Feature |The Whitewashing of La Mancha

Windmills in Consuegra.

by Tony Diaz

The English National Opera’s upcoming concert performance of Man of La Mancha, a musical inspired by the Spanish classic novel Don Quixote, takes place in Spain where, coincidentally, all of the characters are Spanish. However, this production seems to include no performers of Spanish or Latinx descent.

In one of the few shows written specifically for Spanish or Latinx performers, the hero Miguel De Cervantes will be played by American television actor Kelsey Grammer (Frasier). Though it is possible that among the 29 actors cast there may be a Spaniard or two using anglicized stage names, there are no Spanish surnames in the cast.

With so few opportunities for Latinx performers, why didn’t the ENO make more of an effort to recruit them? And, most glaringly, why cast a blue-eyed English/German/Scottish/Irish man in the lead? Considering Grammer’s open support of Trump, this is further insult to Latinx people what with Trump’s open racism against Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and people from Central and South America. It is shamefully inappropriate casting. Once again, the image of a white hero teaching brown people how to dream the impossible dream will be presented on stage. Has the ENO forgotten the recent Sierra Boggess/West Side Story concert debacle?

Unfortunately, Man of La Mancha has a long history of white leading actors, and the very few roles written specifically for Latinx performers (like Maria in West Side Story and El Gallo in The Fantastiks) share that history. Just as ‘blackface’ and ‘yellowface’ (remember Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon?) were once acceptable, the whitewashing of La Mancha should no longer be acceptable.

Theatres in the UK have finally – but slowly – begun to take responsibility for diversifying. Recent initiatives like Artistic Directors of the Future and BECTU’s  Theatre Diversity Action Plan are a good start. To make further progress, casting professionals must also present a wider range of talent for consideration and white actors must stop accepting roles that should rightfully be played by actors of colour.

Diversity does not mean Kelsey Grammer as Miguel De Cervantes is acceptable if you sprinkle a few brown faces elsewhere in the cast. Mr. Grammer is simply wrong for this part and should never have been chosen to play it. It sends a terrible message, and as a signatory to BETCU’s Theatre Diversity Action Plan, the ENO should know better.

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One thought on “Feature |The Whitewashing of La Mancha

  1. Casey Kuhn says:

    I support diversity but I disagree that whitewashing occurs in Man of La Mancha. about Man of La Mancha is that all the characters are white, and it is hard to accuse a show of whitewashing when all the characters are white. They are Spanish, and therefore Hispanic, but still white. Keep in mind that the term Hispanic refers to a group of ethnicities but not a race since Hispanics can be of any race: white, black, and frequently Indigenous Americans.
    While it may be beneficial to cast actors of the right ethnicity, this is not always possible, nor is it necessary. Les Miserables wasn’t criticized for not casting French actors. What’s important is to cast actors of the correct race. In this case, that was done correctly. Perhaps the director wanted historical accuracy so he cast mostly white actors. You criticized this show for not casting enough people of color even though all the characters are white. It is still fine to cast non-white actors as white characters, but it is not imperative if the show doesn’t call for color conscious casting.

    I do believe there is not enough diversity in theatre in general, but I don’t think the directors should be criticized specifically for whitewashing Man of La Mancha due to all the characters being white. The directors should instead be criticized for not having enough diversity in general for all their shows. I know that some shows call for color conscious casting such as in Hamilton where white historical figures are purposely portrayed by non-white actors. However, Man of La Mancha was never intended by the writers to feature that kind of casting.

    I do think that for cultural reasons Hispanic actors, regardless of their skin color, may be better suited for this show. Non-Hispanics actors, including non-white Hispanics, are still suitable for this show however. Part of the reason has to do with the historical background. You probably don’t know this but in real life Miguel de Cervantes was a slave in Ottoman Morocco for five years. Although many other white Europeans were enslaved by the Ottomans he was (as far as I know) the most famous white European to have been enslaved an Ottoman slave. He felt the other end of the whip that so few Europeans felt.
    Although his background as a slave is never mentioned in the show, it is still important to understand the historical context. Casting Miguel de Cervantes as non-white may diminish his historical significance. If this show was meant to be historical and it portrayed his time in servitude, people would very likely want the actor to be white to tell the right message. In Man of La Mancha is not necessary to cast Miguel de Cervantes as white because this show doesn’t deal with his enslavement. However, it is still acceptable for him to be white because you should realize that historical events not shown or metnioned onstage may still be relevant to a show. Ultimately color blind casting would work best for Man of La Mancha as a way to balance the historical accuracy with the need for diversity.

    Like

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