I have recent stumbled upon the controversy over La Jolla Playhouse’s recent production of Nightingale. Nightingale is a musical adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson short story set in Ancient China.
Only two out of the eleven cast members are Asian. They’re not Chinese either. The multiracial cast features a white man as the Chinese Emperor, an African American mother an Asian love interest, to name a few.
While the production was being work shopped, the internet was blowing up over the fact that this was a show about Chinese characters, but used white actors and actors of other ethnicities to play the parts.
La Jolla was responsive to this and opened a dialogue where they claimed “It’s not about Asia. What’s really important to the piece is to have completely color-blind casting. Completely multicultural. Which is what we have. We have an African-American mother of a white son in our show now. Our cast is not even predominantly white. It’s a mix.”
Here is where I begin to struggle. At first I was shocked when I heard thinking, “this is absurd. Why would you not cast Asian actors. Why would you reclaim this story?” But then I know that I make an argument for color-blind casting so often. I think it is so important to start finding ways for one to cast the actor, regardless of nationality. I often go off about how we should just cast multicultural as frequently as possible. It should be a dramatic reveal but something that is natural and organic. I want to see a show where the political implications of having mixed race cast on the stage not be an issue. But I realize we aren’t there yet. I realize that my plays exist in a community that hasn’t yet been able to divorce themselves from the context surrounding what they see on stage. But we should be heading in that direction.
Take a show like God of Carnage. Two sets of parents talking about their kids. Never once does it specify race. They could be anyone. Yet it is almost predominantly white productions. These are the opportunities to cast outside of the norm and should be taken. Something so beautiful about the theatre is the ability to see oneself on stage. This should be taken for literally race as well. America is a melting pot, therefor theatre should reflect that.
But taking a play set in (albeit a mythical) China, about Chinese characters seems to be using multicultural casting in favor of white actors. Why should Asian Americans be overlooked to play their own ethnicity? You wouldn’t do a production of Raisin in the Sun with white actors and go, oh but we’re doing colorblind casting. It’s about telling the story that needs to be told. With Asian Americans being so woefully underrepresented in the arts, it’s hardly fair for them to have to compete even when it’s their own race. In the world we live in now, color-blind casting has to be looked at with care because the playing field isn’t even. Asian roles are usually sideline, or racially specific. So when a chance for a lead who is Asian is given to a white man it seems inherently wrong. Asian actors don’t have the opportunity to play white characters so why should white people play Asian characters?
I am not sure how to go forward on this and thinking of ways to widen the racial diversity of theatre is difficult, but it’s worth the challenge. My question to you is where does the change begin? Is it in playwrights writing about experiences that aren’t their own, opening up to a plethora of characters? With theatres, to pick engaging and diverse seasons? If the argument were Asians don’t come to your theatre so you should cater to a white audience, then maybe if you did a show with Asians in it, more Asians would come.
So La Jolla, I get you. I do. I understand the desire for multiracial casting. But we have to understand that this is not a dream world we live in. We can’t expect things to immediately become multicultural. An effort must be made to specifically boost the appearance of minority actors and cultivate a new norm.