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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