Race & Theatre: Some Questions

Aaron Netsky

  • New York Columnist

This may not go well. In the conversation about diversity in theatre, I have pretty much kept my public remarks to “Yes,” or, on Facebook, “Like.” That’s my contribution to conversations about diversity in everything, but theatre is where I am and have long been, so it gets more consideration, if not more words. I would like to contribute more words, but I have trouble finding them, nor have I found my place in the conversation. Advancing diversity in theatre doesn’t even seem like it needs arguing for, there is no legitimate “con” to all of the “pros,” it should happen and that’s all there is to it.

Theatre should be created to represent different viewpoints and experiences. But what about theatre that has been and will be again? Few things in my past, particularly my theatre past, make me feel like an active part of the problem, but when I read something like the recent On Stage article “Whitewashing in Theatre Will Always be a Method of Racial Exclusion,” one episode in my past, one of my very favorite theatre experiences, gives me pause: that time I played a samurai. Not a Tom Cruise-ish samurai, a real one, a Japanese one. I should mention I am white, as were most of the cast members in this college production of Pacific Overtures. So I have some questions about this thing that happened, that I was part of, that I may have briefly thought twice about at the time, but only recently started to analyze. I don’t know how I will come off, but this is what I have to contribute to the conversation: questions. Specifically, and stemming from, was this wrong?

Students don’t pick the show, and my classmates and I would not have picked this one, but that was more from lack of familiarity and love for the material than a sense of “we shouldn’t be doing this because none of us have Asian ancestry.” A white professor picked the show. It was her turn to do the musical, and this was her favorite. This person has devoted her life to the study of Asian culture, particularly theatre and dance, and taught many classes on those subjects. She also had her own theatre program within the theatre program that put on one or two plays every year by playwrights of Asian descent and filled the casts with ethnically appropriate students, recruited from her classes and various clubs. These plays were unlike anything I had ever seen, as was Pacific Overtures. In the case of Pacific Overtures, though, it being a musical, she could not count on just anyone stepping up and being able to carry the material with a little bit of acting coaching. The score is very challenging, and our singing actors, our musical theatre and vocal performance majors, were almost all white. There were a few non-white students in the cast, and a few of those were of Asian descent, but they mostly played the silent kuroko, living scenery dressed all in black who kept the set in motion and occasionally danced.

It was a beautifully realized production. I have yet to hear a recording of Pacific Overtures with voices I like better than what we brought to the stage. And no one complained that we were mostly white at the time (one of the students, who played the shogun, was black, and went on the next semester to play Sara Jane Moore, who is white in real life, in Assassins). Perhaps this was because we were a small, obscure school in the middle of nowhere. It may also have had something to do with the fact that social media was a new thing; I don’t think Twitter even existed, and discussion of diversity in theatre wasn’t happening on the scale it is now. We didn’t darken our skin, make up our eyes, or slip into stereotypical Asian accents, though five of us did put on exaggerated accents to play the foreign admirals in “Please, Hello,” which, in the context of this conversation, is a very confusing song, because those are white characters being portrayed in exaggerated, stereotypical ways according to how the white man who wrote the score (Stephen Sondheim, by the way) thought 19th century Japanese people would have experienced them. But, it’s the most fun I have ever had in an ensemble number. Is that bad?

Before I get to the actual questions, I just want to pull a quote from perhaps the top driving force for diversity in theatre, Lin-Manuel Miranda, but not one to do with Hamilton, not even the one from an interview in which he said if local productions of his smash hit are ever cast such that the actors look like the real founding fathers, they did it wrong. No, the quote from him that I want to bring up comes from a rap he performed at the Broadway closing of his first musical, In the Heights, which was, naturally, filmed on a phone and put on YouTube: “And I know how upset some of ya’ll are gettin’, but listen, the Heights ain’t closing, this is spreading. And yeah, I’m up here on this lectern, one day you’ll be somewhere Midwestern, somewhere chillin’ in some outer theatre lobby, some little high schooler’s gonna be playin’ Usnavi. So I want all of ya’ll to grab this: that little white kid is gonna know what a Puerto Rican flag is.”

I can’t speak for my fellow cast members from Pacific Overtures, and this is many years ago now, but I learned things about Japanese history and culture that I would probably still not have learned even by now by being immersed in that musical, and I am very grateful for that. Rebekah Dare Guin brings up the casting of a white actor as the lead in Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theater’s production of In the Heights in her “Whitewashing” article, which is a professional company, but she also mentions theatre in educational contexts. I don’t know what Miranda’s current stance on white kids playing Usnavi is, but at least on that closing night he seemed to see some benefit to the kid: he would know what a Puerto Rican flag is. He would learn about another culture.

So would it be wrong, in that context, to introduce a musical with non-white characters into a probably mostly white school situation? Was it wrong for my former professor to choose Pacific Overtures knowing she would most likely have a mostly white cast? Was it wrong for us to go along with this? Should I be ashamed of having been part of that production? Would it have been different if it were Porgy and Bess?

Even as I typed that, I knew the answer, and yet didn’t. Does it matter that this decision came from the professor’s passion and respect for the culture, her desire to share it with the wider school community? Does it matter that, in this case at that college, we were not taking the roles from qualified students with the right ethnic backgrounds, and would it in the case of Miranda’s hypothetical little Midwestern white boy playing Usnavi? Guin also mentions that a black man should not play Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, but all-black productions of plays that have traditionally been done with all white casts are often said to bring new depth and meaning to the plays and characters, or shed light on the plight of the African American experience and community. That’s different, I know, more about opening up opportunities for performers who, because of their ethnicities, wouldn’t otherwise have as many opportunities as white people, but a play about a family hiding from ethnic cleansing might have something to say about the black experience. Or does the fact that that particular play is about a very particular ethnic cleansing mean that it would be offensive to cast it non-traditionally? Should all of the actors in Anne Frank always be Jewish? Identifiably so, or just ethnically?

In all of the contributions to this conversation that I have experienced, I have not found answers to these questions. In a related subject, recent strides have been made in the transgender community in the arts, and, accepting his most recent Emmy for playing a trans-woman, Jeffrey Tambor said that he would be ok with being the last non-trans person to play a trans person. Another question I have never gotten a real answer to is, if non-trans actors should not play trans characters, should trans actors play non-trans characters?

Again, the answer is about creating sufficient available opportunities for trans performers, but does that mean that eventually things change when the world becomes a wonderful, completely equal place? Will the day come when trans actors will have enough trans roles to never need to play non-trans roles, and will it be considered as wrong for the latter to happen as it is now for non-trans actors to play trans characters? Or will the day come when a man in life, whether trans or not, can play a man on stage, trans or not, and the same with women, and no one will bat an eye? Are gender and sexuality different than race when it comes to stepping into an experience not your own as part of a performance? Are they more akin to playing someone from a different walk of life, a different income bracket, who is differently-abled, or a survivor of some disaster or trauma? Are these questions offensive? Or have I missed something, and the answers are there if I only look, or should they be obvious? Should there be definitive answers and hard and fast rules, or should these things be considered situation to situation?

Just a few things I’ve been wondering.

Photo: Noni McCallum (centre) and cast in Pacific Overtures at Theatre Works.