincere & formal apology to him, along with a financial donation to his theater. I have already lost FRIENDS over this -- people who just assumed I knew what was going on from the beginning and did nothing to stop it. perhaps mr. campo could also teach me how to repair those relationships. I look forward to meeting mr campo someday so I can fully express my gratitude to him face to face. I'm sure I have much to learn from him about many things."

I especially love this part: "

if mr campo can give me the list of every latino actor in nyc that they saw for the roles of jackie & veronica before they decided that these two caucasian actors were far and away the best choice, then I will be happy to make a sincere & formal apology to him, along with a financial donation to his theater."

Hah! Indeed. 

Though I doubt Mr Campo will take him up on that challenge.

I didn't see The Motherfucker With The Hat when it was on Broadway, here in NYC, but those who did had nothing but good things to say about it; even with regards to Chris Rock's performance, which was his Broadway debut.

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  • Jmac | December 5, 2011 8:45 PMReply

    Good comeback!

  • urbanauteur | December 5, 2011 7:27 PMReply

    Pink Spam over Honey Roasted Ham...huh?:), Mr.Guirgis eloquent sage neutralize this closet racist casting eugenics!

  • MulletLove | December 5, 2011 3:09 PMReply

    Jeezy-beezy, I'm from Hartford, walk past Theatreworks all the time, and even contemplated seeing this show before its run ended (which was yesterday, I think). I never knew all this was brewing over all these weeks!

    I think the folks doing the casting should have respected the characterization as written by the playwright. Since the default cast setting is still white and more white, it isn't as if roles for Latinos and others of color are a dime a dozen. Now, not only do white actors get the roles not specifying a certain ethnicity (therefore, connoting "white"), but also those that do??? Someone, tell me what I missed, please. If some black actor were cast as an IRA member or something like that, imagine the uproar, even if he could pull it off (lol!).

    It will be interesting to see if this story has made ripples in the Hartford Courant, our local statewide daily. Thanks for the info, Tambay.

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