Many Major Theaters Believe in Color Blind Casting (Except When It Comes to People of Color)

Laura Beck

Chuck Mee is all about fairness. The legendary American playwright believes there's no such thing as an original play, and invites visitors to his website to "remix" his work. He also has some pretty visionary ideas about casting his shows. He writes:

Casting Note: In my plays, as in life itself, the female romantic lead can be played by a woman in a wheelchair. The male romantic lead can be played by an Indian man. And that is not the subject of the play. There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person. And directors should go very far out of their way to avoid creating the bizarre, artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists where I live, in casting my plays.

This quote particularly resonates with Asian actors, who are historically underrepresented on the stage. Many say a regular refrain from theaters is that they believe in colorblind casting. But, as a rash of recent controversies demonstrates, in practice that often means casting white actors in Asian roles.

Collaborators Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater recently ran a high profile workshop of the The Nightingale at the prestigious La Jolla Playhouse. The play's set in ancient China, and the lead role of a Chinese monarch was cast with a white actor.

As the Huffington Post points out:

Most of the grievances have been aired on the theater company's Facebook page. "Would you cast non African American people in the roles of 'The Color Purple' or an August Wilson play or 'Topdog/Underdog'???" wrote one commenter. "I am eagerly anticipating your multiracial, non-traditionally cast production of Glengarry Glen Ross! Should be outstanding!" wrote another.

To his credit, the show's director Christopher Ashley said that Asian actors were cast in some of the show's smaller roles, and he was open to talking about the underrepresentation as a larger issue. In fact, as a direct response to this uproar, Ashley and several artistic directors of other local theaters gathered for a panel discussion about the question. Since the theater world is relatively small and interconnected, word about controversies this size generally spreads quickly. So it's surprising that two other high profile theaters made the same mistake in less than a year.

London's Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Orphan of Zhao. Often referred to as the "Chinese Hamlet", the 17 person cast had only three actors of east Asian heritage in it — and they all had minor roles (including one woman who just played a dog).

British Chinese actor Daniel York, the vice-chair of the British Equity's ethnic minority committee, told the Guardian the problem isn't confined to the RSC: "The whole industry is reluctant to cast east Asians in non-race specific roles. We are generally only thought of as the Chinese takeaway man or the Japanese businessman." he said.

It is a vicious cycle, York continued: "It's incredibly hard for an east Asian person to build up the track record that would enable the RSC to feel confident in casting them in a decent role. We're not on the radar because we're not working very much."

The RSC said it cast such an overwhelmingly large white cast because it needed to use the same actors in its other productions. However, Gabby Wong at Big Green Scotland makes theexcellent points:

The Orphan of Zhao is being played in repertory with two other plays, Pushkin's Boris Godunov and Brecht's Life of Galileo, and the justification for this ‘diverse, colourblind' casting is that all actors must be suitable for all three plays. But none of the East Asian actors in the ensemble have leading roles in any of the three plays, taking on subservient roles in all of them. The title role of The Orphan of Zhao is played by Jake Fairbrother, yet it seems unimaginable that the RSC would have one of the East Asian actors play Boris or Galileo.

So the RSC are saying it is OK to have a white actor play a leading Chinese character but a Chinese actor can play a white character only as long as it is minor and hidden away; that Chinese people can't tell a white story but they are now not even permitted to tell their own story either. Newsflash – it is only ‘diverse' if the colourblindness is two-way traffic.

Then there's the most recent, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the play within a play inspired by an unfinished Charles Dickens novel. White actors are cast to portray two Sri Lankan characters — and they do so wearing brown face makeup. The New York Times even calls the production out for their "silly imitation exoticism" and "...absurd burnt umber makeup". It'sdebatable whether the directors and producers should've cast white people and let them just look white; or cast Asian people and, you know, just let them look like themselves. Oh, and like the characters they're playing.

And it goes on: Recent casting breakdowns for a Bollywood play coming to the states says in the first line: "NOTE: We are open to seeing Actors who are Non Indian, but who can believably play Indian Characters." Another recently removed from Callboard (probably because it'd been cast) for Priscilla Queen Of The Desert read: SEEKING: CYNTHIA Female, 20s – 30s, Asian. (Actor can be any ethnicity-as long as she can convincingly portray Asian on stage).

You have to wonder if that would fly if they'd replaced Asian with "convincingly play black on stage," or even "convincingly play white on stage."

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