As great as the Internet can be in spreading information quickly, it has not always been an accurate barometer of the sincerity of people. Many “keyboard warriors” have often expressed outrage at an incident or issue, yet when it comes time to actually show up at a protest and be counted, how many of them actually do?
So I was guardedly encouraged by the outrage going on on Facebook alone over the La Jolla Playhouse’s white-washed casting of “The Nightingale.” Set in feudal China, only two of its 12 actors were of Asian descent and none were Chinese.
I don’t know how many Los Angelenos made the two- to three-hour drive down to La Jolla to attend the panel discussion last Sunday, but I was pleasantly surprised at how many familiar faces showed up (thanks to MANAA members/supporters Miriam Nakamura-Quan, Dr. Raymond Quan, Emma Quan, Drew Mandinach, Aki Aleong, and Luka Jazvic for being there; this old man stayed home). The place was reportedly pretty packed. Even the out-of-touch-don’t-give-a-damn-about-Asian-American-media-issues Los Angeles Times did articles leading up to it (but no print article on the actual panel, naturally — you can never have it all with these jokers).
I was made aware of the controversy on June 18 by a long-time “ghost” member of MANAA. This led to a July 9 meeting between former MANAA President Aki Aleong, me, and Michael Van Duzer of Actors’ Equity, who believed the playhouse to be in violation of the LORT (League of Resident Theatres) contract, to which all local theaters are signatories, on other issues.
Around that time, Erin Quill’s blog — “Moises Kaufman Can Kiss My Ass and Here’s Why” — began getting circulated, garnering anger from everyone who read it and realized that once again, a white director was making excuses for casting white people in a play about Asian people.
The producers’ excuses didn’t matter (e.g., it was based on a fairy tale written by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, who’d never been to China, this wasn’t supposed to exist in any specific place or time). Every character still had Chinese names and there were enough Chinese props on stage for the audience to get that this was China despite the absence of many Asian faces and the preponderance of white and black ones.
Every response the creative team gave to the press about the controversy only made matters worse. In U-T San Diego, “Nightingale” writer/lyricist Steve Sater said they’d tried a workshop with all Asians and it didn’t work. It could only work with a multiethnic cast. Huh? Was the first batch of Asian American actors not strong enough? Well, plenty of others to try, boy!
On July 18’s KPBS radio broadcast, Greg Watanabe of 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors was the in-studio guest representing the Asian American community. LJP’s artistic director Christopher Ashley, on the phone, tried to make himself a champion of non-traditional casting:
“I would passionately defend color-blind casting, multicultural casting, non-traditional casting as necessary tools in America right now. And I think there’s many times when that kind of thinking actually can lead to additional roles for Asian American actors. We had a production at La Jolla Playhouse called ‘Surf Report,’ which was originally written for a Caucasian mother, father, and daughter. And an extraordinary Asian American actress came in and auditioned for the daughter, and the creative team cast her and didn’t write in any particular reason why this is an Asian actress. They said, ‘Why can’t she play this role uncommented on?’ So I think issues of color-blind casting can go both ways. But I would passionately defend it as an important tool.”
No, it can’t go both ways. In the LORT contract, Section 25 (C) addresses the intention behind non-traditional casting: “LORT and Equity recognize the need for expanding the participation of ethnic minorities (African American, Asian American, Hispanic American and Native American), women actors and actors with disabilities in their artistic process.
“Toward that end, LORT reaffirms its commitment to non-discrimination and a flexible, imaginative casting policy, known hereinafter as non-traditional casting, in all its theaters.
“(1) Non-traditional casting shall be defined, for the purposes of this agreement, as the casting of ethnic minority actors (African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, and Native American), women actors, and actors with disabilities in roles where race, ethnicity, gender, or the presence or absence of a disability is not germane.”
In other words: Not. For. White. Men. End of story. The La Jolla Playhouse is in violation of that provision of the contract.
In a nutshell, non-traditional casting is supposed to benefit minorities, not take away opportunities already there in a project that’s written as ethnic. Yet Ashley tried to confuse the issue, almost implying his adversaries were against giving Asian Americans (or other minorities) a chance to play roles not written specifically for their race. I was furious. How dare he.
I wasn’t the only person who felt that way. Andy Lowe, founder of Chinese Pirate Productions of San Diego, was in a difficult position because for almost 16 years, he’d been an employee of the playhouse and had been asked by them to be on Sunday’s panel. Nevertheless, he wrote a blog revealing that two days previous, he and other Asian Americans had had a two-hour meeting with Ashley and others at the theater to express their feelings on the issue. They left feeling heard and hoped the playhouse would do the right thing. When Lowe heard what Ashley said on the radio interview, he was honest in his frustration:
“What is disappointing is that so far LJP is showing no leadership in taking responsibility for their lack of oversight. Statements from the playhouse so far indicate they are sorry WE were offended, not sorry THEY offended US. The problem of course being that if we as artists cannot take responsibility, cannot own up to the impact our choices have and cannot admit to any mistakes, it removes the opportunity for our community and society to learn from such mistakes. It halts progress rather than advances it. This is not representative of a culture of artistic exchange or cultivation of ideas and expression. This is representative [of] a corporatist culture so obsessed with saving face, so constricted, mired and strangled by its ‘official verbiage’ and jargon that it can’t say the simple things we learned as children like ‘I’m sorry.'”
In Sunday’s panel discussion, Ashley pointed to Lowe’s blog as being pivotal in his realization of the damage they’d done, and he offered an apology. So did director Moises Kaufman. Nervous casting director Tara Rubin spoke in a quavering voice and her hands that were all over the place. At one point, she had difficulty grasping the mike.
I give credit to actors Cindy Cheung and Christine Toy Johnson (the theater flew them out to be on the panel) for not being afraid to offend the play’s creators. Both are from the newly formed Asian American Performers Action Coalition, which earlier this year released a study that found in the past five years, Broadway roles for minorities had improved except for Asian Americans (it went down from 2% to 1.5%).
After the director explained why they’d always wanted to cast the play multicultural, pointing out that it was set in “mythical China,” Cheung asked if he’d cast a white African King in a play taking place in Africa. Kaufman copped out and went back to his previous response. Cheung, in a move that would’ve made “Nightline’s” Ted Koppel proud, pointed out he hadn’t answered the question.
Lousy moderator Janine Hillis interrupted her, saying, “I’m not sure it’s productive to say, ‘What would you do if…'” What?! It was extremely productive. One of the most important points made that day. Undaunted, Cheung spelled it out for Kaufman: No, she really didn’t believe he would cast a white man as an African king because of the uproar and because in the theater world (and hell, the media in general for that matter) African Americans are more respected than Asian Americans. Good for Cindy Cheung. My new hero.
In discussions of race with a mixed audience, I’ve found that white people are always the first ones with their hands up. In other words, the group with the least amount of experience regarding or understanding of the significance of race in society is the one that confidently feels it has to go first to express themselves. And usually put their foot in their mouth.
Many minorities, on the other hand, used to a lifetime of having to “look if the coast is clear” (e.g., assess if there are enough people in the audience who look like them who might back them up or, at least, not want to beat them up or lynch them) tend to wait, not all that certain that their point is that smart or relevant to the discussion, and either hesitate to raise their hand or do so a lot later.
In this discussion, the white moderator called first on an older white woman who questioned if there were enough good Asian actors to fill these roles. Oh, give me a break. After the audience loudly reassured there that there were, she went on to say the lack of Asian actors didn’t bother her. “I was into it. I didn’t care about race.”
Cheung shot back: “And you’re white!” I wish she’d explained further what that meant because it came off more as a racial attack. I would’ve pointed out that with most white people, if she didn’t get something in life it wasn’t because of her race but because of her own individual failings. Not so people of color. Hell, look at this play. Except for two actors, we’re not even allowed to play Asian people!
In a letter I wrote Hills on Tuesday, I addressed the white woman’s feeling that she didn’t care about race: “Why would she? Does she ever notice when Asian Americans aren’t cast as the stars of television shows taking place in Hawaii or San Francisco? Does she speak out in outrage when they’re not? I doubt it.”
The last person who spoke on San Diego’s Channel 5 news story of the panel, Joice Jordan, said, “They were a very talented cast and at first you notice there was one Asian. But the cast was beautiful and you get over who’s who.” Sure, white people have been “getting over” us for decades. When whites are suddenly left out of television and movies and theater, then they’ll begin to understand what it is to be invisible even in parts written for them.
Pfft! Like that’s ever going to happen.
If that wasn’t enough, on two separate days, the airhead moderator was told twice by Dana Harrel, associate producer of the playhouse, of the agreement she’d made with me: If there wasn’t enough room to put Aki Aleong on the panel to talk about the LORT violations, the moderator would give him an opportunity to talk from the floor. Hillis didn’t.
So when she tried to wrap up the panel, Aki was forced to insist on speaking. “No, no,” she responded, and as he continued to explain the situation, she responded: “No, I haven’t called on you… You can talk to them afterwards… No, it wasn’t scheduled.”
Exasperated, Aki exclaimed, “So La Jolla Playhouse messed up again!” The audience shouted for Aki to speak. Ashley agreed. Hillis relented. But angry at his treatment, Aki pointed out he’d been acting almost as long as she’d been alive. In other words, “Show me some respect!”
White privilege indeed.
What a mess. La Jolla Playhouse, we’re watching you. Any other theater that wants to do “color-blind/multicultural/non-traditional” casting on any of the few projects that’re already written for Asian people — really? You want to go through all of this again?
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open. (To see the panel discussion, click here.)
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.