People come from all walks of life and backgrounds (even those with the same skin color), so to ask someone to sound "blacker" only shows your narrow-mindedness by lumping all of us into one vision. It really does come off like “They all look and sound the same”.Read More
As a POC(Performer of Color), I celebrate anytime Broadway demonstrates inclusion whether it's with casting or show selection. However there is one group that is massively getting left out from this new wave of diversity awareness, Native Americans.
The timing has never been better to bring Native American stories and performers to Broadway.Read More
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote EVITA (partially) because Tim Rice was obsessed with Evita’s face on a postage stamp as a kid. One of their source materials was The Woman with the Whip (though never credited as such? Typical.), which was written by someone who was born in Argentina, had neither met Evita or had any basis for her “sources.” Why is this depiction of Eva Péron the most notable and given the most priority?Read More
Oh, the unglamorous life of an actor. The shit we go through and the crazy-ass roles we get sent in for and sometimes book. Also, the sexist and racist roles in Hollywood absolutely make me ask this question day in and day out. Why?
My friend Lynne Marie Rosenberg has started a revolution of sorts called Cast and Loose. It started off as a Tumblr page and has grown into something so much more.Read More
2016 was the year of white-washing, yellow-facing, and an all-around ordeal for Asian American representation. Asian-Americans reacted in different ways. So people created hashtags, some people created podcasts, and some people made a brilliant variety show.Read More
I remember the first time I met Baayork Lee. I was at an audition she was holding for A Chorus Line and there I was star struck trying to pick up the iconic dance combination from the opening number. Here was this legend I grew up hearing about, literally right in front of me. I didn’t get cast, but a year later I would make my NYC debut in Baayork’s Teatre company’s production of Hello Dolly. Not only did I get the rare chance to play a dream role, Minnie Fay, but I got to work with Baayork Lee who is a mother freaking legend in the Broadway community and the nicest lady to boot!
If you know anything about theatre you have heard of Ms. Lee. She started her career playing Princess Ying Yaowalak in the original Broadway production of The King and I starring Yul Brynner, and is known best for originating Connie Wong in A Chorus Line. Her career has spanned decades and she can still dance the opening number from ACL full out! She is also the co-founder of National Asian Artist Project.
This year she is being honored with the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for her significant contributions to charitable causes through the arts. About damn time is all I have to say to that, and bravo! Baayork is kind and generous and she has created a community for the Asian-American performer. She has proven that hard work and perseverance pays off! I am so honored that she let me interview her.
Baayork, in the time that you've been performing and producing, do you think Asian Pacific Islanders (API) have progressed any, if at all? Or do you think we still have a long way to go?
We have progressed a lot compared to the 1950's. However even with Hamilton, with it's diversity we won't know if that was a fluke, so we have to wait till the next season of theater and see how it unfolds. I still think we have a long way to go.
What do you think is the biggest thing holding back the API performer?
The producers, writers, directors, and casting. They need to be more open-minded in the use of the talent of the Asian-American Artist in their shows.
As a multiracial person myself I am always interested in how other mixed-raced people identify. Did you find you had to choose between one racial aspect of yourself over the other? Was it difficult growing up in Chinatown as a half-Chinese, half-Indian kid?
I lived in Chinatown, I went to school in Chinatown, my father’s restaurant was in Chinatown. My friend’s that I went to school with were: Chinese-Puerto Rican, Chinese-Polish, Chinese-Italian, this was not unusual. The Exclusion Act and Ministry of Agriculture closing the doors to China enabled the Chinese men to start families here. As Chinese women were not allowed to come to work in the USA, only men.
Your career has spanned decades and you have worked with legends. Do you have a favorite show you performed in? Do you have a favorite story about Michael Bennett? Yul Brynner?
I loved Promises, Promises and A Chorus Line.
[On the topic of Michael Bennett] In order to get the cast to react spontaneously, Michael at the end of our first workshop, all dressed in his party clothes (because he was giving us a party at his house) said, “let’s do the opening combination and I'll dance." The music started. He was dancing with the boys and all of sudden slipped and fell to the floor screaming. I knew he had knee problems, so everyone just stopped. Someone said he had a prescription for Valium, he ran out the door to fill it. I ran to the bathroom to wet paper towels. Why? I don't know. When I came out Michael was standing, everyone was laughing, and he said, "I want you to remember everything you did." I was furious and angry. However, the scene in ACL is exactly how it happened.
[On King and I] Yul Brynner was a father to the children, he took us to the circus, he took us out for Christmas. We did a lot of publicity and lots of appearances. He was like a father to us. And when he was dying he invited all of us to see his last performance In NY. After the show there was a party. He could hardly speak because he had cancer of the throat. But we all went back to his huge apartment and he talked to us for hours telling us all about himself and his thoughts on life. I will always remember that evening.
You have become a very well-known choreographer. Would you ever consider performing again?
I will not be performing anymore. The excitement for me is in the creating and the development process.
Can you tell the readers about National Asian Artist Project? What is NAAP? Why did you start it? Do you think NAAP is the first of its kind in NYC? What are your hopes for the future of this awesome company?
Steven Eng, Nina Zoie Lam and I started NAAP because we felt there was a need for the Asian-American performer to experience performing in the American Musical Classics. Since they would never have an opportunity to be cast in any of the shows, never be able to sing the songs of the great composers. They were chained to The King and I, Flower Drum Song or Miss Saigon. I think NAAP is the first to produce on such a large scale. Our last production Oliver we had 64 in our cast. We also realized that education is important. We decided to bring Arts Education to PS 124 in Chinatown, where Nina Zoie and I grew up.
Giving back to the community is important. Introducing children to Musicals, having them sing and dance and travel each year to the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta, opens their world to 6,000 other children who love musicals. Working on their diction, projects, and speaking and singing in front of their peers. We started an adult chorus for professional performers and students. NAAP Broadway Community Chorus sings the composers of the American Theatre and gives concerts after each segment is completed. This gives the professionals an opportunity to keep their voices ready for auditions and the students to work on their sight reading and harmonies. We also offer Ballet classes, Jazz class, and Tap classes at a reasonable fee for members.
Is there anything that those who are currently representing us (Asian Americans) on stage can do to support NAAP and other Asian-driven companies in the arts?
Well, they certainly can help by donations to NAAP. Or help fund-raise as these programs need funding as grants are now going away with this administration. We are so proud of everyone who goes out there and breaks down another wall. NAAP is always here for them and for the newbies just coming to town.
What projects or shows are you working on next?
We are working on another co-production with Prospect Theater. Last year we co-produced Honor with them at the Times Building Theatre. We also have a summer NAAP Kids program.
Thank you so much Baayork and congrats on the Tony! It is truly and honor to know you and be part of the NAAP community!
For more info on NAAP please visit their website:
Alex Chester is a California gal living in NYC. She has been performing since she was a little girl and is also the creator of the blog MeSoHapa.com and the multicultural cabaret "WeSoHapa", recently seen at The Triad. Theatre credits include: Broadway's “How the Grinch Stole Xmas” – Madison Square Garden (NYC) and the Broadway sit down production at The Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. A Biker in "Bubble Boy" by Cinco Paul, original cast recording and at 54 Below, starring Alice Ripley. Minnie Fay in “Hello Dolly” directed by Lee Roy Reams at the Signature Theatre (Off-Broadway), Joy/Skyler in “A Taste of Chocolate” with AMAS directed by Dan Knechtges (NYC). Connie in “A Chorus Line” at The Berkshire Theatre Festival (Regional), “The King and I” at Dallas Summer Musicals (Regional). TV credits include: ER, The Closer, 7th Heaven, and several national/international commercials. http://www.AlexChester.com Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester
It’s that time of year, kids! That one magic moment in June where the best of Broadway comes together, gets gussied up in all of its finery, walks the red carpet and consistently loses in TV ratings to the NHL Finals and, one year, “Ice Road Truckers.”
But let’s save the Tony Awards for another day. Today, it is my artistic imperative to tell you about one Orville Mendoza. To the common person on the street, he might appear as an everyman, one of the Happy Wanderers or (to fans of Tony Kornheiser) “A Little.” But I am here to feature and celebrate a man beautiful in the face, elegant on the stage and fearless on the page.
I first became aware of Mendoza by way of his standout character turns in shows like Adrift in Macao, Road Show, Found, Passion and the truly superb Charles Francis Chan, Jr's. Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery.
But it was during a mini-tour of Miss Saigon where I became fully aware of the power of Mendoza’s talent, dedication and ability to fearlessly brandish his words as a powerful advocate for common sense and equality. Some might even call him a hero, and I would not disagree. You can learn more about that particular Saigon controversy by using your Google Machine.
Currently, he can be seen as Manjiro in the acclaimed Classic Stage revival of Sondheim and Weidman’s Pacific Overtures. In a fairly unprecedented move, I opt NOT to waste your time with self-indulgent blather. So let’s get to the interview!
I've been a fan since the first staging of Adrift in Macao, in which your character “Tempura” had been “battered by life.” Let's go back a little bit. Where did you grow up and when did the theatre big first bite you? Was your family supportive of this path, and was there a specific moment you realized you wanted this to be your career?
I was born in Manila, Philippines, and my family came to the U.S. when I was two. I grew up in Victorville, CA, in the middle of dirt, tumbleweeds and Joshua trees.
My family are devout Seventh-day Adventists. A Christian theatre troupe came to our church and needed a boy to play Isaac -- they were reenacting the scene where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stops him at the last minute because he sees that Abraham would sacrifice anything for God thereby passing the test — I got the part of Isaac. I think I was six or seven years old at the time. All I had to do was lay there and then get up and hug Abraham at the end of the scene. It was so dramatic. I loved it. I was hooked.
In high school, I played Tevye in our show choir's presentation of "Selections from Fiddler on the Roof." I was a character actor even as a teen.
Fast forward to college. I started pre-med at Loma Linda University/La Sierra and realized that I was miserable. I transferred to Cal-State, San Bernardino under the guise of being a Business major. I secretly took an acting class in the theatre department and once again the acting bug bit.
When I announced to my parents that I was changing my major, they were not happy, to say the least. They had no idea how I was going to make a living. Frankly, I didn't either, but somehow I knew it was going to be alright. When I got the national tour of Miss Saigon after graduation, they were better with my career decision, if not whole-heartedly supportive.
Leaping into Pacific Overtures, you have the distinction of having been a part of both the 2004 Broadway revival and the current production. As an overall piece of art, do you find that its meaning and resonance have noticeably changed in those 13 years?
Pacific Overtures is more relevant now than ever. I think when Sondheim, Weidman and Hal Prince were originally exploring the piece, they wanted to make a statement about how we as Westerners are viewed by the outside world.
With our current presidential administration, we have sort of switched places with the Japan of the 1800's. We are now the ones wanting to keep people out and isolate ourselves. It is a history lesson and it's interesting how for good or for bad, history really just repeats itself.
What was your first exposure to Pacific Overtures? It is SO Sondheim and SO ambitious and SO difficult. Paint me a word picture describing your first reaction to the show.
In the desert, the only culture I got was through PBS and the local library. As a kid, I remember riding my bike to the public library and pouring over their record collection. It was vinyl records and cassettes back then.
One of the first albums I checked out was Pacific Overtures. I had no idea what the show was about, but the pictures showed Asians onstage on Broadway. It was the first inkling that I could possibly be an actor when I grew up. The first time I heard the vamp to "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," I was transported. It was foreign, yet familiar. It was complex and intricate but yet made perfect sense. I didn't understand the brilliance of the lyrics until much later. I fell in love with the songs and Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations which were captured so brilliantly on that original cast recording.
Do you have any particular memories from the Broadway revival that really stood out?
I was a swing so I covered four of the men in the show. The first time I went on in an emergency, I had to be Commodore Perry. In that production, Commodore Perry was a huge puppet body that sat on your shoulders with eyes that lit up. You really couldn't see once the thing was on.
Our set was beautiful blonde wood that was raked in a sort of thrust and surrounded by a pool of water on all three sides. I was terrified. I hadn't really rehearsed the puppet before and I was sure I was going to fall into the water. I survived!
My other memory is knitting backstage, I'm an avid knitter - a skill I picked up on tour. As a swing you have a lot of "hurry up and wait." I was making cashmere gloves at the time. My hero, Paul Gemignani, who was our musical director and conductor, would sit next to me during intermission and would comment on how skilled I was at knitting.
In my head I was yelling, "Ummm, you are mutha-effing PAUL GEMIGNANI! You conducted the original cast on that recording I would check out of the public library five times in a row as a kid! If I had half the skill you have in your little pinky, THAT would be something!"
It's amazing when your heroes live up to and exceed your expectations. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be making my Broadway debut in a Sondheim/Weidman show working with some of the people on that original cast album.
In this staging, you work once more with John Doyle. Tell me more about his approach to the show and how his essentialist/minimalist take on theatre has affected the source material.
For me, John's approach has made the show incredibly personal. This show has been in my blood for almost four decades now. I've lived a lot of life in that time and the lens I look at the world now has definitely changed from when I was an 8 year old boy. Revisiting this show has been like reuniting with an old friend you haven't seen in a long time. You just kind of pick up where you left off, but hopefully this time wiser and smarter.
This is my third show with John Doyle having been in the original company of Road Show at The Public and his revival of Passion at CSC.
Whenever I work with John, it's like a reset in my artistic ideals. His work requires pure honesty. You don't have a set, props or lavish costumes to hide behind. You just have yourself and your life and your experiences. The thing I always have to remind myself as an actor is that I am enough. John constantly reminds us of that fact as well.
As a character guy, I was trained to deliver things in a specific way (usually very broad and big) to make the joke land or make the scene pop. John's work is completely counter-intuitive to how I was trained in musicals. In his shows, I don't need to put on a crazy accent or give an over the top delivery. I just need to breathe and tell the truth. Sometimes it won't be flashy, but it will be real.
That honesty is tough to do. Honestly, I think most of us really get into acting to be someone else. When what's required is the true essence of you, it's very scary but ultimately, the most rewarding kind of work.
There are big cuts, mostly interstitial scenes, with the biggest controversy being the cutting of “Chrysanthemum Tea.” We were never going to use Kabuki to tell this story. John Doyle is not a Kabuki expert and he knew right away that we would be finding our own physical language for the show. Most of those interstitial scenes were little side stories giving you more of the character of Japan. It is now really focused on Kayama, Manjiro, and Lord Abe and their human relationship. It asks what the personal toll is when a country decides to change radically from it’s former state.
I like to think of John’s work as a distillation as opposed to a trimming. You are getting all of the deep emotional and story points of the show in a concentrated single act. John thought it was important to not let the audience “off the hook” and let them experience the piece uninterrupted. It is a very full 90 minutes.
Did you put in any particular external research in preparation? Tell more about your character and his very particular, very important arc in the telling of the story.
Manjiro is based on an actual historical man named Nakahama “John” Manjiro, aka John Mung. He was rescued from his fishing boat along with his brother and two other men and taken to Hawaii. His brother and the other men decided to go back to Japan, but Manjiro opted to travel with his rescuers back to Massachusetts where he lived for 10 years. He studied in America, learned English and became a proficient seafarer.
He has the distinction of being the first Japanese person to live in America. He did eventually return to Japan where he became a translator and taught at their university. He is highly respected in Nakahama where he is from.
Pacific Overtures takes some liberties with his story. In the opening scene he has come back to Japan taking his life into his hands (since it was law that once you leave, you can’t return under penalty of death) to warn the Shogun of the impending arrival of the Americans.
He befriends a minor samurai, Kayama, who frees him from his death sentence after having come up with a plan to welcome the Americans without them actually setting foot on Japan’s ancestral soil.
As Kayama elevates in rank under the Shogun, Manjiro is promoted to samurai and begins to side with the Emperor. As Kayama and the Shogunate become more seduced by the West and its trappings, Manjiro, once in love with America, now sees the potential permanent damage Westernization could do to his country and becomes more and more traditionalist. Manjiro and Kayama essentially switch places ideologically which leads to tragic ends.
I can relate to Manjiro in that I was born in another country, the Philippines, but having grown up in America since I was 2, feel more American at times than Filipino. It wasn’t until later, when I started studying acting, that I really examined my Filipino-ness. I am forever part of two cultures. I think Manjiro makes a decision that I would never personally make choosing one culture over the other. But as actors we have to ask ourselves, what would it take for me to make the decision Manjiro is making in the play? Again, a very personal journey that I have to go through every night.
Pulling back a bit, I'd like to discuss your overall experience as an Actor-of-Color. What have been the major challenges for you personally, in the casting process? Also, any benefits? You do seem to work a lot and often pop up in predominantly white ensembles. Is that at all bizarre?
As a “character guy,” or an actor who mostly gets cast in supporting roles who are either comedic or villainous, my ethnicity has actually helped. Supporting roles are where casting directors and creatives feel like they can open up the ethnicity of a character without too much risk.
With few exceptions, I've always played supporting or ensemble roles in those predominantly white shows. One of the most wonderful exceptions was when I was a standby understudy in Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway. Every actor in that show is classified by Equity as a principal. I covered 5 of those guys. Each character was uniquely British with accompanying British accent. Except for "Fighting Prawn," of course, who was a Mollusk with an affinity for Italian cuisine.
The biggest challenge I have now is getting more roles with an actual character arc -- someone you follow through the course of the play. Once you're seen as a character actor, it's hard to cross over to leads. It also has a lot to do with my physical type as well. Not only my ethnicity, but my height, weight and receding hairline.
Sadly, they are still an issue in 2017. I know what sells and I'm not necessarily it, but marketability and standards of beauty are totally manufactured, and we are taught as a society what is desirable. I've learned to embrace who I am. Maybe writers, directors and producers will realize that middle-aged people who don't have chiseled bodies live full emotional lives capable of love and at times are the heroes we are all waiting for.
When last we really talked on a journalistic level, it was surrounding your mini-tour of Miss Saigon that was met with protests in a few cities. You were a strong voice in that argument. Do you feel the issue was ever resolved on any level, and what did you take away from that tour?
I think there are many issues revolving around Miss Saigon and they are very different. First, there's the issue of opportunity, which I am very vocal about. If there is any chance that a lead can be played by an Asian because it's explicitly written in the script, the Asian actor should always be the first choice. There are gripes that the Engineer is actually "Eurasian." I may be burning a bridge with the producers of that show by saying this, but to me, that “excuse” is a cop out.
There is NOTHING in the script that explicitly says he is of Eurasian decent -- "My father was a tattoo artist in Haiphong, but his designs on mother didn't last too long. My mother sold her body high on betel nuts. My job was bringing red-faced messieurs to our huts." That's it! No where does it explicitly state their ethnicity. The whole argument of "we're all actors and should be able to play things that are not us" is true EXCEPT when it comes to the issue of opportunity. That's where the line is.
When there is a day that I see an equal number of ethnic people playing Lear or Willy Loman or Mama Rose, then we can talk about people playing whatever they want (and those portrayals better be accurate, respectful and 3 dimensional too!!!)
And don't throw Hamilton in my face as a contradictory example. We could have ten Hamiltons on Broadway and it still won't make a dent in the number of opportunities Caucasian actors have over the rest of us.
The other issue with Miss Saigon is representation -- how Asians are viewed in the piece. The thing that an actual Asian actor can bring to the role is authenticity and respect. Gone are the days where we actors just lie down and become meat-puppets for the director. The best directors I've worked with have always made the rehearsal process a collaboration. When we were protested at the Ordway, the organizers of the protest were careful to leave the actors out of their criticisms of the piece. That was disappointing, because if they had a problem with the Engineer in that production, I was at least 50% to blame.
Having said that, I have a little bit of an issue with the way the Engineer is interpreted in the new revival -- and at the risk of sounding like the protesters in Minneapolis -- I think my brother, Jon Jon Briones' acting is impeccable.
Things I had the biggest issue with in this production -- *SPOILER ALERT* -- the Engineer is an actual murderer, he sniffs coke constantly, and he wields a weapon. For me, the redeeming quality of this character in past productions is that he was sort of a MacGyver. He didn't need anything but his mind and ingenuity to get what he needs. You root for him because of that. This new incarnation really makes one question why they should be on this person's side.
Musically speaking, what is the one moment in Overtures (and all Sondheim shows have them) where you look at the page and just say, ”Are you fucking kidding me??"
The duet that Kayama and Manjiro sing, "Poems" sounds simple and easy, which it should… but it ain't!!! If you look at the music, the intervals are so tricky! Sometimes they change slightly, you'll be singing what seems like the same melodic line, except he'll change the last note by a half step the next time. Musically, it all makes perfect sense, but getting it into your body and your soul is challenging.
Overall, how has the audience reaction to the piece been, especially in such an intimate setting?
From what people have told me after the show in the lobby, those who enjoy it the most had no prior knowledge of the show before our production. I know there are people who miss the pageantry and grandness of Kabuki, but I think there is a danger in that concept too. In the Kabuki presentation, people get seduced by the scenery and the costumes and after about 20 minutes, tune out. It becomes more distancing. Sure the finale, "Next," is more jarring when the cast doffs their kimonos and come out in modern dress, but I think the piece is saying more than "that was then, this is now."
It's about humanity. In our production, you have nothing but the humanity to cling to. Those who have seen and loved the original production come out of our revival and say, "I finally UNDERSTOOD the story!" I tell people who have seen the original or the last Broadway revival to leave all their expectations outside and let the piece unfold in the way we are telling it now.
I have no doubt this show will be revived again with the original Kabuki concept intact, but I love how Sondheim and Weidman -- two living legends -- were completely excited about blowing up their initial idea for the show and see what other way the story could be told. Sondheim famously loves puzzles and thinking out of the box. This was definitely another opportunity for him to solve another puzzle. I can imagine it was probably really fun for him.
Since we have had previous discussions on the topic, what is your general sense on Diversity in Casting, particularly as it pertains to Asian-Americans? For me personally, it is starting to feel like a bunch of Asian people yelling at each other while accomplishing very little. The solidarity seems to have evaporated. As an outspoken, fair-minded veteran of the business, where are we at?
To turn a metaphor, it's three steps forward - two steps back. We make progress but take a couple of steps backward… but ultimately I think we are still progressing forward. It gets tiring when it seems we have to educate people and institutions one person/one institution at a time, but no one said it would be fast or efficient work. As with anything in the biz, tenacity wins. We can't lose the goal. That goal for me is a completely even playing field. An industry that reflects all of our stories and is a TRUE representation of the face of America. Where protagonists are every color under the sun in equal measure. Where they are male, female, trans, gender-neutral, big, small, gay, straight, etc…
It may sound like PC Pollyanna, but look at the world, the REAL world. We are out here and we are all protagonists in our own story, no one story more valid than another. We need to demand that in our media and in our art.
To those unfamiliar with Pacific Overtures and all that it potentially represents and depicts, tell me why you think it is important for people to come out and see it!
There are so many themes in the show that are brilliant and valuable and universal, but to my non-Asian theatre patrons out there, I think coming to a show that is explicitly about a culture that is not your own, yet being able to relate to it and its characters, is that biggest reason why I want people to see this and any other show with Asian principals.
I grew up in this country and 99% of the images and stories I grew up with featured people who looked nothing like me with backgrounds completely different from mine. The few times we are able to flip sides and show that “ethnic stories” are universal stories is always a cause for celebration and people should take advantage of it. And be wildly entertained in the process!!!
Finally, what's next for you??
I like to say I have a few things "in the fire." As of this date, nothing set in stone yet. As I get older, the hardest thing in this business is the "in-between." Some years it can be a true test of your mettle. I've been trying to re-frame the meaning of the "in-between" as a chance to create my own opportunities -- because if anyone's going to write a musical about a middle-aged Filipino-American superhero with a receding hairline, it's going to be me!
Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.
The topic of whitewashed casting decisions in theatrical productions, both amateur and professional, rears its ugly head again and again. Again and again, you would think that something so egregious and, frankly, embarrassing would have seen itself fade out into the obscurity of a distant memory of bygone eras. Sadly, no. It just can’t seem to die. Article after article is written denouncing the casting of a white actor in a role written for a person of colour, and, again and again, these articles are met with the rabid defense of the cringe-worthy, archaic practice. “Best actor for the job!” they cry.
While Hollywood is notoriously guilty of whitewashing as well, for the purposes of this piece, we’re going to focus on whitewashing in theatre--in all its forms--, and why it matters, no matter what source of media is doing it. We’re also going to tackle how to make this unfortunate practice die out.
And, by the way, before the foolishness in the comments section starts in, let me start off by saying that the casting of a person of colour in a traditionally white role is not a double standard. (see later in this piece when HAMILTON comes into the discussion).
Why? You ask, is whitewashing such an important issue?
Whitewashing usurps voices from marginalized people and further contributes to their marginalization and erasure, making sure that white voices and faces are the centre of the conversation. All conversations. These are not those who were just “looking to be offended,” like Nancy Drew on the case, trackin’ down that reason to be offended. These are those who are trying to call their erasure into attention, those with already limited visibility in the media or control over their own narratives.
It’s a lot more complicated and nuanced than just “talent.”
Whitewashing exists in all corners of media: White actors (and singers), for example, are rewarded for things that the people they are emulating have been historically punished for. An actor can be applauded for her ability to do a “Spanish accent” (which, for the record, and the love of GOD, is not a Puerto Rican accent) as Maria in WEST SIDE STORY, whereas an actor who is actually Puerto Rican may have spent her career being passed over for roles because of her real one she lives with every day. Singers like Adele and Iggy Azalea are applauded for emulating African-American singing styles as white artists when instead we could be elevating African American or Black artists. Elvis is also a great example of a white artist being rewarded for a “Black sound” and taking credit from Black artists.
Much like its heinous cousin cultural appropriation, there are those fervent to defend whitewashing, and their ability to do it, without any regard whatsoever to the people in question being impacted by it. You would think that, when presented with the fact that they have participated in something harmful, they would [apologize,] reevaluate their actions and correct themselves. Instead, again and again, the discussions go in circles, and these folks don’t seem to understand they’ve inserted (and centred) themselves in conversations that don’t have anything to do with them and made it all about them. Not unlike the way European nations have inserted themselves in countries all over the globe.
Whitewashing isn’t just limited to white actors taking roles from people of colour in roles that are written for people of colour. Nope, can’t just settle for that. Whitewashing also includes excluding people of colour from historical narratives and using people of colour as accessories in white-centered narratives.
“Historical accuracy” comes up as an excuse for not casting of a person of colour in a role where race isn’t specified, but because it’s a “historical piece,” white is the assumed default. People complained about “historical accuracy” with Norm Lewis as King Triton in THE LITTLE MERMAID ...when he was playing… a magical half-fish-person (a merman is feasible, but being a Black one isn’t. Yeah, okay). There were multiple complaints about “historical accuracy” in the last two revivals of LES MISÉRABLES surrounding the casting of people of colour in prominent roles, even though Alexandre Dumas, one of Hugo’s peers, was a mixed-race Black man, and in the novel Javert is at least half Romani (and suffers from internalized racism). There are also several Black and mixed-race characters mentioned in the novel.
Another example I love to use: several years ago, as I was exiting the theatre after a performance of BRIGADOON, another patron could be overheard grumbling as he was walking out of theatre, about how “distracting” and “inaccurate” some of the ensemble members were because they were played by actors of colour. Nevermind the fact that people of colour have been in Europe and the UK since the 11th and 12th centuries (partially because of the Crusades), and that Indigenous people from the Americas were brought over as slaves during the 1500’s, a hundred years before 1746 (the year the village is frozen in). Nevermind that the tartan used in the show had been outlawed right before this story takes place. Nevermind the fact that he just sat through two and a half or more hours of a show that takes place in a magical village that disappears into the Highland mist to reappear once every hundred years. Why does the suspension of disbelief only lend itself to magic and not to the existence of people of colour?
Which brings this conversation to HAMILTON. “But what about HAMILTON?,” they whine. “A Black George Washington!!!,” “Historical accuracy!!!,” they whine again. OK, so, what about HAMILTON? The beauty of HAMILTON is it gives a moment for all of those who helped during every moment of American history who have been made invisible, who were purposely excluded from the American historical narrative, and considered secondary and supplemental to “real” history. Let these unsung heroes finally have their moment: Thousands of slaves and mixed-raced people were crucial in the winning of the American Revolution. In fact, one of the biggest aids in the American Revolution were left of the HAMILTON narrative: the Algonquin nations who were allied with the French. Even in HAMILTON Native Americans still don’t have a moment (which is just sad, especially considering Alexander Hamilton’s relationship with them). Where’s the cry for historical accuracy there? They’re not upset that George Washington owned slaves, tried to starve out the Haudenosaunee or wore the teeth of slaves in his dentures. They’ve never expressed any dissatisfaction with centuries of Crispus Attucks being excluded from the countless movies, books, miniseries--whatever. But they’ll lose their minds over a person of colour playing George Washington and froth at the mouth over “historical accuracy!”
Those to cry “historical accuracy!!!” also seem to have extremely short memories: people of colour have faced over a hundred years of cinema and countless other forms of media with white actors in egregious face paints, miserably trying to pass themselves off Native American Chiefs or Kings of Siam. Historical figures like the Lone Ranger who were people of colour in real life (Black, in this case) become white characters for radio, film, and television---the list goes on and on. Apparently, the need for “historical accuracy” in a piece only matters when certain people can’t centre themselves in it. When discussing “historical accuracy” as an excuse for whitewashing, here are historical contexts that are never taken into consideration: imperialism, colonization, slavery, reservation systems and compulsory boarding schools, genocide, and intergenerational trauma.
Traditionally when the roles for people of colour did come up, and when they weren’t usurped by white actors, these roles are traditionally secondary characters and vehicles for white-centered narratives. SOUTH PACIFIC, THE KING AND I, and SHOWBOAT, for example, are far more about the white protagonists. Racism as a theme is secondary to the romantic storylines of the white leads; they are still the faces of the show.
(Speaking of whitewashing, the real Anna Leonowens of THE KING AND I was mixed-race.)
The climate is admittedly changing; Broadway’s pallet is changing, as are the tastes of those who attend Broadway shows. A lot of newer shows that centre around the stories of people of colour from their own perspectives. But we need more. The Broadway catalog remains predominantly white, even if there are shows who are chipping away at the status quo.
Alright, so, now what do we do about all of this?
Conscientious Casting Decisions.
This has been said innumerable times: if you don’t have the right ethnicities to fill the roles for the show in question, don’t do the show. Full stop. If you don’t have the appropriate person to fill the role, find another show to perform in its place. This is not a simple concept. Reach out. Try harder when trying to cast these shows.
Take the example of casting an African-American actor in the role of Judd Frye compared to casting him as Enjolras:
OKLAHOMA! is a prime example of whitewashing; conveniently avoiding any of the very serious racial tensions and violence that were occurring during the period in which the musical takes place, we are presented with nostalgic pastoral images: fields of high corn, surreys and picnics Notably absent are the all-Black towns, Dawes Act, the effects of Land Run of 1889, and, lest we forget the Native American nations who forcefully removed from their ancestral homes (death marches) who were now combatting for space with the Native nations who were already there. OKLAHOMA! takes place in 1906, the same year as the Enabling Act of 1906, which moved Oklahoma towards its statehood and helped displace Native people who had already been removed, and dissolved all tribal governments. Casting an African-American man, for example, as Judd, which would play on centuries of tropes of the savage black rapist, is a poor choice, to say the least. It treads not so lightly into Birth of a Nation territory. While there is a Persian character in OKLAHOMA! (and, I can’t lie, is pretty cool), Ali Hakim’s presence doesn’t really contribute to the discussion of aforementioned racial issues.
This is the fundamental difference between an African American man playing Enjolras and playing Judd: historically, it would make perfect sense for a Black man to play Enjolras, looking no further than groups such as Société des citoyens de couleur (Society of Colored Citizens), of the 1789 French Revolution, and France’s early abolition of slavery and adoption of egalitarian ideals. A Black man cast as Enjolras doesn’t contribute to dangerous stereotypes that historically got these men murdered.
Making conscious casting choices that don’t rely on centuries-old tropes.
This one reiterates the point above; know the difference between representation and tokenism. Casting certain roles of “sidekicks” or secondary characters (for decades this was Éponine) as a person of colour flirts dangerously with the trope of the Loyal Brown Companion who serves as an accessory to a white protagonist (think: Tonto, Sacajawea, Pocahontas, Gunga Din, His Man Friday, etc.)( and, to make matters worse, these are often played in brownface). Think very carefully about casting for “edginess.” We’re people, not props.
Ethnicities are not interchangeable.
If you don’t have the appropriate ethnicity for a character, don’t use another ethnicity to “pass.” People of colour are not part of a mix-and-match Tupperware set where you can just substitute any brown person for another. Juanita Hall originated both Bloody Mary (Polynesian) in SOUTH PACIFIC and Auntie Liang (Chinese) in FLOWER DRUM SONG. Juanita Hall was African American. Casting African Americans, Latinos and Asians as Arab people in Disney’s ALADDIN isn’t “representation.” (And, no, it doesn’t matter that Agrabah is a fictional location, Arab people actually exist).
“Satire” is not an excuse.
Looking at your sorry ass, BLOODY, BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON. Not only did BLOODY feature redface, but its anti-Indian lines were not funny. It’s not “playing a character.” Satire isn’t an excuse for whitewashing or other forms of racism in art. It’s not that we don’t “get it.” People of colour know we’re being dehumanized and made fun of. There’s not a whole lot to “get.”
Hold yourself accountable as an actor.
To white actors who complain about not being able to play, for example, Maria in WEST SIDE STORY or Nabulungi in BOOK OF MORMON: almost all of the rest of Broadway is catered to you. Accept that sometimes there are pieces you don’t get to be a part of. We can enjoy things even if we cannot see ourselves in them. Trust me, people of colour have to do it all the time. No matter how talented you are, taking a role that is intended for a person of colour is going to be reliant on stereotypes and stereotypes are going to inform your choices. Don’t do it. Don’t accept those roles, don’t audition for them. Instead, participate in dismantling this system, holding those in charge of casting accountable. Do you really want to participate in perpetuating centuries of racism just so that you can play Maria in WEST SIDE STORY or Christmas Eve in AVENUE Q? Respect and dignity for marginalized people is more important than glory for you on stage.
Being racially responsible is more important than “art” or “talent.”
Lastly, and, more importantly: support new work.
SHOWBOAT was considered a revolutionary milestone when it came out, but now is seen as incredibly dated and stereotype-ridden. Not all shows age well. Sometimes, it really is okay to let these ol’ chestnuts go and be the museum pieces they are and make room for newer and more diverse narratives. It’s why ALLEGIANCE was so important, and why the Broadway community should have fought for it to stay longer. THE MIKADO doesn’t really have relevance anymore; it’s okay to retire it for a real Asian-centric piece (like ALLEGIANCE).
As creatives, you should be pushing for these important stories. As a Broadway community, you should let The Powers That Be know you want to see actual diversity and use The Power of the Wallet to get your point across. Whitewashing is as old as media itself. It a part of the history of theatre and film that is inescapable. It just doesn’t have a place, and it never did. Let’s be the generation who puts an end to it.
Melody is a performer from the San Francisco area. She can be followed on Twitter @lebasfondmusic
Luis E. Mora
Quick! Name 5 Latino Broadway musicals!
What came to mind? In The Heights? On Your Feet? Those would be great choices.
If what came to mind are musicals like West Side Story or Evita then let me explain the problem. I love to pretend I'm Anita and dance to "America" as much as the next person but the truth is that the genius writers of that musical are simply not Latino. This means that these stories do not accurately reflect my culture and my heritage. Their work comes from research and imagination as opposed to experience. I know this might be shocking but my Latino American experience does not include twirling around in intricate ballet moves. Even more shocking is that Che Guevara and Eva Peron had very little to do with each other.
Another challenge: Name 1 Latino musical set before 1970!
Hmm... Options are running thin? This is the area where I need us to be more reflective. In order to understand what I'm really talking about we need to look at the bigger picture and talk about general American history. Isn't it funny that Americans know very little about the history of Latino people? It seems that our society has done a grand job at erasing our contributions to American history, of which there are many. Subsequently our faces have been erased from American musical theatre.
I remember my first couple of years as an immigrant in this country, I migrated here from Colombia as a 4th grader with very little knowledge of American History. They don't teach you American history in Colombia, just like they don't have bob sleds in San Juan (see what I did there?) I remember quickly being taught of the Civil Rights movement and slavery of African Americans. I learned about Rosa Parks, the underground railroad, and segregated water fountains fairly quickly. Then I remember thinking: Which fountain would I have used? I'm simply not white enough to drink from the white water fountain, yet I don't seem to be represented in any of the tales of African American struggle. In fact, it's as if the color brown did not exist before the early 1970's.
But back to American musical theatre. In 2016 Broadway saw its most diverse season yet. For the first time in 70 years we saw 4 black actors take home a Tony Award for all musical theatre acting categories. This is a huge feat in a year where we also saw no actors of color represented in any of the acting categories at the Oscars. The stunning Shuffle Along opened to rave reviews and 11 Tony nominations. Asian Americans were represented in the beautifully flawed Allegiance. The story of Japanese internment was incredibly moving and it was inevitable to draw a parallel between the story we saw on stage and the hate Muslim Americans are feeling today. Latinos celebrate a huge hit with On Your Feet: The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. The musical boasts an all Latino cast and its infectious Latin rhythms. I celebrate these accomplishments but as I look at the season ahead I see little promise for diverse stories; certainly nothing shedding light on darker historical subject. I also worry because if I look at seasons past I have to go back almost 40 years to find another historical Latino American musical.
Let's go way back to 1979; The year when Zoot Suit opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden theatre. The Chicano musical played for a whopping 41 regular performances and 17 previews. Zoot Suit was written by Luis Valdez and told the story of the Sleepy Lagoon Murder trials during World War II. It was really a play with music but I'm stretching it for the purpose of this writing. It later became a movie directed by Valdez and starring Edward James Olmos. This was almost 40 years ago! Then comes the inevitable question: What about Hamilton? Of course no conversation about color in theatre can neglect the subject of Hamilton. Yes, this show is amazing and it deserved every single one of its 11 wins at the Tony Awards. The Pulitzer prize winning musical struck a sentimental chord with me especially because it reminded me that this country was built in collaboration with immigrants. What Lin-Manuel Miranda has done is open the doors so that the rest of us can start to tell our own stories. It is my hope that the Hamilton effect inspires Latino writers to look into their own history for new source material. After all Latinos make up roughly 18% of America's population, which if we correlate to amount of Broadway theatres we should have 7 - 8 shows running at any given time.
Latinos have done incredible things for this country. Brown Latinos played vital parts in the civil rights movement, we built entire communities on American soil, we left our countries behind in the pursuit of the American Dream. These narratives are not easily found in a text book but they have the potential to be the heart of the next ground breaking musical.
Luis E. Mora is a performer and educator from Barranquilla, Colombia. He attended FSU, where he found a passion for the topic of diversity/inclusion in theatre while studying under Dr. Irma Mayorga. Today he is a contributing writer to various publications and focuses his efforts on new and diverse works that advance our art form. "For my loud and beautiful familia" www.luisemora.com @luisemora89
Photo: Sandra Delgado and Christina Nieves in a scene of the Goodman Theater/Teatro Vista co-production of Tanya Saracho's "El Nogalar".
- OnStage New York Columnist
We need to come together as a whole. Stop tearing each other apart and stop the racial discrimination amongst our own. You know who I'm talking about? It's you my fellow Asians.
I am seeing more and more of my friends showing their true colors and it's not pretty. The underlying racism and underhanded comments make me sad.
As a Hapa, there is nothing worse than feeling like you don't belong. Being told you aren't "white" or "Asian" enough your whole life is enough to give anyone a freaking complex.
The other day on Facebook there was a discussion happening about Netflix's "Journey to the West" and their casting choices. A fellow performer in the industry said the Hapas cast "aren't Hapa enough". This statement made me see red and I understand how murder could happen or at least violence.
His explanation being if you look too "white" you aren't "Hapa enough". Yes, the show should have hired full Chinese people. I agree. There is no freaking excuse for the poor casting choices of "Journey to the West". Good job Netflix (eye roll). However, it is a mythological story... so why can't Hapa's be part of it too? Why the hate?
If you are half Asian you are considered Asian in most parts of the world. Your white half doesn't count.
There is so little work going around for both full Asians and mixed. Why are we at each other's throats? Why aren't we banding together to fight Hollywood and the entertainment industry? Why aren't we joining forces and supporting each other? Yes, there is little work, and there will be less if we don't stop and think before we speak and continually fight amongst ourselves. We need to come together and create work that is inclusive.
The thing is representation does matter. But how can there be true representation when presentation is how the world sees us.? To clarify, growing up I would only be seen for roles that were full "Asian" and it didn't matter the flavor because in Hollywood's eyes we are the same. It didn't matter I wasn't Chinese, it didn't matter I was half Japanese. All that mattered to them is that my eyes weren't round.
Just imagine how much more of an impact in the arts we would have if the Asian American community banded together. Instead, we bicker over stupid shit like who's more "Asian". Because guess what, we may not like it, but we are all lumped into the same freaking category... Asian American.
Before there can be true representation in the entertainment industry we must rise up together as a community. Support one another. Friends, we are all the same we are all part of the human race, and the face of the Asian American is changing. We are full, we are half, we are mixed.