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Thoughts on the Nightingale and “Color-Blind” casting

the-nightingale

 

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.”

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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.

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2 comments on “Thoughts on the Nightingale and “Color-Blind” casting

  1. I think saying using color-blind casting was done to favor white actors neglects to mention the fact that there were actors of other races in the process, including the black mother. Further, I think the reaction the choice prompted says a lot more about us as an audience than it does about them as a company. Why are we outraged that a Chinese play, written by a Danish Man, echoing Greek themes, should choose color-blind casting? Isn’t the point of color-blind casting that the theme is not bound up in race, but is as universal as the casting process itself?

    A brief aside on your notion that a white cast shouldn’t be used for “Raisins in the Sun”: I’ve actually heard of a version that had both a white cast and a black cast, and they would alternate scenes. The goal was to question the audience on why the play was so unnerving coming from white actors and more “comfortable” coming from black actors, and people were outraged by it. They often couldn’t explain exactly why, but they knew simply that they were angry. Sometimes our reactions, jumping up to call something wrong, are the very thing we’re being asked to consider. WHY is it wrong? Why does it FEEL wrong, and what about our culture has taught us that we should object? I don’t have any other information on that production of RITS, but I would also think it would be interesting to experience that discomfort and then have to answer for it.

  2. True, I didn’t talk about the use of other races in the production I mainly focused on Asian American.

    I completely one hundred percent agree with multicultural casting. More than anything. To which i commend the company for going that route. I honestly think all shows should strive to do such. This is what I believe in most strongly. I think we should be having family dramas where the members are mixed race. Every single show I was in during my upbringing was by its nature, color blind casting. (With a school where the race breakdown went 1. Korean 2. Indonesian 3. American) This should be something that is natural and not feel wrong at all.

    What I feel I was attempting to look at, was not so much the problem with color blind casting in that production, but the disparity at asian americans in the theatre. Growing up in South East Asian this is an issue i feel very strongly about.

    According to data compiled by an advocacy group for Asian-American performers

    “Over the past five theater seasons Asian-American actors were cast in 2 percent of the roles in Broadway and major Off Broadway productions, while 80 percent of the roles went to white performers, 13 percent to black actors, and 4 percent to Hispanic artists. Over those seasons, 2006-07 to 2010-11, Asian-Americans were found to be the only minority group whose share of New York acting roles declined slightly, and they were also the least likely to be chosen for characters that would traditionally be played by white actors.”

    What my response to this production was that while I am in favor for exploring and breaking down race boundaries, it seems unfair that asian americans are still fighting to get roles for their own ethnicity.
    That production of raisin in the sun actual sounds fascinating and I see your point about breaking down why certain roles should be for certain people. Fair. This does go both ways. However.
    The playing field is NOT level and until it becomes more that 2% (2%!) or 13% or whatever the small amount is I feel that more people need to be given opportunities to work and grow and get their voices out.

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