On October 12th, Bath University Student Musicals Society (BUSMS) took The Edge to perform Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights. Written by the same man behind Hamilton and some of the hits in Moana, In The Heights follows the lives of a predominantly Hispanic-American neighbourhood in New York City’s Washington Heights. Last month, an Australian production of the show was cancelled amidst accusations of whitewashing and cultural insensitivity. With a predominantly White British cast and production team, did Bath students have what it takes to successfully perform In The Heights?
“We go through pretty much every show that exists,” commented BUSMS Chair Hannah Steiner, outlining the process behind choosing a show for the October production slot. Within musicals that had eligible rights, the decision ultimately came between two shows: In The Heights or Green Day musical American Idiot. However, the committee found the latter to have a disproportionate number of male leads when compared to the gender makeup of the society; as well as too narrow a musical theme. The rights to In The Heights were bought, and the show was announced in May.
“We did have a mixed response”, continued Steiner, alluding to a mixture of cheer and concern that the announcement initially evoked from members. “A lot of people were happy about it and recognised that it’s a great musical, but people were aware that it is a sensitive subject.”
Shortly after the announcement, a few members were quick to raise concerns with the committee and the SU. “The choice of In the Heights is culturally insensitive and is a premier example of white-washing other people’s culture and history,” read one complaint from Zeid Truscott, NUS Black Students Committee. Outlining issues surrounding the lack of Latin members behind the decision to choose the show, the now ex-member continued, “does it not seem bitterly ironic that a play that deals, in part, with the difficulties working class, non-white immigrants face in gaining access to and being successful in university, is being performed by primarily white, middle-class society at an elite university?”
In forming their responses, the BUSMS committee appeared to have frequently referenced a 2015 interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda where he remarks, “when I see a school production with not a lot of Latino students doing it, I know they’re learning things about Latino culture that go beyond what they’re fed in the media every day.” For committee and many members, this has been used to suggest that the show can be appropriately used as a teaching opportunity for a White British cast that may not have experienced the culture beforehand. For others, this has been insufficient to prove that the show should have been selected with so many White British members behind it.
This is not the first time that concerns over BUSMS handling of cultural issues have been raised, with members having been criticised for an Encore 2016 musical number with a largely white cast depicting imagery of black chain gangs in its recent history. However, the new production team for In The Heights aim to settle any concerns that may remain. A few days after the announcement of the production team, where Director and Producers were named, a new production team position was announced: Cultural Advisor. This went to Maria Eduarda Fisher, one of BUSMS few Latin members. After her application for the initial production team was rejected, Maria was contacted to, in the words of the announcement of her role, “be responsible for ensuring the show remains high quality whilst also staying true to its cultural basis. Maria will be the first point of call for any concerns or issues members have relating to In the Heights.”
“They asked me because, obviously, In The Heights is a show about a Latin American community in New York and I’m a Latin American person,” commented Fisher, reflecting on the moment she was selected for the show. “I really liked it…they could have easily just been like ‘yeah, let’s just do the show, who cares about the cultural background.’” A self-professed fan of the show, she has taken the production as an opportunity to share parts of her Brazilian background that she does not typically get to showcase.
As Cultural Advisor, Fisher’s role has primarily been to teach cast members the region’s cultural history and to assist with Spanish pronunciation for the show’s many accented characters and Spanish lines. “By appointing Maria we have bridged the gap between cultures and made a conscious effort to ‘do it right’,” commented one cast member. This theme of ‘doing it right’ has echoed across cast and production team alike. For Director Kate Light, this has meant acknowledging that, “there are obviously cultural differences that we have compared to who the show was originally written for, so we have to make sure we do those respectfully and we don’t stereotype.”
This declared dedication to avoiding stereotypes was tested when in one improvisation exercise, a misunderstanding occurred where one cast member appeared to suggest that a Puerto Rican restaurant would sell Mexican tacos. “At the workshop, it felt like a lot of you had not paid enough attention to the culture of your characters,” began the Facebook post published by Fisher after the incident, “to help you I’ve gathered some videos on being Latin that might help you understand our ways a little better.” Below, a range of YouTube links were posted. Other digital aids included links to documentaries and voice recordings of some of the lines said in Spanish.
“I am proud of the work we are doing. I know that the final product will be representative; a celebration of Latinx culture and everything that makes In The Heights the brilliant show that it is,” concluded one cast member, anticipating the show’s premier. However, with some criticisms still persisting, the end effect was left truly up to the audience.