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  • "But Do We Have the Actors for That?"Some Principles of Practice for Staging Latinx Plays in a University Theatre Context
  • Brian Eugenio Herrera (bio)

"Why don't college theatre departments stage more contemporary Latina/o plays?"

This pointed query stood out among the many provocative questions posed by participants at the 2013 National Convening of the Latina/o Theatre Commons. The question underscored the distinctive significance of the university theatre department within the contemporary theatrical ecosystem. As an important producer of contemporary plays (and one not especially known for staging contemporary Latinx drama), college theatre programs seem to hold the power to ratify the writers, works, and traditions of Latinx theatre within the pedagogical project of training emerging theatre-makers and theatregoers. So why, the convening attendees asked, have Latina/o works of the last twenty or thirty years not become legibly central to the production curricula staged by university theatre departments? Is it that university faculties simply do not possess a working fluency with contemporary Latinx drama? Have the canonical teatros of the 1960s and '70s cast too lengthy a shadow over more recent turns in Latinx theatre-making? Has publisher reluctance to issue accessible new play anthologies stunted awareness? Are departments outsourcing the responsibility for "covering" Latinx theatre to itinerant guest artists or adjunct teachers?1

As such questions buzzed throughout the conversations staged at the 2013 Convening, university-affiliated attendees (like myself) also wondered aloud whether the university theatre production programs in which we worked would ever seriously consider staging a contemporary Latinx play. Or would such a proposal would be stopped short with a different, but no less familiar question: "But do we have the actors for that?"

Within the context of university theatre production programs, this question resounds as an all-too-familiar rhetorical rejoinder. It can be at once a preemptive strike and a self-fulfilling prophecy, surreptitious self-censorship clad in the language of prudent practicality. As I departed the convening, I wondered about a different response. Might the embodied practice of producing Latinx work within a university context prompt ways of thinking beyond this paralyzing, block-stop demurral? What ways beyond the obstacle of "we don't have the actors" might be discovered if a host of university production programs just took the bold plunge and staged a contemporary Latinx piece? What might that look like?

For more than a half-century, artists, critics, and scholars invested in expanding the opportunities for minority actors on American stages have scrutinized the mechanisms of exclusion embedded in conventions of American theatrical production, especially the habits of practice that guide how roles are cast. Along the way, a variety of emergent methods and models for inclusive and equitable casting of minoritized performers have been theorized and rehearsed. Conceptualized under terminological headings like nontraditional or color-blind or multicultural casting, these interventions have been documented and discussed, with recurrent regularity, in the pages of both scholarly journals and trade publications, by such authors as Richard Schechner, Ana Deboo, and William Sun, [End Page 23] among others. In this decade a handful of book-length academic treatments (by scholars Angela Pao, Brandi Catanese, and Faedra Carpenter) have distilled the limits, possibilities, and orthodoxies of this emerging repertoire of practice. At the same time, artist-scholars (like Daniel Banks, Christine Mok, and Donatella Galella) and critical practitioners (like Erin Quill, Branden Jacob-Jenkins, and Lynne Marie Rosenberg) continue to evince new modes, methods, and vocabularies of critique in essays, performances, and social-media interventions.

Questions of casting—especially the familiar "but do we have the actors for that?"—routinely signal unaddressed tensions about theatrical diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet, most critical discussions of diversity in casting remain oriented toward the principles and practices modeled by professional theatre-making in the commercial and nonprofit sectors. Most of these discussions operate under the tacit presumption that the industry's best practices should "trickle down" to the amateurs, whether educational or avocational. While theatre for youth programs, especially within a K-12 context, are not infrequently exempted from such imperatives, college-level theatre programs are not. This stems in large part from the enduring rationale—admittedly more rhetoric than reality...