Foreign Actors On Mexico's Theater Stage Stir Resentment Behind The Scenes Mexico's immigration battle with the U.S. plays out in the news daily, but a more subtle tension over cultural identity took center stage this week: foreigners taking leading roles in Mexican theater.
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Foreign Actors On Mexico's Theater Stage Stir Resentment Behind The Scenes

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Foreign Actors On Mexico's Theater Stage Stir Resentment Behind The Scenes

Foreign Actors On Mexico's Theater Stage Stir Resentment Behind The Scenes

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tensions over immigration and cultural identity are playing out on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, sometimes in unexpected settings. In Mexico City's booming theater scene, a flood of foreign actors with leading roles in major productions is stirring some resentment. Emily Green reports.

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: I'm at the Metropolitan Theatrical Awards. And there's a red carpet with women in floor-length gowns, men in tuxedos and hundreds of cameramen and photographers. This is the first year for the awards show. And it underscores just how important Mexico City has become in the theater world. Prominent producers and government officials attended. Inside the ceremony, in between the giving out of awards, there are performances from the hit Spanish language productions of "Billy Elliot," "Grease" and "Les Miserables."

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in Spanish).

GREEN: Actress Daiana Liparoti received a best actress nomination for her role as Eponine in the musical. She moved from Argentina to Mexico three years ago.

DAIANA LIPAROTI: (Speaking Spanish).

GREEN: She says Mexico is the Latino version of Broadway. And there are a lot more opportunities here. That's reflected in the cast of "Les Miserables." Nearly all of the leading roles are played by foreigners from Brazil, Argentina and Spain. Liparoti says having a diverse cast is a good thing.

LIPAROTI: (Through interpreter) I think it opens the mind. And in this musical in particular, which shows the unity of the people and the town, that's even more true. There are no limits because of language or culture.

GREEN: But the decision to cast mostly foreigners in the leading roles in "Les Miserables," as well as other major productions here, has provoked a lot of behind-the-scenes anxiety in Mexico City's theater scene. The musical's casting director defended the selection process in a podcast for the theater community. Jerry Velazquez is a well-known Mexican actor who stars in the musical "Grease."

JERRY VELAZQUEZ: It felt as if we were not enough, as if our country didn't have the people who could do the job.

GREEN: Velazquez says a lot of the foreign actors are terrific. But the fact that they are generally taller and more fair-skinned than the Mexican actors also means they fit the conventional look of a leading role, especially when the production is exported from the U.S. or Europe.

VELAZQUEZ: Probably, they could all look Mexican, and it would be fine. I wouldn't judge, but I don't know about everyone. And maybe that's the fear with producers.

GREEN: There's even a term for this phenomenon in Mexico, Malinche, meaning a lover of foreigners. Juan Carlos Araujo is a Mexican theater critic.

JUAN CARLOS ARAUJO: We tend to look outside our frontiers for talent, for place, for new productions when we have incredible talent here.

GREEN: These kinds of tensions also exist in the American theater world. The Broadway hit musical "Hamilton" challenged conventions by casting black and minority actors in the roles of America's mostly white Founding Fathers. Sergio Villegas organized the award ceremony in Mexico. He says he understands the frustrations of Mexican actors who lose out roles to foreigners.

SERGIO VILLEGAS: But at the same time, we do the same in New York and Madrid. And my response has always been, why don't we treat them the same way that we would like to be treated when we travel abroad and when we find success in other cities like we do?

GREEN: He adds, this is a price one pays for living in a globalized world. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAUDE-MICHEL SCHONBERG SONG, “OVERTURE/WORK SONG”)

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