There Are No Asian Men In China?- The Nightingale Panel Discussion

A few days ago, several creatives from the La Jolla Playhouse had a panel discussion about the recent casting debacle surrounding their new production of The Nightingale. You can see the whole thing here.

My notes annotating the discussion are below, but before those, I'd like to thank the La Jolla Playhouse for seeking accountability on this issue. There are so many responsible for whitewashed movies and theatre productions alike who think that they are totally justified in what they do, and hardly bother with open discussion regarding the choices that they make. This is a rare thing.

The way that Christine Toy Johnson, Cindy Cheung, and Andy Lowe recount their initial reactions to the casting in The Nightingale is gutwrenching. Immediately after this, Christopher Ashley apologizes for having offended anyone in the Asian-American theatre community.

Moises Kaufman:
I want to talk about the design process. It's true... that there is a sense in which this feels Chinese right? There are Chinese lanterns, yes, the whole back wall is filled with Moroccan lanterns, there are some costumes that are very influenced by Asian aesthetic, the costume of the Emperor is based completely on an Iranian Emperor's robe, the robes of the townspeople are all based on Brazilian fishermen...
[The casting] is an issue of representation that because we were in a workshop, we were still figuring out.
I see what he's trying to say here, but there is a very successful show running on Broadway that is set in Africa with a set and design that borrows elements from many cultures, and music that ranges from Broadway to soft pop to South African. Despite the show having elements from everywhere and anywhere, in the fourteen years it has been running, it persists in having an all-black cast: Lo-

Cindy Cheung responds to Moises Kaufman's comments about multi-ethnicity.
It's still glaring that there are no Chinese men on stage... except the puppets. 
Yes. This is exactly my reaction. Reducing an entire demographic to props or background does not a multi-ethnic cast make.
You said that you didn't want this to be a real China... but China's a real place!
Again. Yes.
Multi-cultural casting... was never meant to justify a Caucasian person playing a culturally specific role.
I wonder if the play was set in Africa, with an African king role, would you have dared to cast a white man in that role?
This question is never answered. It is dismissed as non-productive.

After more discussion by the panelists, the panel is opened to the spectators.

The second person who gets to speak points out that even with the multi-cultural cast, The Nightingale still plays into harmful tropes and stereotypes. The world of The Nightingale is still ruled by a white man, dark-skinned characters are still morally ambiguous, whereas light-skinned characters are good, and the character played by the solitary Asian actress is still the foreigner. In the 'multi-ethnic' world that was created, there are still no Native-Americans, Middle-Easterners, South-West Asians, or people with disabilities.

The playwright Steven Sater is here to talk about his artistic vision:
We felt as white creators, we would not presume to tell or know the story of Asia, that the music which existed for the piece and the story-telling, which is more than anything informed by Shakespeare, and coming from a Danish telling of the story... I didn't want to tell a story only about Asia. I felt that... I wanted to tell a story about the world in which I live, which is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. I think that I still feel that. But I must say that in Spring Awakening, all the place names are German, all the character names are German, the costume design is informed by German costumes of the nineteenth century, that all the set-pieces in the back where of German heritage, and yet we cast a Jewish girl in the leading role.
Where to start with this statement, which I plays into so many apologist tropes that it's like shooting fish in a barrel pointing out what's wrong.

First, even if you didn't want to tell the story of Asia, Mr Sater, that should not have excluded Asian actors from taking part in this production. Stripping a narrative of race and time just so you can sidestep the issue of having Asian people in the characters you create looks bad. Asian actors need not only be cast when the text deals with race. That limits what they are allowed to do.

Just because the fairy-tale that you are adapting from happens to be told by a white person, and is being adapted by a white creative team, does not justify excluding Asian actors from your work. If the characters in your text are Asian, then most of the actors should be too. If you set the text in the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic world that you lived in, then you can cast as multi-culturally and multi-ethnically as you want. But you set it in China, whether your China was 'real' or not.

Spring Awakening is a show set in Germany, and there was a predominantly white cast. There have never been issues of representation regarding white people on Broadway. The only time I can think of people of colour playing characters that are specifically meant to be white are in the latest Kander and Ebb show The Scottsboro Boys. White people constantly play characters that are of a specific ethnicity or minority. It is a fact. To compare the representation in Spring Awakening to that of The Nightingale is misleading and wrong, because as long as Broadway stays the way it is, actors of German descent and colouring will never be out of work.

Also, how could you possibly presume to know or tell the story of a pubescent German girl at the turn of the century, Stephen Slater? And you know, because the source play of Spring Awakening was written by Franz Wedekind, a middle-aged man, shouldn't you have cast a middle-aged man as Wendla Bergmann? That would have been the right thing to do, in my opinion.

After Stephen Sater's appearance, there are several more questions from spectators. A lot of them are angry, a lot of them are sad, but everyone is very happy to have had the opportunity to get all their feelings out about the situation.

I think this was a very productive discussion. Surely this will be a useful precedent in future dialogues about casting in theatre.

 Things I think that need to be taken away from this panel:

1. This is a workshop production. The vision may not be the same as a production on a mainstream stage. However, this workshop production is still a show that people pay money to see.

2. Contrary to popular opinion, apparently, Asian-American actors do exist, but they lack representation in visible theatre companies such as La Jolla due to casting choices like the ones made regarding The Nightingale.

3. Colour-blind or multi-ethnic casting is a concept that is meant to provide opportunities for actors of colour. In The Nightingale, it appears that colour-blind casting was used to provide opportunities for white actors, even if that was not what was intended.

4. Artistic license in the theatre should always be tempered with a sense of moral justice.

5. Creatives and companies alike should always be ready to be held accountable for their choices in theatre.

PS: I finally noticed that my last article on The Nightingale was in fact quoted and linked in the International Business Times about ten days ago. I'm 'one angry blogger' now!

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