Juanito Bandito, a character who regularly stars in northern Utah’s Pickleville Playhouse stage shows, is ”racist, hurtful entertainment,” according to a complaint signed by a national group of playwrights and directors.

Recent Twitter and Facebook posts have sparked a theater-world firestorm that took the character’s creator, TJ Davis, by surprise. Davis, of Smithfield, has been performing the character for about 10 years in melodrama shows at his family’s Bear Lake theater.

In retrospect, Davis says he can see why some Hispanic or Latino people might make assumptions about the show. “But it doesn’t deal with race,” he says, adding that all the show’s characters grow out of melodrama caricatures. “It’s not ‘Nacho Libre.’ The jokes we make are 100 percent jokes about Utah culture. It’s making fun of myself and my own neighbors.”

Davis calls himself a theater “hack,” saying he lacks conventional training beyond a passion for putting up a show and running a family business. He writes a script for the musicals, but cast members are also encouraged to improvise. “If it’s offensive,” Davis says, “then I want to change something about it or forgo the whole thing.”

The singing, rapping character — billed “as the most famous semi-fictional Spanish villain in the history of the world” — sports a dark wig, shifting accent and oversized mustache as well as an oversized ego. Davis says he drew upon his own drop of Spanish blood for the character. His great-grandfather’s last name was Romero, which was legally changed several generations ago based on what Davis termed “a crazy family story” involving a murder and a divorce.

(Photo courtesy of Pickleville Playhouse) | TJ Davis as "Juanito Bandito."
(Photo courtesy of Pickleville Playhouse) | Actor TJ Davis.

Los Angeles-area playwright Diana Burbano says the Bandito character draws upon offensive, outdated stereotypes, and its humor is damaging and divisive, particularly against a contemporary backdrop of rising hate crimes against minorities. Burbano drafted the letter signed by more than two dozen other theater artists, including playwright Bryan Stubbles of Layton. “I find it terribly hurtful personally, and I wouldn’t want my sons to hear it,” says Burbano, a Colombian immigrant who is literary director at Los Angeles’ Breath of Fire theater.

After viewing photos and promotional videos online, the group of theater artists sent complaints to the Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City and the Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan, where “Juanito Bandito’s Christmas Carol” recently played to large crowds. The group learned about the character last week through an audition notice posted for the Bear Lake theater’s summer show, “Who Shot Juanito Bandito,” which alternates with a production of Disney’s “Tarzan.”

“We sincerely hope you reconsider your programming choices and avoid putting racist, hurtful entertainment into your space in the future,” the letter states, adding that such comedy demeans and excludes at least a fifth of Salt Lake City residents, who identified as Hispanic or Latino in the most recent census.

The Bandito plays, according to the complaint letter, have created “a mini industry within Utah and beyond,” referring to mustache-branded merchandise and YouTube videos, “all of which further propagates racism against the Latinx community.”

Social media posts captured the attention of theater writer Howard Sherman, who explored the roots of the controversy on the Arts Integrity Initiative website, based at New York’s New School. Sherman is also the former interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, a nonprofit that advocates for artists of color and artists with disabilities. “Even when intended benignly, brownface is an offense,” Sherman wrote. “Your saying the character is not a stereotype doesn’t make it true.”

The Grand and Eccles theaters are rental facilities. As a public space managed by Salt Lake Community College, the Grand doesn’t restrict clients’ contracted programs “unless that content is unlawful and unconstitutional,” according to a statement released by Seth Miller, artistic/executive director.

Pickleville Playhouse is launching a run this week of the musical “Forever Plaid” at the Eccles Theatre, one of 80 or so rental performances at the Logan theater annually, says Wendi Hassan, executive director of Cache Arts, the Logan nonprofit that manages the historic theater.

Hassan says she shared the complaints with Davis. “We very much appreciate having these concerns brought to us,” Hassan says, “and we hope that as a community, we can seize this opportunity to raise awareness, begin valuable introspective community conversations, and become more inclusive.”