Utah by Kathleen Cahill
What does “internationalism” mean in America, where everyone is international in a sense, including Native Americans who once upon a time, had their own nations? Some of us came here before others, but, as we should keep reminding ourselves, everyone came from somewhere else. The United States is the country that used to be called “the melting pot” – where nothing melted, as Tony Kushner said. The “nothing melted” theme is especially poignant and brutal in the current political climate with its walls, arrests, raids on immigrant communities, and exultation of racists.
What does internationalism mean in a place like Salt Lake City? (And is it the same as multi-culturalism?) While there are people from all over the world here—this is a sanctuary city—it feels culturally homogeneous. Even though over twenty percent of the population is Hispanic, most from Mexico, and most living on the west side of town. When I was trying to get Perdida, my own Mexican-themed musical (the composer is Mexican American; I am Irish Italian) produced with, if possible, a Hispanic cast, I was told “they (meaning people from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries) don’t go to the theatre.”
Maybe they don’t go because they don’t see themselves represented on the city’s stages?
When Good Company Theatre, which is run by two African American sisters, 40 miles north of Salt Lake, did a production of In The Heights, the cast of 26 had only one white performer. Where did all the Latino and black actors come from? “They came out of the woodwork because it was a show they wanted to do,” the director, Austin Archer, told me. “But casting was still really difficult.”
I was talking about these matters of casting and representation with Perdida’s director, Emilio Casillas. Emilio grew up in San Diego, near the Mexican border, with a father from Tijuana and a white mother from San Diego. He travelled back and forth with family between Mexico and California, and went to an ethnically diverse high school. “I didn’t feel I had to claim my race because there was no reason to defend it.” Then he moved to Salt Lake seven years ago to go to Westminster College, where he became one of exactly two international/multi-cultural students. The other was a student from Fiji. “I never experienced any hostility, but I knew I was the one that stood out. It wasn’t conscious. Race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, it’s all blended here—you’re generically brown in Salt Lake. You don’t realize what you’ve boxed up until someone un-boxes it,” he says. “Seeing In The Heights, it reminded me what I was missing—the culture, the dialects, the jokes, the flags, the music. I realized how long it had been since I’d seen it. It brought tears.”
Perdida is based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, but it is specifically about Mexican culture, set in Mexico. “What I don’t want is for it to become like a visit to a zoo, or a museum experience, where people walk out thinking, ‘Isn’t that quaint,’” Emilio said.
It’s also a new, unknown piece, with no reputation or word of mouth to spread through the community. Not many Mexican actors—especially male actors—came out to audition. “We’ve cast some Pacific Islanders in these roles, so it does feel like I’ve had to do a little bit of that blending.” But still, Emilio sees doing the show as an opportunity: “Maybe hearing that Mexican accent on stage—words like empanada pronounced correctly—maybe that will make one more person comfortable with their own accent. If doing Perdida can do for someone else what In The Heights did for me – I’ll be happy. The idea of America for me is having permission to be international and multi-cultural and American all at the same time.”