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The cast of the Vancouver production, at front, from left, Kyra Zagorsky, Stephen Lobo, Francisco Trujillo; at rear, John Cassini, left, and Lori Triolo.Dan Rizzuto

Concerns around a lack of diversity on theatre stages, simmering for months, are boiling over with the upcoming Vancouver premiere of The Motherf**ker with the Hat.

The play, beginning previews at the Firehall Arts Centre next week, is the inaugural production of Haberdashery Theatre Company, formed by a group of top-rate theatre veterans. But the new company and the play itself have been overshadowed by a heated debate over casting. Two of three characters written as Puerto Rican New Yorkers are being played by non-Latino actors; originally, all three had been cast with non-Latinos.

"[I]t is clear to us that if the original actor had not dropped out, this production would have featured NO Latino actors," reads one line from an open letter to Haberdashery, signed "The Latino Theatre Community and our allies."

But the company says it did its due diligence in casting, went with the best actors available, and feels it has been misrepresented.

The controversy has deteriorated into an at times uncomfortable – even ugly – dispute over the play's casting process. It has also raised bigger questions about cultural diversity onstage.

"We are interested in talking about larger issues. We never thought of this as a personal attack," Carmen Aguirre, one of the three theatre artists behind the letter, told The Globe and Mail in an interview this week. "We're not interested in having people boycott their show or anything like that."

In the Tony-nominated play, which premiered on Broadway in 2011, Jackie, a former drug dealer, is released from prison and reunites with his girlfriend, Veronica. He is determined to stay straight, but she is an addict. Jackie's cousin Julio tries to help.

"The characters … are meant to be Puerto Rican," playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis writes in his author's note. "But if you get cast in the play, and you're not Puerto Rican, don't worry about trying to 'be' Puerto Rican. Just focus on living truthfully and fully through the circumstances of the play and of your character." (Guirgis was unhappy when Caucasian actors were cast in Puerto Rican roles in a production in Hartford, Conn., which has a large Hispanic population.)

The Vancouver production was spearheaded by actor Stephen Lobo (Continuum, Arctic Air), who loved the play and purchased the performance rights, with an eye to playing Jackie. (Lobo has a multiethnic background, but is not Latino.)

The rest of the cast and the formation of Haberdashery Theatre Company evolved from there, Lobo explains in his own open letter in response to the concerns. He brought in his friend Lori Triolo, who knew Guirgis from New York, and she began looking for actors.

"I thought it would be a difficult play to cast," Triolo, who also has a non-Latina role in the play, explained this week. "I certainly wanted to honour the ethnic backgrounds of the three main characters, but I also needed to find people who really understood the material."

There is a fair bit of detailed he said-she said over the casting, but it comes down to this: Haberdashery says its process was lengthy and thorough; Aguirre and her group believe efforts were lacklustre at best, including a last-minute scramble to replace the non-Latina actor for the role of Veronica.

"Because we're not yet in a post-racial society where we are all equal, when a role calls for a specific culture, you start by auditioning people from that culture first," said Aguirre, who played Veronica at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary in 2013 – and won a Betty Mitchell Award for it.

"We do believe that the Firehall and [Haberdashery] would know that if those three characters were black, Asian or First Nations, that they would not be able to get away with this," Aguirre said. "People seem to know that it's not okay to do blackface, red face or yellow face. And we're saying it's also not okay to do brown face."

Aguirre expressed her concerns to Lobo over the summer. According to her, he asked her to come up with a list of Latino actors who could audition in case anyone dropped out of the production. She said most of the people she contacted were wary about auditioning for roles that were already taken, so she submitted a list with only two names: Francisco Trujillo and herself. Trujillo was cast as Julio when the original actor dropped out of the production.

Then, days before rehearsals were to begin, the actor cast as Veronica, Kyra Zagorsky, said she would step aside to be replaced with a Latina actor. Auditions were hastily held; Aguirre was among several people seen. But the creative team felt Zagorsky was best for the role.

Lobo went out of his way in his open letter to say it was never Haberdashery's intention to "call anyone out." But Aguirre feels her concerns have been unfairly perceived as sour grapes because she didn't get the part.

Aguirre has been through this sort of controversy before. In 2003, she pulled her play The Refugee Hotel from Toronto's Factory Theatre because she felt the casting process favoured Caucasian actors.

"It hurt my career. It hurt my reputation. I was called crazy, a liar, everything that you can imagine under the sun."

And so it was with great trepidation that she spoke out this time. "I was raised in a family of activists; we came to Canada as refugees. I have seen in my life that the only way change happens is through conflict."

While non-traditional casting (sometimes called colour-blind casting) is intended to open opportunities for non-white actors – you don't have to be white to be cast in a Shakespeare play, for instance – when it goes the other way, it can exclude actors of colour who may already have trouble finding roles.

But John Cassini – another founding member of Haberdashery, who is playing Jackie's AA sponsor, Ralph – has concerns about how far this could go.

"In the real world, Lori and I are white, but [as actors] we make our living by playing ethnic roles. I've had Latino friends play Italians, I've played Latinos, I've played Greeks, I've played Jewish," he said, pointing out a poster of Trujillo in Mambo Italiano on the wall at the Firehall. "So is that now something that isn't going to happen any more? Because if I can only play Italian and Lori can only play Italian, I have to retire from acting."

The Mofo controversy follows an open letter sent to the organizers of Vancouver's Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards last summer signed by dozens of theatre artists (including Aguirre) that expressed concerns over a lack of diversity at the Jessies. Also last year, The Unplugging at Factory Theatre in Toronto was challenged for casting white actors in indigenous roles; and at The Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver, eyebrows were raised over what some felt were culturally inappropriate casting choices for In the Heights and Disgraced.

"All we were trying to do is help a new theatre company tell a good story," said Firehall artistic producer Donna Spencer, whose company has been a leader in diversity. "I regret that misunderstandings have been created. … They're trying to do good work, but everybody has to learn and this seems like a lot of learning in one fell swoop."

A meeting was held in December between the two sides, but the tension continues. (Aguirre called the meeting "ugly" and "very, very difficult.") This Monday, the Latino actors will hold a public forum to discuss the issue. The Firehall plans a public event on the topic as well, but after the show's run so that the creative team can focus on the play itself, rather than the controversy.

"It makes my heart a bit heavy," Spencer said. "It's just a reminder to me that if we're going to do Canadian theatre, we want to do Canadian theatre that reflects the population and the demographic of Canada. It doesn't necessarily mean that we're always going to get it right. … I just hope that people will come to see the show and check it out for themselves."

Because It's 2016: An Open Invitation from the Latino Theatre Community to Discuss Representation will be held Monday at 7 p.m. at Progress Lab 1422 in Vancouver.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat is at the Firehall in Vancouver Jan. 16 to 30.

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