Opera Australia recently announced the casting for the lead roles for its forthcoming musical West Side Story to be performed on the Sydney Harbour in 2019.
As someone who had great-grandparents that immigrated to New York from Puerto Rico, I was disappointed (but not surprised) to see that the role of Maria, a Puerto Rican immigrant, will be played by Julie Lea Goodwin, a principal soprano with Opera Australia who is Caucasian. Goodwin also played the role in the last Australian tour of West Side Story.
I wasn't the only one to be disappointed, with a string of angry comments about the whitewashing of the role on Opera Australia's Facebook Page in response to the announcement. When confronted with concerns of whitewashing Opera Australia replied: “We’re committed to colourblind casting, and we don’t cast any role based on ethnicity or skin colour.”
Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini told media last week: "It is about finding the best people that you possibly can and delivering the best possible production."
Opera Australia has been accused of whitewashing significant roles meant for people of colour in the past. In 2014, a production of The King and I received similar criticism for casting Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the Thai king Mongkut.
It is true that voice plays a significant role in casting operas. However this argument just does not hold for casting musicals, as surely there is a wider and more diverse base of voices to draw from in Australia.
Due to the lack of roles available for Latinx artists, and white performers taking on the roles that are meant for them, representation is a serious issue.
Globally, all art forms are being put on notice about this issue...Opera should not and will not be excluded.
There has been criticism of Ben Affleck casting himself as Tony Mendez in the Oscar-winning Argo and Catherine Zeta-Jones has played Latina characters on a number of occasions, most memorably the role of Elena Montero in the screen adaption of The Mask of Zorro, and most recently as Colombian queenpin, Griselda Blanco, in the Lifetime movie Cocaine Godmother.
This year, Broadway star Sierra Boggess pulled out of a BBC concert performance of West Side Story after being confronted about whitewashing the role of Maria stating, “After much reflection, I've realised that if I were to do this concert, it would once again deny Latinas the opportunity to sing this score, as well as deny the IMPORTANCE of seeing themselves represented onstage. That would be a huge mistake.”
In the 1961 film production, many of the Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors in brown face.
This is not the first time the roles of Puerto Rican characters of West Side Story have been whitewashed.
In the 1961 film production, many of the Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors in brown face, including the role of Maria who was played by actress Natalie Wood.
Rita Moreno, an iconic Puerto Rican actress who played the role of Anita in the film adaption (and the only Puerto Rican featured in the film), recently made her own commentary about the whitewashing on set, as well as the brown face that was used during the production.
The film adaption of this 1957 Broadway musical has has been deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress in the United States. It is inspired by the classic Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, but it is even more significantly a commentary of what it was like for Puerto Ricans immigrating to the east coast of the United States. It is regarded as an iconic representation of the racial tensions, “gang culture,” and the barriers faced by Puerto Ricans as immigrants in New York in the 1950s. However, the whitewashing and the appropriative way it was presented did not allow for a genuine and authentic representation.
“With such a problematic history of casting [West Side Story], you would think that there would be an emphasis on casting a person of colour for this role in Australia."
Aimee Flores, one of the co-founders of Sangre Migrante, an organisation dedicated to telling the stories of Latinx-Australians said: “With such a problematic history of casting [West Side Story], you would think that there would be an emphasis on casting a person of colour for this role in Australia. It’s rare that Latinx-specific roles become available in Australia, so whitewashing Maria is essentially taking away a very small window of opportunity for Latinx actors/singers. There is a Latinx population here in Australia, we exist and representation matters so much.”
How can we overcome this? Did Opera Australia consider reaching out to Sangre Migrante or a platform dedicated to showcasing Australian artists of colour to assure the meaningful representation of Puerto Rican characters? Have any Latinx performers been casted for the production at all? Who is playing Anita? Chino? Bernardo? (The rest of the cast list hasn’t yet been released.)
There is a Latinx population here in Australia, we exist and representation matters so much.”
Colourblindness is not a good enough excuse and neither is that there were no Latinas available for the role.
What does being “colourblind” mean exactly?
Monnica T. Williams, a clinical psychologist who runs the blog Culturally Speaking on Psychology Today, says: “In a colourblind society, white people, who are unlikely to experience disadvantages due to their race, are effectively allowed to ignore racism, justify the current social order, and feel more comfortable with their relatively privileged standing in society. Colourblindness creates a society that denies the negative racial experiences of minorities, rejects their cultural heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives.”
A musical like West Side Story, that is supposed to be making a commentary on race and immigration, being whitewashed in a country where people of colour are still dealing with discrimination based on race and/or immigrant status to this day, is quite frankly unacceptable.
The audacity of producing a musical about what it is like to immigrate somewhere where you are not treated equally, and then casting a white woman to play the role of a woman of colour who would likely still be experiencing that same discrimination today, is nothing short of preposterous.
As a mixed Puerto Rican-American who immigrated to Australia from New York only three years ago, I am appalled at the carelessness of the casting of this production. It is disrespectful, not only to Latinx-Australians and Australians of colour, but also to Puerto Ricans still experiencing poverty, discrimination, and living in the longest black-out in U.S. history as you read this article.
From the lyrics of West Side Story’s America written by Stephen Sondheim himself:
“Life is all right in America
If you’re all white in America.”
The same sentiment rings true for Australia too.