The workshop production of the new musical "The Nightingale" at La Jolla Playhouse opened to much controversy when the adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's tale set in ancient China was given a multi-cultural, "mythological" makeover by director Moises Kaufmann and creators Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater.
The fact that the show is set in China yet only has two actors of Asian descent caused an outcry in the Asian American community. The casting controversy was especially offensive in light of a recent Asian American Performers Action Coalition (APAC) report that cited a huge decline of Asian American representation on Broadway over the past five years. With Asian Americans only making up 2% of casts on Broadway, actors, activists, and various theatre artists of Asian descent took to blogs and social media to express their outrage.
La Jolla Playhouse hosted a forum discussion last Sunday to address the issue. APAC members Cindy Cheung and Christine Toy Johnson joined La Jolla artistic director Christopher Ashley, "Nightingale" director Moises Kaufman, producer Andy Lowe, and casting director Tara Rubin on the panel.
In and around the heated debated discussion that happened at La Jolla Playhouse on Sunday night, Asian American theatre leaders from LA and New York have publicly weighed-in with their thoughts on the controversy. GoPride.com's Danny Bernardo (himself an Asian American theatre artist) turned to his contemporaries in the Chicago Theatre
community for their responses:Jamil Khoury (Artistic Director, Silk Road Rising)
The casting decisions for "The Nightingale" were shortsighted, not to mention just plain stupid. But it certainly raises a whole host of issues around casting and representation. I firmly believe that in order for Silk Road peoples to be fully integrated into the American story, in all its myriad or forms, we have to control the means of production and take responsibility for our own representation. Once that happens, the La Jolla's of the word take notice and change. To put it more bluntly, folks need to know there's a price to be paid if you so flagrantly erase Asian American actors from a Chinese story! Generally speaking, because of our mission and our commitment to Silk Road artists, we feel it imperative to align casting with race/ethnicity to the best of our ability. But "chops" trump all else. Does that mean we're going to cast a character specified as East Asian with a Caucasian or African American actor? We haven't yet and I don't plan to anytime soon.Christine Bunuan (Actress, Steppenwolf's "Kafka on the Shore")
I understand the anger behind not hiring more Asian actors especially if the story line is set in an Asian country. I would hope that they felt like they hired the right actors for the project. Yes, there isn't as much work for Asian actors. But, theoretically, colorblind casting should work both ways. Kind of seems like a double standard to ask the white folks to colorblind cast white plays but we don't do the same. More than anything, we need to be proactive in creating projects for ourselves. Find ways to express our voice without being at the mercy of someone else who may not take this particular casting idea into consideration. Take it upon ourselves to continually sharpen our skills and become better actors so that when we walk into that room for the audition, we bring creativity and inspiration... not the fear that they may not cast me because I'm Asian.Joel Kim Booster (Actor, Comedian, Member of The New Colony)
The fact remains that there are many roles out there that are coded as specifically Caucasian for no good reason. We're not asking for an all-Asian production of "A Raisin in the Sun" here. We're asking casting directors to take some chances and when they have the opportunity to do so, call in a nice Asian boy or girl for that romantic lead because it does take place in present day Brooklyn, and neither of them are Jewish.Dwight Egan Sora (Actor, Halcyon Theatre's "Family Devotions")
I genuinely believe that any artist or company has a right to produce work according to their own choices. Ultimately, the audience will decide if those choices are acceptable or have artistic merit. That being said, I find the casting decisions made on "The Nightingale" to be incredibly shortsighted. I'm a bit incredulous that neither Moisés Kaufman, Steven Sater, Duncan Sheik nor anyone at La Jolla Playhouse seemed to have anticipated the response their production would provoke among Asian American actors. It's as if the controversy over "Miss Saigon" never happened, not to mention the last several decades of public debate regarding diversity and representation in the media.Mia Park (Artistic Director of A-Squared Theatre Workshop)
This is complicated. I agree with Jamil, "chops" should trump all. I wonder what happened in that audition room that encouraged La Jolla to cast mostly Caucasian talent. We need to make our own opportunities, which are what my theater company, A-Squared, and what Silk Road Rising is all about. I was thrilled when I saw non-Asians in our "My Asian Mom" audiences. It was a great sign that non-Asians are interested in hearing our stories as told by us.Eliza Shin (Actress, Vitalist Theatre's "The Ghost is Here")
The greatest benefit from "The Nightingale" is that Asian-American actors are being seen as a collective by the overarching theatrical culture. Sure, "Miss Saigon" had its controversy, but America was at a different place. In light of Jeremy Lin's recent successes, as well as the "Kimchi Chronicles" and a myriad of other ways in which Asians are taking a greater stand in the public eye, we are at a new place. The issue with The Nightgale (all specifics aside) has, at the very least, brought our voices forward. Whether we like it or not, we are parts of a collective. Issues involving the perception of Asian American actors involve me, and if I'm in the profession, then like it or not, I'm part of the education of the American theatrical collective. Halle Berry knew this when she accepted her Oscar -- she knew she stood on the shoulders of all African Americans who bothered to take part in the craft. Our successes as Asians are similarly linked. And I am optimistic that our presence shines brighter as a result of the La Jolla incident.