"Oh, what a circus."
That was my first thought when I saw the promotional pictures circulating Facebook for USC's spring dramatic arts production of Evita. A musical that has been fighting since its inception to own its Latin background after it was created by white men in London. A show that chronicles the journey and personality of Eva Perón, a ground breaking Latina president who has not only shaped and influenced political discourses in Argentina, but in Latin America as a whole.
So why am I staring at a picture of predominantly white actors parading around a stage with signs that read, "Viva Perón"?
Why is it that when I asked one of the leading cast members how many Latinos are in the cast of nearly 25 actors, her response was, "Maybe one. The main lead is half"?
Evita has always been a problematic show. It was created by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1976 and was performed both on the West End and Broadway with an all-white cast until an official national tour with a majority of Latino actors was created in the mid-2000s.
Regardless of its history, shouldn't the School of Dramatic Arts hold itself to a higher standard and aspire to avoid a history of artistic exclusion of the Latin community? Am I supposed to swallow my opinion and pull out my USC ID with pride to see a show that goes with the status quo, co-opting the perspectives of a Latino community that is still desperately trying to create a voice for itself in the arts?
The issue is that institutions are continually being complacent about these issues, and seem to believe that just because it is part of an academic environment, that it is somehow mutually exclusive from the status quo of the entertainment industry.
Whether it is a small or large production, worth a couple thousand dollars or $110 million, the issue is still the same: diverse and marginalized voices are continually assimilated and devalued by whitewashed castings that reinforce the idea that white actors playing roles for people of color is culturally acceptable.
The show opened on March 30, just one day before the release of the controversial film Ghost in the Shell, which features a white actress playing one of the most well-known, dynamic Asian characters to originate from a manga series.
It also opened alongside a well-received, culturally significant production at the Dramatic Arts school, a series of plays called Facing Our Truth. The hourlong set documents experiences in the black community after the murder of Trayvon Martin and aims to shed a light on white privilege in relation to race and systematic violence against black bodies.
Two productions ran side-by-side at USC this past weekend. One elevated the perspectives of one culture, while the other erased a different culture. This huge disparity is representative of a current administration at the School of Dramatic Arts that is struggling to find a voice for itself as it scrambles to create a platform of inclusion while being plagued with hit-or-miss odes to diversity.
On a larger note, it is a reflection of a current trend in the entertainment industry that tends to funnel the perspectives of all marginalized communities through a black-and-white paradigm that flattens the identities of those that exist outside of the binary. No one institution or party is to blame for that; it's a byproduct of current discourse that chooses to engage with race through a linear and shallow lens, limiting the capability to create authentic forms of expression through art.
USC has fallen prey to that same paradigm.
Now, I want to make it clear that this is by no means bashing the School of Dramatic Arts, the students that are putting on this production, the director, or anyone involved in creating the issue that the production of Evita represents. Under the new guidance of Dean David Bridel, the school has made strides in changing the culture of diversity on campus by reinstating the program's diversity committee, adding gender-neutral bathrooms, changing the selection process to include more diverse choices, and creating an annual diversity summit that aims to raise awareness of how theater and performance can uphold the values of a multicultural community.
Everything is being done correctly, logistically, at the School of Dramatic Arts. So why is the actual execution of that art faltering?
The School of Dramatic Arts is 70 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic/Latino, 7 percent black, 6 percent Asian, and 6 percent of two or more races. The expectation was that Evita would be a place where Latin voices can showcase their strengths in the world of musical theater, but the numbers don't encourage the needs of such a play to be met. As a result, a production like this only serves to do more harm than good, as it discourages any potential new voices from joining a university that appears to not value a perspective like theirs.
It was not destined to not work out from the moment the faculty picked a non-Latin director to bring the show to life. Although he is a person of color, he is not specific to the narrative of the play, and he is not able to engage with the work through a Latin experience, something that has yet to be done with Evita.
When asked about the directorial selection, an administrator explained that talent and background experience is what influenced their decision. Again, this is not about denying anybody their talents or abilities, but about challenging the notion that certain types of identities with the same amount of talent cannot be found or do not deserve the same level of opportunities as others.
I refuse to watch Evita as it goes into its final performance weekend at USC for the same reasons I refused to watch The Great Wall, or Ghost in the Shell, or Stonewall. The list goes on.
Not only do we need to start holding academic institutions accountable for the type of pedagogy that they represent, but we must begin to question what responsibilities we have as producers, writers, directors, and actors.
What message do we want to promote to young artists? Will the program fall prey to issues found in the industry status quo, or will it work to challenge and present a new world of artistry?
It's not enough to simply call ourselves a place for diversity if the art doesn't reflect it.
Cristian Pagan is a theater major at the School of Dramatic Arts with a minor in screenwriting. You can reach him here.