|An illustration from "The Nightingale" by Hans Christian Anderson, image by Edmund Dulac|
To preface this: my colleague Rob Weinert-Kendt, associate editor of "American Theatre," musician and theater junkie, told me I should write about this, spawning from a debate we had in the office. So here it is, even though I have written on this topic, or something close to it, multiple times before. And also, Rob brought this up on "American Theatre"'s Facebook page. The responses are worth a read.
Today kids, we are going to play a game of "perfect artistic world" (PAW) vs. "real artistic world" (RAW). For example, in a PAW world, anybody who wanted to make art could make it, however they wanted to and make a living off of it. In that world, I would have become a painter and spend my days being a less-impressive version of Georgia O'Keeffe.
In the RAW world, I realized that I did not have enough gumption to lead the life of a starving, thankless artist. So I now work for a non-profit. Which is not that much of a step up but it does have health insurance.
In PAW, I would go to the theater (or watch movies or TV) and see main characters that looked like me. Instead, in RAW, the lead characters are usually white (unless you're in a Tyler Perry movie or in a David Henry Hwang play).
And in a PAW, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik can write a musical fairytale set in ancient China, and cast a white male as the Chinese emperor, another white male as the young Chinese emperor, a black female as the Chinese queen, and two Asian-American actresses. And no one would mind, because it's an artistic choice and reflects nothing on the state of American theater, which has equal representation of all races on its stage.
But we live in RAW, where that is not true. And out of 11 "Nightingale" cast members, only 2 are Asian or Asian-American. Neither are Chinese though. Steven (who I spoke to for "American Theatre" and who is a very kind and generous with his time) has responded to the hubbub with, because the story is set in “mythic China. We’re not trying to do something that’s completely authentic to its time, because it’s a fairy tale.”
"The Nightingale" is being presented at La Jolla Playhouse and my new Twitter friend Erin Quill writes a very hilarious, and astute, blog post about it in the aptly titled "Moises Kaufman can kiss my ass," from the POV of an actress.
I'm going to look at this whole thing from the POV of an audience member, and journalist.
|Ingres' "The Turkish Baths" which were not based on real Turkish baths|
There are multiple offenses here at play.
First, there is the white-appropriation-and exotification-of-Asian-culture thing. "The Nightingale" is a fairytale, written by a white man (Hans Christian Anderson), set in a mythical China. Anderson never traveled to China.
In the 19th century, when the trade routes were finally open from West to East, there were a myriads of paintings made set in a mythical Turkey, Asia, or Pacific Islands, taking strands of the culture and romanticizing and fetishizing it for white consumption. People at the time did not find it wrong. People today, such as historians, call it "Orientalism." It's bad, it's offensive, and it turns the people of a culture into exotic trinkets rather than human beings.
I'm not saying that "The Nightingale" musical is suffering from that type of ignorance, but it is hewing to a very white tradition of Asian appropriation. After all, you wouldn't cast "Porgy and Bess," set in the fictional Catfish Row, with white leads. And that musical was also written by two white guys. But "The Nightingale" isn't the only piece that suffers from a case of exoticism.
Just this year, Mary Zimmerman mounted "The White Snake" (also a fairy tale) for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is also set in China. While the main eponymous role was played by an Asian actress, a majority of the other roles were not. Instead, it was a multiracial cast. And let's not get started on the Guthrie Theatre's 2012-13 season, which contains all white playwrights and directors. That's just exclusionary.
I understand the sentiment of artistic integrity and wanting to hew to a particular vision, regardless of race. But that assumes that we live in a PAW, where actors of every color have equal access to any and all roles that are not racially specific. In that world, we can play around with time and place by casting anybody we wanted in any role, and it would not matter.
And this is my second point.
Unfortunately, we live in RAW, where actors of color are usually relegated to playing supporting or minor roles (or roles that are racially specific), and Caucasion actors are the ones who receive the most stage time. And when you look around at any theater, it is usually filled with the old and the white. And I know there are Asians and Asian-Americans living in New York City, they just don't go to the Broadway, or even Off-Broadway houses (unless it's Ma-Yi Theater Company, Flea Theater or Asian-American Theatre Company, to name a few).
If the system was equal, then there would be more productions of "God of Carnage" or "August: Osage County" or "Wit" or any play that does not make references to the characters being of any race, with actors of color in the lead roles. But the system is not equal. I rarely see anyone on that stage who looks like me, which is why it is an affront when roles that should go to Asian or Asian-American actors (and there are so so few) goes to someone else on a technicality.
Or to quote Erin Quill:
I have read that La Jolla Playhouse is calling the casting of this show “A Rainbow”. Here’s the funny thing about rainbows – the color yellow is rarely in that rainbow when it falls on other shows. Also, diversity has a time and a place – it’s usually an unnamed place in the future, in a multi-racial world, or set in modern times – it’s not in Feudal China.
RAW is a world where playwrights, casting directors, artistic directors have an obligation to actors and to audience. They have an obligation to give any opportunity they can to any actor and playwright of every color. And they have an obligation to equally represent the demographic of the region they are operating in, within the works on stage. And last time I checked, La Jolla was chock full of Asian and Asian-Americans (I'm from Southern California and I've been to UC San Diego).
It's no coincidence that playwrights of color are usually the ones who actively fill their plays with color. When I was at Humana, Idris Goodwin, who is African-American, populated his play, "How We Got On," with African-American and Latino characters. If I want to see people who look like me on stage, I go see a Qui Nguyen play.
Until the system is a completely equal playing field, where any actors of color have equal and complete access to every role on the American stage that is not racially specific, and playwrights of color had equal opportunity to produce their plays, then we all need to be a little more conscientious of race, and who we choose to put on the stage (or screen) for the audience to see.
Because a playwright may not see color in their characters, but the audience members do.
ETA: Since the fact-checking system on the blogosphere is very lax, aka how much time I have to check myself, I have made an error in the essay above. I wrote that Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "White Snake" was not diverse enough, judging from the names and headshots available on their website. But mistakes happen and these days, I have a hard time gauging ethnicity as well. Julie Felise Dubiner, company member at OSF, was kind enough to correct me:
In actuality the majority of the White Snake cast members who built this show with Mary Zimmerman are in fact Asian American, six of 11 (including the two leads and the love interest/husband) and two are African American. Three are white. The design team is also a diverse team. It is a beautiful show that sadly has closed here, but is being produced at Berkeley Rep next year. OSF has made inclusion a priority at our theater - it is central to our mission. I am very proud to work at a place that is changing the world.
Thank you Julie for correcting me and to OSF for continuing to fight for diversity. But I did want to make a point that La Jolla is not the only theater that has done something racially insensitive. This is an industry-wide oversight, not just the action of one theater.