At the Metropolitan Theatrical Awards in Mexico City, actresses in sequined maxi dresses and actors in tuxedos ranging from debonair to eccentric walk the red carpet, striking striking poses for photographers on a recent Tuesday night at the historic Teatro de la Ciudad.
It is an unusual place of tensions over immigration and cultural identity.
But these days, the anxiety over these issues is manifesting on both sides of the US-Mexico border, sometimes in unexpected ways. In Mexico City’s booming theatrical scene, a flood of foreign actors with leading roles in major productions aroused resentment. Seven of the 38 nominated actors are foreigners, according to Sergio Villegas, the show’s organizer, and the country has become a major draw for international theater talent.
This is the first year of the awards show, and it underscores how important Mexico City has become to the theater world. Prominent producers and representatives of the country’s president and mayor-elect attended the ceremony, and Mexican comedian Chumel Torres hosted the ceremony. Between the awards ceremonies, theater stars performed numbers from the successful Spanish-language productions of Billy Elliot, Fat and Wretched.
“Mexico is without a doubt the Latin version of Broadway and there are a lot more opportunities here,” said Daiana Liparoti, an Argentinian actress who received a nomination for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Eponine Thenardier in Wretched.
She moved to Mexico three years ago because she said the economic crisis in Argentina had caused production of major international productions to stop.
The rise of the Mexican theater world is reflected in the distribution of Wretched. Almost all of the main roles are played by foreigners – from Brazil, Argentina and Spain. Liparoti said having a diverse cast is a good thing.
“I think it opens the mind, and in this musical in particular – which shows the unity of the people and the city – it’s even more true. There are no limits because of the language. or culture, ”she said.
But the decision to choose mostly foreigners in the lead roles of Wretched – as well as other major productions here – caused a lot of anxiety behind the scenes of the Mexico City theater scene. The musical’s casting director went so far as to defend the selection process in a podcast aimed at the theater community.
Jerry Velázquez, a well-known Mexican theater actor who stars in the musical Fat, said he felt conflicted with the cast because the foreign actors are great. But he added: “It was as if we weren’t enough. As if our country didn’t have the people who could do the job.”
The fact that foreign actors from Argentina, Brazil and Spain are generally taller and clearer than Mexican actors also means that they fit the conventional appearance of a leading role, especially when the production is exported from the United States or Europe.
“They could probably all look Mexican and that would be nice. I wouldn’t judge. But I don’t know everyone, and maybe that’s the fear of the producers,” Velázquez said.
There is even a term for this phenomenon in Mexico: Malinche, that is, a lover of strangers. La Malinche was the beautiful and allegedly treacherous Indian mistress of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who overthrew the Aztec Empire and won Mexico for Spain in the 16e Century. In Mexico, to be called a malinchist should be called a lover of foreigners – an aspiring American or European.
Juan Carlos Araujo, Mexican theater critic, said tensions within the Mexican theater world over foreign productions and actors have long been simmering.
“We have to foster the best talent possible. But we have to strive to strengthen the Mexican theater industry. We tend to look beyond our borders for talent for plays, new productions, when we have incredible talent here, ”he said.
These kinds of tensions over casting and cultural identity also exist in the world of American theater. The hit Broadway musical Hamilton defied convention by deliberately playing the roles of America’s Founding Fathers, mostly white, with black and minority actors.
Villegas, who hosted the Metropolitan Theatrical Awards in Mexico, says he understands the frustrations of Mexican actors losing roles to foreigners.
“But at the same time, we are doing the same in New York and in Madrid,” he said. “And my answer has always been why don’t we treat them the same way we would like to be treated when we travel abroad and when we are successful in other cities, as we do.”