Colourblind Casting Two: You're Doing It Wrong

So lately it has come to my attention that Duncan Sheik, who wrote the angsty coming-of-age rock musical Spring Awakening, has premiered a new show at the La Jolla Playhouse. The Nightingale is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, and has also kept the story's original setting of Ancient China.

Well great!

I find that the work for Asian actors in theatre, particularly commercial musical theatre, is really scarce. And it's not just me. Advocates for casting equality have been pointing out the conspicuous lack of representation for Asian actors since Jonathan Pryce donned yellowface to play the only major Asian male character for Miss Saigon back in 1989. As I've pointed out before, Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I has a long and proud history of yellowface for all its major Asian characters since its premiere in the fifties. Whenever someone puts on a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, you can bet there is a negligible amount of Asian actors in it.

Though there are projects that are meant to feature predominantly Asian casts, such as Pacific Overtures, Bombay Dreams, Flower Drum Song, and lately, Allegiance, the fact is that creators on Broadway and elsewhere don't tell the stories of Asian people, or even feature them in the work that they put out. So I approached the idea of The Nightingale with an air of optimism.

No. No no no no no.

Let's look at this:

Sheik responded [to the criticisms on casting] by stating that the piece isn't about Asian culture, and went on to explain that Andersen's purpose was "writing a satire about the West, and setting it in China"
Oh, thank you for explaining that to us, Mr Sheik. You know, the same thing can be said of Gilbert setting The Mikado in Japan, but I still get really upset when the cast for that show is predominantly white. No matter what you think the intent was regarding the setting of the story, the fact is that The Nightingale is still set in China. You and the creatives on this show made the conscious decision to have a Chinese setting in your musical. About 80% of creating theatre is choices, and you made that choice. Nobody forced you to.

If you didn't want any Asian people in your show, you should have set it somewhere else. Nobody would have cared if you decided to set it in Generic White City, because that's what we've come to expect in our entertainment. But you kept this show in China, with all the Chinese stereotypes and your beloved Chinese puppets, but without the Chinese people. And that's why we're pissed off.

Not even going to get started on your use of actual Chinese history and people from it, such as the Dowager Empress, to springboard a satire about the West. I'd get pissy.

At the start of the workshop process, “The Nightingale" had an Asian cast, but was changed since it wasn’t “appropriate to the piece we’ve written,” said Sheik.
 Let me guess. Because you didn't explicitly write race into your piece, you felt totally comfortable jettisoning  your Asian cast. That's not racist. That's just a sound artistic decision right there. I guess we congratulate you now for looking beyond race and casting the best person possible. Good job, Sheik. Good job, La Jolla.

No. Not a good job.

The excuse of casting the best people for the show is all well and dandy, but when it's used as a deflector from criticism regarding racial insensitivity, that pisses me off. It's an excuse used for every whitewashed Hollywood film that's ever come out, and that the theatre community should start doing that is just depressing as fuck.

Even if their actors are not using yellowface (dubious progress, I suppose), the fact remains that the people behind The Nightingale at the La Jolla Playhouse used Ancient China as an exotic (in the worst, most objectifying sense of the word) setting for their new musical. Because a piece is not centred around race, the (white) creatives felt that casting Asian actors was distracting or 'inappropriate' to the piece they'd written, and proceeded to cast non-Asian people who were appropriate.

Colourblind casting gone spectacularly wrong, my friends.

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