Adding Diversity to Shakespeare: An Asian Theatre Company takes on "Henry VI"

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Alex Chester

We are currently living in a world that is constantly changing. I believe the art we create should reflect that. For me seeing a show, whether it’s theatre or film, it should be inclusive and diverse. This is not only fair but way more interesting than just seeing a bunch of white people act. Excuse me, I mean “People of Light.” Don’t ask. It’s a whole other can of worms. 

Diversity and Inclusion is something I am very passionate about. I believe creating new works that are intersectional in this political climate is a way we can fight for what is right and help heal the divide in our country. I also believe we can make shows of yore accessible to today’s public by giving a voice to groups of people normally not identified with such shows. 

This is exactly what National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) is doing with their latest production of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Not only is it an all-Asian cast but it’s amazing how a play a few hundred of years old is still incredibly relevant today. 

Co-founder and Artistic Producing Director Mia Katigbak, and Jon Norman Schneider who plays Henry answered some of my questions about NAATCO’s latest production. 

What is NAATCO? When was it founded and why? What significance has it had on American Theatre? 

Mia - NAATCO is National Asian American Theatre Company, the idea of which was developed from 1988 to 1990 when it became
an official entity. Two Asian American actors founded the company, Richard Eng and I, after we became frustrated with the lack of opportunities for Asian American actors in the theatre, outside of the usual stereotypes. Our founding repertory was the European and American classical canon, performing these as written without reference to Asian cultures. Not because that was a bad thing to do, but because that was the only way American audiences thought was relevant for us. We wanted to stretch their imagination so that it came close to what America looked like. We have continued to encourage these stretches, which has a positive effect on American Theatre, as it broadens the spectrum of casting opportunities for us and stimulates directors, producers, playwrights, casting directors to re-examine their mis-or preconceptions about Asian Americans. 

Why did you choose Henry VI? Are there any particular parallels between current affairs and this classic play? What do you hope the audience comes away with? 

Mia - I’ve always fantasized about an all-Asian American cast undertaking this massive epic. We get a sort of recap of Henry
IV and Henry V, and a preview of Richard III, meeting not just Richard, but his brothers, and Margaret, and Elizabeth. It's such fun to see all those folks together. Our director, Stephen Brown-Fried, encapsulates the topicality of these plays: what happens to a country when there is a vacuum at the top of government? In this way these plays are cautionary. England descends into chaos and anarchy because Henry VI is unfit to govern, his country loses prominence abroad and devolves into civil war. We hope that our audiences will consider and contemplate this. 

 The cast of NAATCO’s production of Henry VI

The cast of NAATCO’s production of Henry VI

Do you think that using actors of color in a classic play changes the intent of the work? 

Jon - I don't know that casting actors of color in classic plays necessarily change intent. What it does do, in my opinion, is bring the material into a modern, more relevant, context with regard to our present cultural moment. Whenever I see a diverse cast in a classical play, I lean in a bit more, knowing the production has taken my experience of the world into account and reflected it back to me. 

As an actor of color in a Shakespearean play, how do you make a “traditionally white” role authentic to you, your heritage and personal history? Do you even feel that it is necessary? Or does it just happen naturally? 

Jon - I don't really think in these kinds of terms when preparing to play Henry. Since the production itself doesn't mean to draw any particular correlation between my ethnicity and my role, it makes more sense to focus on the substance of the character's desires and intentions. 

Does your heritage define who you are as an actor? 

Jon - My ethnic heritage is certainly a prominent aspect of my castability in terms of which parts I may be up for, but I wouldn't say it completely "defines" me as an actor. I tend to see it as just one facet of many. We all contain multitudes, which is why being an actor and playing many different parts can feel so satisfying. 

Do you think by using actors of color in a classic play changes the intent of the work? 

Jon - I don't know that casting actors of color in classic plays necessarily change intent. What it does do, in my opinion, is bring the material into a modern, more relevant, context with regard to our present cultural moment. Whenever I see a diverse cast in a classical play, I lean in a bit more, knowing the production has taken my experience of the world into account and reflected it back to me. 

If you could pick any show, regardless of budget, which show would NAATCO produce and why? 

Mia - After this epic effort, I'd love to do something not quite so heavy. Maybe Fiddler On the Roof. The only musical we've ever done is Falsettoland and we have other Jewish plays under our belt, so why not this classic. Certainly not all light fare, but not as much violence and deviousness. And another fabulous opportunity to show off the brilliance of Asian American actors. Plus I wouldn't have to be in it, because I can't sing and dance. 

Mia, I think Fiddler would be awesome! There are a ton of Half-Asian Jews in the theatre community that would be delighted to tell that story. 

For more info on NAATCO’s production of Henry VI please visit their website: http://www.naatco.org/