The casting of non-Latino actors in the lead roles of North Shore Music Theatre’s “Evita’’ has opened another front in an increasingly heated national debate over onstage diversity, representation, and cultural authenticity.
Activists have taken their battle online — even to the theater’s own Facebook page, where their comments have been summarily deleted — as they contend that casting non-Latino performers in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about Argentine first lady Eva Peron is a case of “whitewashing’’ akin to casting a white actor as Othello.
“Blackface does not happen in theater today, yellowface largely does not happen, but Latinx characters do not get the same kind of care when being cast,’’ said Lauren Villegas, a veteran New York-based actress and founder of Project Am I Right?, which advocates greater inclusivity in the theater nationally. (Latinx is a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina). “It’s still treated as if ‘Well, if you can pass, it’s fine.’
“Authenticity comes from lived experience,’’ she added. “Actors do more than pretend; we draw on who we are. I hope people realize that choosing to appropriate a culture they don’t know will only perpetuate shallow stereotypes.’’
Actor and activist Luis Eduardo Mora, who wrote an opinion piece blasting North Shore Music Theatre’s casting of “Evita’’ in OnStage Blog, added: “It doesn’t have to be an Argentine actor, but it has to be someone who understands the added struggles that we Latinx people face today.’’
However, Bill Hanney, the owner and producer of North Shore Music Theatre, pushed back forcefully in an interview with the Globe. “I do colorblind casting,’’ said Hanney. “You have to be able to sing, dance, and act. That’s the criteria.
“If a Latino person came in and they were the best, they’d be in my show,’’ he asserted. “We found the right people. Our focus was not to find a Latino. It was to find the right Eva, Che, Peron, etc.,’’ referring to the lead characters.
As the controversy snowballed, the theater’s producing artistic director, Kevin P. Hill, made a conciliatory gesture, posting a statement on his Facebook page that said North Shore “made extensive efforts to see as many diverse performers as possible and contracts were offered to many performers of diverse ethnicities, including Latino. Some contract offers were accepted, and others were not.’’
Villegas dismissed that as “irrelevant,’’ saying: “If they were doing a production of ‘The Color Purple’ and actors of color turned them down, does that mean they would cast it with white actors? That’s not a valid excuse.’’
The issue has flared up at the Beverly theater at a time when the spotlight is intensifying on ethnic and racial disparities in casting — and on the ramifications for actors of color when it comes to employment.
A study released this year by Actors Equity, the union representing actors and stage managers, found that in musicals staged across the country from 2013 to 2015, Caucasian members received more than 70 percent of new contracts for principal roles and stage manager positions, compared with 7.5 percent for African-Americans, just over 2 percent for Latinos or Hispanics, and under 2 percent for Asian-Americans.
The “Evita’’ controversy reflects a rising tide of activism by actors of color over issues of authenticity in casting and questions of cultural appropriation. “This is not the first time we’re having this conversation,’’ observed Abigail Vega, producer of the Latinx Theatre Commons, an initiative of HowlRound Theatre Commons, based at Emerson College in Boston. Theaters “have to do the work’’ to find Latino actors, she said.
Added Howard Sherman, director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the School of Drama at The New School: “If they cannot be cast in roles that are ethnically specific, how can they hope to be cast in roles at large which have no ethnic specificity?’’
Concerns about ethnic accuracy were muted at best in 1979 when Patti LuPone, who is not Latina, originated the role of Eva Peron on Broadway in “Evita,’’ opposite Mandy Patinkin, also not Latino, as the revolutionary firebrand Che Guevara. By the time of the 2012 Broadway revival, however, it was considered noteworthy that Eva was played by an Argentine actress, Elena Roger, while Che was portrayed by pop singer Ricky Martin, who is of Puerto Rican descent.
It was a production of “Evita’’ last year in the Chicago area with a predominantly non-Latino cast that spurred Villegas to create Project Am I Right?, a loose collective of theater artists — people of color, people with disabilities, and transgender people — who aim to raise awareness of “whitewashing.’’ One approach is to ask actors who are not members of underrepresented groups to pass on those roles.
After the principal cast for the North Shore production was announced recently, she contacted the theater’s leaders with her concerns but received no response, she said. When she and others posted comments on the theater’s Facebook page that questioned the shortage of Latinos in the “Evita’’ cast, those comments were deleted, she said. Theater owner Hanney freely acknowledged that action. “If people start bashing us, we take them off,’’ he said. “If they don’t like it, too bad.’’
Last week, Villegas published an open letter to the cast that implies non-Latino performers should consider dropping out of the production. She pointedly refers to the recent decision by actor Ed Skrein to drop out of an upcoming “Hellboy’’ film amid an outcry over his casting in the role of a character who, in the original graphic novels, was of Asian heritage. Villegas wrote that “it looks like a tide is finally changing in Hollywood and if you think it is the right thing to do, I think you could help lead the same changing tide in the theater world.’’
In the meantime, according to Villegas, some activists are considering organizing a boycott of the theater, buying tickets to “Evita’’ and then staging a silent walkout, or simply showing up at post-show “talkbacks’’ and raising the issue from the audience.
Briana Carlson-Goodman is playing Eva Peron in “Evita,’’ which is slated to open on Sept. 26 at the Beverly theater. Hanney and Hill said they did not know the actress’s ethnic background, but Villegas said that during a Skype conversation that the two actresses had several weeks ago at Villegas’s request, Carlson-Goodman acknowledged she is not Latino. The Globe sought comment from Carlson-Goodman, but a theater spokesman said Friday that the actress had requested that “she not be involved in any of the press that may revolve around the casting of the show.’’
Slated to play Che Guevara is Constantine Maroulis, a former “American Idol’’ contestant who earned a Tony Award nomination for his performance on Broadway in “Rock of Ages.’’ Maroulis is Greek-American. In a recent Globe interview, Maroulis said he believes concerns about him playing Che are not justified. Saying “I’m not exactly a loaf of Wonder Bread,’’ he cited the discrimination encountered by his grandparents when they immigrated to the United States.
Portraying the Argentine dictator Juan Peron at North Shore is John Cudia, while another significant Argentine character, a tango singer named Agustin Magaldi, is being played by Nick Adams.
In recent years, actors of color have increasingly been cast in roles traditionally played by white actors, and in the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,’’ Latino and African-American actors played the roles of the Founding Fathers. “There are so many roles that have not been available for artists of color, we really have to open up roles that have not been considered roles of color,’’ said Sherman. “This is not about creating opportunities for white actors to appear in August Wilson plays. This is about the fact that the vast majority of the dramatic literature has just not created places for artists of color to work.’’
Referring to the climate for Latinos engendered by the Trump administration, Villegas said: “We’re living in very scary times for people who are not white. The more we can get our real stories out there and be humanized, the more people will be willing to treat us as human. It’s not just about what’s onstage; it’s about us in life.’’