Binders Full of Asians

Tue. November 13, 2012 12:00 AM
by Danny Bernardo

Taking the scope of this website into consideration, it's a pretty safe bet that the majority of my readers are in the LGBT community, or at least an ally. I'd go on a limb and say that the majority of those readers are liberals. So, let's put everything I'm about to wax poetic about in terms that'll really hit home. So, there was an election last week. Remember that? Remember how in all the lead up to it, all of a sudden you realized you had all these conservative friends that would rather get a tax break then acknowledge your existence as equal? You tried to present the argument reasonably, appealed to their sense of decency, tried all you could to put a face to the issue. And though you shouldn't have been shocked by the fact that they still voted for Romney, the very core of you was inexplicably hurt. "They think less of me, they value the money and the bottom line more than they value me." That, dear reader, is how it feels to be an actor of Asian descent in the world today.

Now you're thinking, "Whoa! How did we get here? How does one connect to the other? It's 2012, times have changed." And while yes, I've definitely had an easier go at it then, say, people ten years older than me, for every step forward there seems to be a geisha scurry back. It is 2012, but somehow shows like The Nightingale, a story set in ancient China, get produced at LaJolla Playhouse this past summer with a mostly Caucasian cast, including only two API (Asian Pacific Islander) actors. And more recently, The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Orphan of Zhao, often referred to as "Chinese Hamlet," boasts only three API actors in its seventeen person mostly Caucasian cast (who are, coincidentally, relegated to maid and dog-puppet roles.)

Both of these incidents occur mere months after a study from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition that cited that API's compromised only 2% of Broadway casts in the past five years. While it's very troubling that this is happening in the world's largest theatre markets, it's even more disturbing that it's happening right here in Chicago.

There are currently two productions slated for production this season that either brand itself as an iconic South Asian institution version of a well-known musical or feature a story set in an Asian country. I'll start with the former. Circle Theatre is presenting a Stephen Schwartz musical and billing it Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular. Not unlike the examples cited above, this cast (save one API) is all Caucasian. "Our production is a bit different in that it is not set in India, rather it is inspired by Bollywood film-making," said director/choreographer Kevin Bellie. The first look of the show from Broadway World Chicago reinforces that, revealing the 99.9% Caucasian cast in traditional Indian garb complete with bindis. "Much like adapting Shakespeare to a different time or place, this production uses the Bollywood film storytelling style to amplify the original Pippin story in its original form. Therefore, ethnicity is not the focus of the production, rather the design, story-telling style, dance and music. The casting for the production is multi-cultural rather than solely South Asian. We did not have a very large turnout of Asian actors for the show, but again, our idea was color blind rather than focused on South Asians only."

Now admittedly, I was one of few API actors that auditioned and truth be told, it was not my best audition. I left the room knowing that, so I completely understand not getting a callback. And to be fair, when perusing the other names signed up on their online audition list, I'd say about a third seemed to be of Asian or South Asian descent. Yet if their attempt to cast the show as mulit-culutural as possible is earnest, wouldn't one expect them to do some outreach on that regard? Especially to the ethnic group whose culture you're borrowing? It's not unheard of. When Porchlight Music Theatre did Pacific Overtures (Sondheim's all Asian musical about the Westernization of Japan), they turned to several other casting directors and theatre companies for every API actor they knew of and were able to cast the show with all API's. Rasaka Theatre Company , the Midwest's first South Asian Theatre Company, is often used as such a resource. I spoke with Rasaka Artistic Director Lavina Jadhwani about the topics brought up in this post and she shared part of an email she'd written to Bellie.

"I was disappointed to learn that your production does not appear to include a single South Asian theatre artist in the cast or production team," Jadhwani wrote to Bellie. "I understand that your production aims to depict Bollywood's ‘bursting colors and rich style,' but I am confused as to why you chose to do so without including any South Asians as part of your artistic conversation. To be honest, I find this decision artistically irresponsible." In speaking with Jadhwani about the conversation, she noted the production where her and I met: The Piano Tuner at Lifeline Theatre . The show was set in Burma and every actor who played a major role as a Burmese was an API. Going further into the topic of artistic responsibility, Jadhwani noted that Lifeline sought her out specifically as dramaturg for her Asian American perspective. Lifeline went even further with their commitment to cultural authenticity and involved the Burmese Consulate in helping them shape the show. This commitment to artistic and cultural integrity is one of the reasons why it is so suprising that they are the second recent example in Chicago theatre within this topic.

Bridge of Birds: A Tale of China That Never Was is slated for Spring 2013 at Lifeline Theatre. Again, a story about China. Many Chicago API actors were called in for this show, including myself. As I was booked with my own project in the same time slot, I declined, but offered up names of many more API's who weren't on the casting director's original list. More auditions were held and finally, a diverse cast made up of API's, bi-racial, and Caucasian actors.

Now I pause for a moment to note that I don't oppose diverse casting. Quite the contrary, I embrace it. It's a huge part of what I believe in as an artist. I owe pretty much my whole theatrical career to directors and casting directors who call me in and cast me against type because they themselves embrace diversity. And I'm very thankful for that. But again, this show is set in ancient China. Not the international hubs of modern day Beijing or Shanghai; ancient China. In its adaptation of the book by Barry Hughart, Lifeline built a storytelling framework that would justify the diversity in its casting.

This did not sit well with one of the API actors in the show and she made her concerns known to the production team. Rather than dismiss her concerns, the empathetic folks at Lifeline addressed them head on. They solicited her feedback on how to make the production more culturally aware. They acknowledged these problems and as a company, they are figuring out a solution that best meets their needs, the needs of the piece, and the needs of the community. It's rather inspiring, actually, another reason why I love doing theatre in Chicago. Because a midst all of these town hall forums and panel discussions happening in other cities (which, don't get me wrong, are quite valuable, and one in Chicago is in the works) real palpable action is taking place.

There are some who'd argue that color blind casting works both ways, that if API actors hope to get cast as traditionally white roles, we should expect the pendulum to swing the other way. But really, should we? When we have so few stories of our own to tell on the stage, should we expect to lose it to an actor of a different race, especially if it's set in a specific Asian country? Some will say make your own work. We are. We're blessed to have playwrights David Henry Hwang, Qui Nguyen, (Chicago's new hometown guy) Chay Yew, Lauren Yee, Julia Cho, and many more in our ranks. But even then, a story that was ours centuries ago gets taken by The RSC who make a piece about Ancient China about as Chinese as the ground floor of Harrods. Some will argue that "an actor of a different race was better." But if it's an Asian story... aren't you doing the piece itself a disservice by casting someone who doesn't actually represent that without the use of yellow face? Why are we still having discussions like this?

Because every director mentioned (save Jadhwani) in this post saw "lots and lots" of Asians, yet somehow, with all these binders full of Asians, we are not always seeing ourselves represented onstage. Because in the same month that Bruce Norris withdrew a German production of Clybourne Park because a white actor was to have appeared in black face, a respected British critic said in his review of The Orphan of Zhao that the lack of Asian representation "should not diminish the power" of the piece. Because an all-Caucasian cast of A Raisin in the Sun would never see the light of day, but pieces like the ones mentioned above have been happening for decades. Because it's time API actors stopped living up to our submissive stereotype and stand up for ourselves.

You can't borrow our culture and not invite us to the party. You can't say you practice colorblind casting if you are blind to color. You can't tell our story without us and call yourself an artist, for an artist seeks truth in their work. You can't mold our truth to fit your agenda. I can only echo my friend Eliza Shin's sentiments from my article about The Nightingale controversy: "At the very least, this has brought our voices forward."

UPDATE - November 16, 2012 - Bridge of Birds at Lifeline has been postponed for a future season while the creative team revamps the piece and is able to cast it more fully with API actors. The season will now close with The Three Musketeers

For further reading on the ongoing challenges in casting for API's, please read this amazing post from Chicago actress Eliza Shin .