This past week, I told my students that they would be having a substitute teacher on Monday, October 3. “It’s Rosh Hashanah,” I told my class. “It’s the Jewish New Year and I will be going to temple that day. There’s only one student in this our class who is Jewish, so I assume that both Max and I will be gone that day.”
“I’m Jewish too!” shouted a boy from the back of the class.
“No you are not,” I said to the boy, confident in my response. After all, he has an adorable blonde buzzcut and blue eyes. He looks like an 8 year old version of Chris Pine. And also, his name is Brody. So, naturally, I assumed I was right.
There is quite a controversy swirling here in Arizona, and it all centers on the casting of the musical “In The Heights.” “In The Heights”centers on a variety of characters living in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, on the northern tip of Manhattan. At the center of the show is Usnavi, a bodega owner who looks after the aging Cuban lady next door, pines for the gorgeous girl working in the neighboring beauty salon and dreams of winning the lottery and escaping to the shores of his native Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, Nina, a childhood friend of Usnavi’s, has returned to the neighborhood from her first year at college with surprising news for her parents, who have spent their life savings on building a better life for their daughter. Ultimately, Usnavi and the residents of the close-knit neighborhood get a dose of what it means to be home. The show was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and has a similar vibe and hip-hop score as it’s more famous sibling, “Hamilton.”
I first saw this musical when my son Sam was in it at Stagedoor Manor. I had seen it while it was on tour in 2009, and it just didn’t resonate with me. Perhaps it was because of the theatre’s crappy acoustics (yeah, yeah, I know, the Gammage has improved it’s sound system), or maybe it didn’t say anything to me personally at the time.
Several years later, I watched my son Sam and his multi-cultural cast tell the story of a girl who was worried about disappointing her parents, a family sacrificing everything for their daughter’s future, and a parental figure facing her death. This time, I got it, and I loved it.
“In The Heights” has now hit the local theatre circuit, and two theatres in Arizona are producing their own versions of the show. One is Phoenix Theatre, which features a professional acting company, and the other is a combined cast of actors from Xavier College Preparatory and Brophy,College Preparatory, both of which are Catholic, Jesuit High Schools.
Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of “In the Heights” was surrounded with controversy because of its casting a white man in the lead role of Usnavi, originated on Broadway by composer/lyricist Miranda. The character of Usnavi came to American from the Dominican Republic. Phoenix Theatre’s production of IN THE HEIGHTS, cast an Iranian-born actor as Usnavi, stirring up dissent from the Phoenix Latin community. And now, The Xavier/Brophy production has become a hot topic of online teenage controversy in the Phoenix community.
Recently, a Phoenix student who attends Arizona School For The Arts published an article in one of our Phoenix newspapers about how upset he is about the casting of this show at Brophy high school. It was called “Why Do White People Keep Putting On In The Heights?” He states that “only 3 of the 12 leads are being played by Latin actors” even though he acknowledges that the population of these schools does not lend itself to the casting of an all Latino production.
I was surprised by this article for two reasons: (1) because he can get published in the “Phoenix New Times” and I have never been able to accomplish this feat and (2) because he’s an actor.
I would like to respond to this young man with a response entitled, “I’m ok with the fact that non-Jews keep playing Jews even though there are a shit-load of Jews out there that could play these roles.”
I am Jewish. I love my Jewish heritage and the story of my people. Our story is most notably told in theatrical form in “Fiddler On The Roof.” This show has been staged too many times to count, but in the many productions I have seen, the majority of the cast has played by non-Jews. And while we can argue that there is unfortunately a shortage of many ethnicities in the acting world, we cannot say that there are a shortage of Jewish actors.
The hit show “The Goldbergs” on ABC, is a show about a Jewish family in the 1980s. Out of all of the actors in the world who could have played a Jewish mom, dad, two sons and a daughter, they cast only one Jewish actor. The rest are played by non-Jews.
Jason Biggs is not Jewish, although he plays one onscreen four times in the “American Pie” movies. The list of non-Jews who played Jewish characters is lengthy: Christian Bale played Jew Irving Rosenfeld In “American Hustle.” Charlton Heston played Moses. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jewish Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” In “Schindler’s List,” Ben Kingsley played Schindler’s Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern.
I could go on for hours. I mean, for god’s sake, John Travolta just played Robert Shapiro in the O.J. miniseries.
However, I have never found myself watching one of these actors and shouting “They are not Jewish enough!” My ethnicity is rich and layered and deep and I would never balk at an actor who wanted to learn the story of my people.
And if, for example, a Roman Catholic High School located inside a Roman Catholic Diocese in Phoenix wanted to put on a production of “Fiddler On The Roof,” I would never scream about the lack of Jews in the performance. And that’s a good thing for Brophy High School, because they have put on two productions of “Fiddler” in the last few years.
Turns out my student Brody is Jewish. I felt like an idiot for assuming that he wasn’t one just because he didn’t look like the ones I grew up with. And even if he wasn’t Jewish, I should have been glad that a kid today would want to be one.
Life wasn’t always that way for us. The celebration and acceptance of my people can be attributed to many factors: but I would say that the universal love of “Fiddler On The Roof” is on top of that list.
I recently vacationed in the Dominican Republic. And while I enjoyed the beaches and food of the Dominican, I learned very little about the culture of the people beyond the resort walls. “In The Heights” has taught me that they are a people who fiercely love their families and their culture, and protect both these things at all costs.
Visiting the country did not teach me these things. Theatre did. And for that reason, I celebrate the people and the country more than I ever would have had I not seen this show.
We have so much to argue about right now in this country. Let’s not argue about something so good in a world that can feel so bad.