The recent imbroglio over Hartford’s TheatreWorks production of The Motherfucker With the Hat had a lot of theater professionals playing against type.
There was playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis — not known for being hands-on or imperious regarding productions of his plays — going public on Facebook with his disapproval over the casting of two white actors in roles he wrote as Puerto Rican.
There was Steve Campo. The founder and artistic director of TheatreWorks isn’t known for his reticence. TheatreWorks often courts controversy; this time, they were accused of not going far enough.
Then there was director Tazewell Thompson, who certainly was known for interesting casting and staging choices when he was artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse (with which he parted ways in 2008, before the end of his initial three-year contract). For pre-casting white actors in Puerto Rican roles, without auditioning any Latino performers, Thompson’s been branded a racist. Yet this is the same African-American actor/writer who created Constant Star, the stage bio of the suffragette and former slave Ida B. Wells. Among Thompson’s previous productions at TheatreWorks, amusingly, is David Mamet’s dramatic provocation Race. Thompson’s slated to direct TheatreWorks’ next show, Philip Hayes Dean’s classic Civil Rights drama The Sty of the Blind Pig, which opens Jan. 20.
By the time Guirgis aired his views, The Motherfucker With the Hat’s scheduled run was nearly over. His exasperated posts on Facebook spread rapidly among actors who already feel the odds are stacked against them in casting calls, as well as incensed dramaturgs and the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors. The dudgeon was reported not just on theater blogs but in the pages of The Hartford Courant and The New York Times.
Guirgis’ bafflement had already been shared by critics. Chris Rohmann in the Valley Advocate wrote that the actors in question were “effectively turbulent, but are odd choices for the Puerto Rican lovers, as they are both blond Anglos.” Karen Bovard, in The Hartford Advocate, noted that “most of the characters are supposed to be Puerto Rican; not all are fully credible.”
The coverage was capped last week when Stephen Adly Guirgis’ own op-ed article on the controversy ran in the Times on Dec. 9. “TheaterWorks — intentionally or unintentionally — practiced de facto discrimination against Latino actors who get too few opportunities to compete for roles in the industry to begin with,” Guirgis wrote.
Earlier, when a Facebook commenter declared “A playwright's job is done once he has SOLD his play. After that it's up to random casting directors and directors to decide how the words will be portrayed,” Guirgis responded with admirable even-temperedness and clarity, “My complaint is NOT about white people being cast, it is about no Latinos being allowed to audition for these Latino roles.”
There are other issues, unique to the regional theater, which are bubbling under here. There’s that common, and often unfair, audience expectations that the first regional theater production of a recent Broadway hit will skew closely to the New York version. There’s that closed culture that develops in subscriber-based theaters, where audiences may accept or excuse choices that strike outsiders as glaringly wrong.
When TheatreWorks got the rights to do the first regional production of The Motherfucker With the Hat (modified for TheatreWorks’ posters as The MOTHER-F#(C)*&R With the Hat; what’s so offensive about the “e” in “motherfucker” that you have to make it an ampersand?), bragging rights came too. The theater’s own press release called it “one of the most significant coups in recent regional theater history.”
Considering the battle that resulted, declaring a coup was premature.