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July 11, 2012 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Moises Kaufman can kiss my a** The La Jolla Playhouse production of Broadway-bound "The Nightingale", about the Emperor of feudal China, will boast zero actors of Chinese descent. Actress Erin Quill responds.
posted by roomthreeseventeen (153 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Just to get this out of the way:

When we live in an America where Asian-American actors can get 'white' roles, then we can re-address the appropriateness of staging a show in FEUDAL China and having 1 adult Asian actor in your cast (who is probably actually Japanese-American).
posted by muddgirl at 9:56 AM on July 11, 2012 [19 favorites]


Sure seems weird that no one saw this as an issue. But I say that a lot about a lot of things so I guess my weirdness meter is way off.
posted by josher71 at 9:57 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not fun to be invisible.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 9:58 AM on July 11, 2012


I should note that the author of the blog post is wrong about Saycon Sengbloh’s casting in Wicked being recent. She was cast in 2005. Which is sort of beside the point since Elphaba is green.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:58 AM on July 11, 2012


(Also this might be outrage-filter but also it led me to Fairy Princess Diaries which is amazing so now I'm conflicted.)
posted by muddgirl at 9:58 AM on July 11, 2012


Bobby Steggart as the Young Emperor of China, ay yi yi.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:00 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do we know if any Asian actors were approached for roles in this performance and decided to turn it down? I don't deny that whitewashing in the entertainment industry is a gross and pervasive thing, but I guess it's possible that it's not always as deliberate as it appears.
posted by elizardbits at 10:01 AM on July 11, 2012


I think I mean "thoughtless/stupid/dismissive" more than I mean "deliberate", tbh.
posted by elizardbits at 10:03 AM on July 11, 2012


Don't they usually have auditions for Broadway shows? I guess it's possible that literally no Asian-american actors were of acceptable quality to pass the audition, in which case maybe the creative team should have rethought the decision as to what time period to set it in?
posted by muddgirl at 10:03 AM on July 11, 2012


I don't know, should Hamlet be performed until the end of time by Danes? Should the entire works of Shakespeare have only a handful of major non-white role (Othello, possibly Caliban)? I guess I just don't care who plays what.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:03 AM on July 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


Hard to imagine that if they were determined to have East Asian actors they would not have a ton to choose from in Southern California.
posted by josher71 at 10:04 AM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Sorry, 2 Asian-American actors.
posted by muddgirl at 10:04 AM on July 11, 2012


Do we know if any Asian actors were approached for roles in this performance and decided to turn it down?

Do we know, of course not. Can we guess that it didn't happen? Yes, I think so.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:05 AM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


2buckplus - please see my first comment. We can re-consider this issue when Asian-American actors are regularly seen playing Hamlet or Ophelia on Broadway.
posted by muddgirl at 10:05 AM on July 11, 2012 [12 favorites]


But this is being staged in La Jolla! It's not like there are really very many Asians in California, especially in La Jolla!
posted by koeselitz at 10:05 AM on July 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


Sorry, I don't know why I keep referring to Broadway. This isn't a Broadway show, which makes it even more likely that (a) Asian-American actors auditioned and (I guess) were not good enough?
posted by muddgirl at 10:07 AM on July 11, 2012


I don't know anything about the La Jolla Playhouse (and I can't seem to find any cast information at all on their website) but I know that some theaters have resident troupes of actors who populate just every play they stage, regardless.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:07 AM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Don't they usually have auditions for Broadway shows?

I have no idea, I assume people just burst into song one day and that is that.


The flip side of this bullshit is that plenty of people who see nothing wrong with this kind of scenario are also often the ones who suddenly demand absolute accuracy when Idris Elba gets cast as Heimdall. BECAUSE IT JUST DOESN'T LOOK RIGHT SOMEHOW!

ugh go away.
posted by elizardbits at 10:07 AM on July 11, 2012 [20 favorites]


but I know that some theaters have resident troupes of actors who populate just every play they stage, regardless.

So writers would know the ethnic make-up of the cast, and might think, "Hmm, is it insensitive to stage a play in Feudal China with a 'Rainbow Cast,' considering the state of ethnic diversity in professional theater today?"

A writer might.
posted by muddgirl at 10:09 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


shakespehrian, most of the actors who do shows at La Jolla are Broadway actors, from New York.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:10 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Brian Dennehy as Kublai Khan.
posted by XMLicious at 10:11 AM on July 11, 2012


Guys, this level of theater (Moises Kaufman directing a musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater at the La Jolla Playhouse), does NOT have a "oh, no one Asian came to the auditions, or if they did they weren't good enough, so what could we do?" problem. Seriously. This is a completely different level of casting.

Exactly why they went with the casting they chose is something we don't know, but this is the casting they CHOSE. It was not forced upon them. Getting several high-quality Chinese-American actors for the show would have been relatively easy if they had wanted to do so.
posted by kyrademon at 10:13 AM on July 11, 2012 [15 favorites]


shakespehrian, most of the actors who do shows at La Jolla are Broadway actors, from New York.

Okie doke, thanks. I couldn't find anything either way.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:13 AM on July 11, 2012


XMLicious kind of beat me to this, but let's hope that we're not going to see a return of yellowface (if it ever actually died).
posted by Currer Belfry at 10:14 AM on July 11, 2012


I don't know, should Hamlet be performed until the end of time by Danes? Should the entire works of Shakespeare have only a handful of major non-white role (Othello, possibly Caliban)? I guess I just don't care who plays what.

Shakespeare isn't an apt comparison, though, since from the beginning his plays have been performed by "locals" (i.e. not people of a particular descent) and set anachronistically (e.g. with contemporary rather than historical costumes and language). The character of Hamlet, for example, was written for Richard Burbage, who was not, to my knowledge, of Danish descent.
posted by jedicus at 10:15 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I don't know why I keep referring to Broadway. This isn't a Broadway show, which makes it even more likely that (a) Asian-American actors auditioned and (I guess) were not good enough?

Like roomthreeseventeen said, La Jolla casts in New York, same folks that you'd see on Broadway. It's a very prominent theater, particularly in terms of stuff getting sent to New York; they do a lot of pre-Broadway tryouts and high-profile stuff.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:15 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Between East West Players in LA and Pan Asian Rep in NY, it's hard to believe they couldn't find any Asian talent for this production. It's shameful of them.
posted by cazoo at 10:15 AM on July 11, 2012


It certainly feels odd to present non-ethnically-marked performers in ethnically-marked roles -- but we should be asking ourselves why that's true.

Which is actually my way of seconding muddgirl's question up-top and throughout, and point out that you have the same issue with anyone who's ethnically-marked. It's been a cliche for a long time that there's only one slot at any given time for an actor of color of any marked type, and one person usually gets all of those.

Hamlet and Danes is a really bad example. First, because hardly anybody who goes to see Hamlet remembers he's supposed to be the Prince of Denmark. Second, because Shakespeare clearly had no concpetion of what Denmark or Danes were actually like. Third, because like most of Shakespeare, it's been so thoroughly universalized that an all-Danish cast would be regarded as a rather stupid [because wildly unlikely to be effective] stunt.

I'm always conflicted in this general discussion because I truly believe that over-focusing on the ethnic marking does perpetuate the issue. On the other hand, and again to second muddgirl, the evidence suggests that asian actors have generally been excluded from un-marked roles, and it's clear that "rainbow casting" is an ideal potential cover for that.
posted by lodurr at 10:20 AM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't know, should Hamlet be performed until the end of time by Danes?

I dunno, is there is a history of erasing and eliding Danish people in Western culture?
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:25 AM on July 11, 2012 [19 favorites]


Wait maybe they could get Mickey Rooney to play every part.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:27 AM on July 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


I think one must also factor in that larger-scale productions always aim for the star factor. Familiar names sell tickets. Bobby and Charlayne are a big deal here in SoCal for aficionados of mid-level Broadway and upper-tier Off-Broadway theatre. It's not quite on the level of casting Andrew Garfield in Death of a Salesman, but it's similar in spirit. That being said, although I love them both as actors, I find their casting here completely ridiculous. I'm rather tired of people being cast in shows for which they are (for one reason or another) utterly inappropriate just because their presence sexes up the marquee.
posted by mykescipark at 10:27 AM on July 11, 2012


To me, a better example would be In the Heights with no Hispanic actors, or The Color Purple, without an African American.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:28 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here's their casting policy.

Production Casting Policy

La Jolla Playhouse is a LORT Theatre and hires actors who are members of Actors' Equity Association. Actors are hired on a show-by-show basis during the season and auditions for individual shows are by invitation only. If you would like to submit your headshot and resume for our attention, please send them to La Jolla Playhouse, Attn: Casting, P.O. Box 12039, La Jolla, CA 92039. Depending on our needs, we will either keep your information on file at the Playhouse or forward it to our casting agents.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:30 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Actors are hired on a show-by-show basis during the season and auditions for individual shows are by invitation only.

So they deliberately chose not to invite any asian actors to audition. Ugh.
posted by elizardbits at 10:34 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


The part that really gets me is that, if one is concerned about star-power among Broadway audiences, or wants a 'Rainbow Casting, one could take the same myth and set it in a different era, or a mythical fantasy era. It's not entirely unproblematic, but it's not flat-out insulting to Chinese-American actors.
posted by muddgirl at 10:34 AM on July 11, 2012


I don't know, should Hamlet be performed until the end of time by Danes?

If you mean Claire Danes, then yes.
posted by Strange Interlude at 10:35 AM on July 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


Perhaps we should discuss the fact that Hans Christian Andersen wrote this at all. How dare he set a story in Imperial China.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:36 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I dunno, is there is a history of erasing and eliding Danish people in Western culture?

But should modern theater be tasked with fixing the sins of the past?

It's entirely possible there is whitewashing going on here. I think it's also entirely possible it was decided to let the choices stand on their own merit rather than on their ethnicity. It is acting, after all.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:38 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


If ethnicity isn't important in acting then surely the setting isn't, either? Why Imperial China, specifically?
posted by muddgirl at 10:39 AM on July 11, 2012


So they deliberately chose not to invite any asian actors to audition. Ugh.

I'm not sure where you're getting this from. We don't know who auditioned, do we? I seems to me that we only know the final cast.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:40 AM on July 11, 2012


Perhaps we should discuss the fact that Hans Christian Andersen wrote this at all. How dare he set a story in Imperial China.

Let it be known that I was being sarcastic.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:41 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


when Idris Elba gets cast as Heimdall. BECAUSE IT JUST DOESN'T LOOK RIGHT SOMEHOW!

Oh, god (so to speak). This was the most hilarious and pitiful fig leaf for racism I've ever seen. Like the Norwegians are going to get terribly offended when a black actor plays one of their ancient gods but otherwise they're cool with them being Marvel comic book characters. You can still see the tan line from my facepalming.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:42 AM on July 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Well I was offended by that because Thor was terrible and Idris Elba deserves better.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:44 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Agree with the arguments - have trouble reading them on a page where the header self-identifies the author as a 'fag hag' but that's just probably my particular tiara and wings.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:44 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's really irritating how hard it is to find Asian actors in decent roles, and even then, they tend to be seriously stereotyped. Randall Duk Kim, a Korean-American, is an amazing stage actor, one of the most rivisting performers I have ever seen, and his movie roles have been "Tattoo Master" and "Old Man in Temple" (well, and the Keymaker in the Matrix). It's not surprising that people are upset....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:47 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


But should modern theater be tasked with fixing the sins of the past?

No, but it (and every other part of society) should be tasked with not continuing them.
posted by molecicco at 10:47 AM on July 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


Let's clear up some misconceptions ...

1) What is the supposed point of a colorblind casting policy?

Casting "colorblind" (e.g., casting a part to the best actor whether or not they are the canonical ethnicity for the role) is intended to open up opportunities for actors who are often hampered by the fact that the vast majority of roles in English-language theater are written for Caucasians. "Genderblind" and "Age-blind" casting can be done with similar purpose. It should be distinguished from deliberately casting against type (e.g., an all-Asian production of Romeo and Juliet), which can be done for either the same purpose or a different one entirely.

2) When is colorblind casting most appropriate?

It is easiest to do colorblind casting in shows where race and ethnicity do not come up as specific issues. Even if the casting does not "make sense" for a particular place and period, most audiences will accept it as a convention as long as the show does not specifically call attention to the issue. (Once again, casting "against type" can sometimes be done deliberately and effectively in shows which DO call attention to the issue, in order to make a specific point, which is why it is not the same phenomenon.)

3) When is colorblind casting inappropriate?

As hinted at by the above, colorblind casting can be confusing or counterproductive in shows that are specifically geared towards examining racial politics in certain ways. It is also usually inappropriate in shows which would normally be giving roles to underserved populations of performers, as colorblind casting policies are intended to redress that very problem. In other words, casting actors of varying ethnicity in the Merry Wives of Windsor might be an appropriate use of colorblind casting, but if you go colorblind and end up using an all-white cast for Flower Drum Song, you have undercut the entire intention of the concept.

4) Isn't that unfair?

Bear in mind that plenty of shows -most, even - which traditionally have all-Caucasian casts are effectively cast "noncolorblind", more than balancing out the "Flower Drum Song" example above. And the colorblind shows are open to casting everyone. The point is to redress a significant imbalance that already exists. We are nowhere near the point that the balance of colorblind and non-colorblind productions is tilting things in the opposite direction, and there seems no risk that such will ever be the case.

5) But for this particular show, what if they couldn't get enough Chinese-American actors?

This can be a problem at many levels of theater, and it is a judgment call whether to go ahead with a show in spite of this. IF good faith-efforts have been made, AND the show is not one that specifically calls attention to racial politics in ways that are undercut by colorblind casting, then this is the one situation where going "colorblind" in a way that gives more parts to the majority can sometimes be acceptable, since the alternative is no show at all. This can often be a problem for shows that must cast for a limited local pool, shows performed in countries other than their country of origin, etc. However, it is NOT a problem for a show at this level, which effectively is casting from a broad nationwide pool.

6) The show seems to be specifically indicating they wanted to cast a "rainbow" of varying ethnicities. Isn't that an appropriate reason for colorblind casting?

Well ... that actually isn't colorblind casting. That's deliberately seeking out a range of ethnicities in the cast. And given that the roles are Chinese, having no Chinese-Americans in the cast, if that's your stated purpose, seems a bit stupid.

7) So would it have been alright if they'd cast a couple of Chinese-Americans, rather than the whole cast?

I can only speak for myself, but yes, I think making a significant gesture towards inclusivity in that regard, even if they still kept their "rainbow" cast, would have lessened or eliminated any resentment. The point isn't that they HAD to cast their show with all Chinese-American actors, it's that doing so with NONE, while claiming diversity as the reason, seems like a bit of a slap in the face given the show.

8) Someone would like to point out a contradiction in your argument, object to my use of the word ethnicity or Caucasian, or some other such.

Go right ahead. Bear in mind this is an off-the-cuff post, and I'm dealing with generalities and there are a lot of rule-breaking exceptions, and that the use of the word "race" tends to be loaded on Metafilter and lead to unfortunate derails.
posted by kyrademon at 10:52 AM on July 11, 2012 [63 favorites]


If ethnicity isn't important in acting then surely the setting isn't, either?

Because acting is make believe.

Perhaps one could go further than demand Asian actors perform these roles. Demand that Chinese actors be cast instead of Korean or Japanese actors.

No, but it (and every other part of society) should be tasked with not continuing them.

Casting an African American woman in a role of an Asian seems well on the way of breaking the tradition of locking out minorities in all but the most stereotypical roles.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:55 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great format, kyrademon.
posted by lodurr at 10:59 AM on July 11, 2012


Just once I'd love to see a major mainstream production of the New Testament story in which Jesus is played by someone with the physical attributes of people born in that region (basically the Levant) as they probably were in that time. It'd be fun to watch the racist quasichristians shit themselves and listen to their gabbling rationalizations.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:03 AM on July 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Actually prior to the last 10 years or so, my distinct impression has been that asians have been almost as hard to find in non-marked roles on mainstream american TV as black people. There are a few exceptions, but when was the last time you saw an asian man cast as a romantic lead opposite a white woman, where it wasn't significant that he was asian?

I still think the "when was the last time [ethinically marked type]-male was cast as a romantic lead opposite a white woman" is a good test for incipient normalcy. You can cast black or asian women opposite white men, but vice-versa is still problematic and provokes comment.

Also: Randall Duk Kim is an awesome actor.
posted by lodurr at 11:04 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wish I could find a video clip of Crow T. Robot reading his "Miss Saigon Syndrome" editorial to post here.
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:04 AM on July 11, 2012


I would be a lot more bothered by this if it were a play about actual Chinese history/experience. But it's a play based on a fairy-tale written by a Dane and set in an ancient China-that-never-was.

I understand the actresses' frustration because she feels like she and other Asian-American actors are excluded from roles due to race, but this wasn't the play to make that her battleground.

As for the Wicked part - it's not a white role, or a black role - it's a green role. It sounds like they have been colour-blind casting and they just haven't found an Asian actress that they wanted in the part.
posted by jb at 11:05 AM on July 11, 2012


Second, because Shakespeare clearly had no concpetion of what Denmark or Danes were actually like.

Yeah, really, how in the world would an AngloSaxon know anything about Denmark?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:06 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


A generic Anglo-Saxon could, but Shakespeare either didn't or went with massive artistic license.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:08 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is value in casting people who actually come from the culture depicted in a play, even if the play is fictional. I recently saw a production of Merchant of Venice that seemed to have no Jewish involvement at all, and, as a result, got all sorts of wince-worthy details wrong, from its song choices to its costume decisions to its accents. I know Shakespeare had never met a Jew, and I suppose it might be interesting to invent a Shakespearian Jew for the show. But that's not what happened. Instead, the Jews in the play were supposed to be real Jews.

It's easy to accidentally be insensitive or get things wrong.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:08 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bunny Ultramod, I once saw Alfred Molina play Tevye. It was not good.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:09 AM on July 11, 2012


So I haven't read the script, but, well, there isn't actually anything Chinese about this story other than the names, right? Hans Christen Anderson made it up, and having never been to China just chose it as an "exotic" setting. Then through various iterations the setting was kept even though the story is not of historical record. Maybe the new script addresses this issue but the writers don't seem to have any personal investment in Chinese history or culture, it seems like they kept the setting in order to continue using the shorthand of China = exotic.

This is a part of theater that I hate - when artists say, "I want to talk about the human condition! Everything else is just embellishment to the human condition! Let's set it in Mali but we'll use Peruvian textiles for the costume inspiration and do we have those neon lights left over from that last show? Let's work them into the set somehow. I have to go now, I need to capture the human condition."

What this does is elide straight over the fact that not every human experiences the same conditions. So no matter where the show is set or who the characters supposedly are, a show that makes these arbitrary decisions turns out to not be very universal at all, but rather very evocative of a particular experience.

For me this frames the criticism of lack of diversity - race does impact personal experience, and if you don't include certain experiences, you're not being true to the human condition. Theater isn't just folks prancing on a stage - in its best forms it lets us see ourselves without having to get so close it hurts.

In this case (nb haven't read the script) it really seems like the people involved aren't interested in creating a diverse show in any actual respect, and the casting decisions are a reflection of that.
posted by newg at 11:09 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, really, how in the world would an AngloSaxon know anything about Denmark?

Why would one? I have Danish and Swedish ancestors (as well as Cherokee, German and English) -- should I know about those countries as a function of my lineage?
posted by lodurr at 11:10 AM on July 11, 2012


... actually a better question would be, given Danish and Swedish ancestry, should I thus know things about the Faeroes as a function of my lineage?
posted by lodurr at 11:13 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


A generic Anglo-Saxon could, but Shakespeare either didn't or went with massive artistic license.

Yeah, right, next you're going to tell me that Verona didn't really have a rash of twink on twink murders and that Julius Ceasar didn't speak in Elizabethan English rhyming couplets!!!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:13 AM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Alright, i need to quit this now, the 10th regiment just almost made me laugh out loud and that makes it hard to pretend I'm working.
posted by lodurr at 11:15 AM on July 11, 2012


If ethnicity isn't important in acting then surely the setting isn't, either?

Nope, which is why Shakespeare has been done in just about every location and time period possible. Including in China -- a country that regularly ignores the existence of white people in its arts BTW -- by entirely Chinese casts. Then of course there is Ran, produced in a country that marginalizes not only white people but just about anyone who isn't Japanese, done with a completely Japanese cast. (And Seven Samurai and Yojimbo of course)

That isn't to say that this particular situation is appropriate, but theater all over the world has a history of changing both setting and ethnicity however they see fit. In itself the practice is not a bad thing.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:17 AM on July 11, 2012


I suspect part of the reason for this ire is as follows:

Over the past five theater seasons Asian-American actors were cast in 2 percent of the roles in Broadway and major Off Broadway productions, while 80 percent of the roles went to white performers, 13 percent to black actors, and 4 percent to Hispanic artists, according to data compiled by an advocacy group for Asian-American performers. Over those seasons, 2006-07 to 2010-11, Asian-Americans were found to be the only minority group whose share of New York acting roles declined slightly, and they were also the least likely to be chosen for characters that would traditionally be played by white actors.

Keep in mind, Asians represent about 5 percent of the American population, so their representation on stage is less than half of what it would be just for parity's sake. Had it not been for the plays of David Henry Hwang, who often writes specifically about Asian and Asian-American subjects, that number would probably have been much less. And there is no concerted effort to address this. The only suggestion, from the same article:

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, urged Asian-American actors to “make noise” and even consider protesting or picketing theaters to urge more diversity and counterintuitive thinking in casting roles – an idea that drew some applause from the Fordham audience of 400 people.

So there it is, the protest. By the way, La Jolla regularly brings plays to Broadway -- they were responsible for Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife," and the hiring of Kaufman suggests this may be another show they would like to move. So here we have what is likely another Broadway-bound play, this time specifically about China, and it's not solving the problem of Asians not get cast on Broadway. So there is some online protesting. I see no problem in this.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:20 AM on July 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Including in China -- a country that regularly ignores the existence of white people in its arts BTW -- by entirely Chinese casts. Then of course there is Ran, produced in a country that marginalizes not only white people but just about anyone who isn't Japanese, done with a completely Japanese cast. (And Seven Samurai and Yojimbo of course)

Good Lord. You know, you can't be a white person in China without getting tossed on television every few months, and white people -- even non-actors -- are frequently cast in Chinese films.

As for Ran and Yojimbo -- Ran is set in the Sengoku-era and Yojimbo is set in the Late Edo period. There weren't any white people in Japan at that time. When Kurosawa did contemporary films, such as Dreams and Rhapsody in August, he would cast white actors in the movies.

But none of this is here or there. Even if Chinese and Japanese artist don't cast white people doesn't mean this is some normal, natural thing that's no big whoop. America is a pluralistic country, and value that pluralism in a way other countries don't. Asking to represent the diversity of America's population onstage isn't a violation of a cultural norm, it is asking artists to live up to a cultural norm that they themselves espouse.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:27 AM on July 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


It is time once again for a chorus of Nobody's Asian in the Movies!
posted by restless_nomad at 11:28 AM on July 11, 2012


It is interesting to note that when they did a concert performance of Turandot at the Hollywood Bowl last year they managed to get soprano Hei-Kyung Hong to sing the role of Liù.

Opera is usually pretty colorblind, with casting usually having more to do with voice than ethnicity or other physical factors (though being the stereotypically large soprano is a disadvantage these days), but someone obviously made an effort.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:30 AM on July 11, 2012


I dunno, is there is a history of erasing and eliding Danish people in Western culture?

Lyddæmpet hele mit liv!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:31 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also Ran isn't Shakespeare, it's a story based on a Shakespeare play.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:33 AM on July 11, 2012


Yeah, really, how in the world would an AngloSaxon know anything about Denmark?

Yeah, or as Shakespeare himself put it, "16th Century England? That's where I'm a Viking!"
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:34 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


a better example would be In the Heights with no Hispanic actors, or The Color Purple, without an African American.

One could also consider just about every Hollywood western produced in the mid-20th century, with no Native American actors. Or input, or anything.
posted by gimonca at 11:35 AM on July 11, 2012


Yikes. La Jolla Playhouse is on the campus of UCSD, the undergraduate population of which is 44% Asian, more than any other ethnic group.

(I know, that probably doesn't matter for casting purposes, but... it doesn't look good.)
posted by Condroidulations! at 11:36 AM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also Ran isn't Shakespeare, it's a story based on a Shakespeare play.

Who based it on The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed,who based it on Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Cordelia is probably lifted from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Properly, Lear should probably be a Celt.

It's also based on legends of the daimyo Mōri Motonari. Who I don't believe were Celts.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:37 AM on July 11, 2012


Ran is based on the daimyo, rather.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:39 AM on July 11, 2012


jedicus: "Shakespeare isn't an apt comparison, though, since from the beginning his plays have been performed by "locals" (i.e. not people of a particular descent) and set anachronistically (e.g. with contemporary rather than historical costumes and language). The character of Hamlet, for example, was written for Richard Burbage, who was not, to my knowledge, of Danish descent."
Sounds like an extremely apt comparison. H.C. Andersen's fairy tale Nattergalen is set in China because it was inspired by the then-fashionable chinoiserie decorations in the newly opened Tivoli gardens in Copenhagen. The Chinese theme is completely irrelevant to the story, which is about Andersen's unrequited love for Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind.

/Dane
posted by brokkr at 11:42 AM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Wait maybe they could get Mickey Rooney to play every part.

Oy. The affection my young self had for Breakfast at Tiffany's has been lost for years thanks to that man.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:51 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


If they were to take Andersen's The Nightingale and retell it as the story of Jenny Lind's doomed romance with Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin, I don't think anyone would mind the non-Asian cast members. But the fact that the story is actually set in China makes this a bit more problematic -- more so than just saying the Chinese theme is irrelevant.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:52 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nope, which is why Shakespeare has been done in just about every location and time period possible. Including in China -- a country that regularly ignores the existence of white people in its arts BTW -- by entirely Chinese casts.

Oh for crying out loud.

The availability of white theatrical actors in China, versus the availability of Chinese/Asian theatrical actors in America.

The number of white actors denied opportunities due to their ethnicity in China, versus the number of Chinese/Asian actors denied opportunities due to their ethnicity in America.

The representation of white people in Chinese plays/movies/TV shows relative to the white population in China, versus the representation of Asians on Broadway, in Hollywood, etc. relative to the Asian American population.

There. Is. No. Comparison.
posted by fatehunter at 11:54 AM on July 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


Just for the heck of it, I'd like to throw out "The Conqueror" --- that 1956 cinematic masterpiece starring John Wayne as the Mongol Temujin aka Genghis Khan, Susan Hayward as his Tartar love-interest, Agnes Moorehead as his mother, and Pedro Armendariz as his Mongol buddy. Filmed in Utah under the aegis of Howard Hughes.
posted by easily confused at 11:57 AM on July 11, 2012


You know almost the entire cast and crew of that died of cancer.

I'm not saying it wouldn't have happened with a Mongol cast. And I'm not saying it's not die to them deciding to film near a former atom bomb testing ground.

I'm saying it's a really crappy film that nobody should have died as a result of.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:01 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


There. Is. No. Comparison.

Right. And for that matter the reason people would like to see more Asian looking people in US casts is for the millions of Asian Americans here, not for people in Asia. The question of how other countries care to consume their entertainment has no bearing whatsoever on how we do things here.
posted by NathanBoy at 12:01 PM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


It really depends on the degree of realism intended. If you are casting "The Godfather," most of your actors had better pass for Italian. If you are casting "Guys and Dolls," your gangsters can reflect the whole rainbow. An Andersen fairy tale seems to sit closer to the latter. But I don't know what the producers of this particular show are going for.
posted by Longtime Listener at 12:06 PM on July 11, 2012


Just for the heck of it, I'd like to throw out "The Conqueror"...

I speak for the rest of society when I say as do we.
posted by griphus at 12:09 PM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


muddgirl: When we live in an America where Asian-American actors can get 'white' roles, then we can re-address the appropriateness of staging a show in FEUDAL China and having 1 adult Asian actor in your cast (who is probably actually Japanese-American).
With you up until the implication that, somehow, a Japanese-American is not a valid Asian.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:26 PM on July 11, 2012


With you up until the implication that, somehow, a Japanese-American is not a valid Asian.

I don't think that's the implication at all. Just that Japanese is not Chinese.

I think Moises Kaufman erred on the side of "The Nightingale isn't really Chinese." I wish he had erred on the side of "great Asian American actors don't get enough work." I am of the opinion that the former is an expression of privilege and the latter a rejection of it, and I wish theater were unlike the rest of the world, in that I wish it were a place where privilege were regularly challenged, instead of maintained.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:34 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


But where would they find any Asian actors in California? Aren't they all blond(e) Nordic-types out there on the coast?
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:41 PM on July 11, 2012


And yet when Lucy Liu is cast as Watson in the Sherlock reboot, the entire bloody god damn internets goes frothing with hate about how inaccurate her casting is, how being Chinese changes Watson's character and let's not even get into the whole misogynist blah blah blargh.

With this casting, this play is like the personification of this dude I met once with hanzi tattooed all over his body who talked about how he was an expert in Chinese culture because he taught English for a year in Dalian and about how colourblind he was because he didn't see race.

I think I went through five or six of those little vodka bottles on that flight. Didn't really help much.
posted by zennish at 12:42 PM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


And yet when Lucy Liu is cast as Watson in the Sherlock reboot, the entire bloody god damn internets goes frothing with hate about how inaccurate her casting is, how being Chinese changes Watson's character...

Seriously, that's happening? Weird. I mean, I think it's terrible casting in that the role as it seems to be written is a mind-boggling waste of Lucy Liu, but whatever.
posted by lodurr at 12:45 PM on July 11, 2012


So, let's get this straight. A fairy tale is written by a Dane in 1843. The setting is nominally in "China" although the author knew jack fuck all about real China, so it is really set in a kind of an "exotic fairy tale oriental land of mystery" that has absolutely no basis in reality. This story "set in the exotic fairy tale oriental land of mystery" called "China" is turned into a musical by two guys who know jack fuck all about real China and are clearly working from an "exotic fairy tale oriental land of mystery" conception. And the argument here is that some people are pissed off that there aren't enough ethnic Chinese actors in the cast? Really?! Is this what it's come to? Should a play on Baba Yaga be cast with Slavs? Can the opera Turandot only be performed by ethnic Chinese singers, despite the fact that Giacomo Puccini's understanding of China just as full of crap as Hans Christian Andersen's? For that matter, perhaps Puccini's La fanciulla del West should only be performed by American cowboys? Do nightingales even live in China at all?
posted by slkinsey at 12:49 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


With you up until the implication that, somehow, a Japanese-American is not a valid Asian.

To my eyes, she was talking about the OPP writer's statement in her blog post that the La Jolla Playhouse casting crew could have selected one actor with Chinese ancestry for a role in a show set in China and instead, for the single Asian actor they picked, selected an actor with Japanese ancestry instead.

As Erin Quill writes: "Kimiko is a Japanese name – I don’t care, happy she is working, I’m just using it to point out – there are NO CHINESE PEOPLE IN A SHOW SET IN CHINA."

My head is still reeling a little after watching a 1931 movie on TCM last night with Leslie Howard in which one of the female leads was a Spanish actress playing a Polynesian woman, complete with stereotyped monosyllabic four-or-five-word sentences as the totality of her English vocabulary. ("Dan, no hate me please!") Most of the other actors playing Pacific Islander roles in that movie appeared to be actually Pacific Islander (except for one bearded white dude who played the woman's father), but they were strictly there for background "native color" (as in "Look at those savage island people doing their exotic dances and eating that exotic food and driving the white men crazy!").
posted by blucevalo at 12:50 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think that's the implication at all. Just that Japanese is not Chinese.
By the same token, The Nightingale is clearly set in a pseudo-Qing China and Han is not Manchu, so not sure it's worth parsing it beyond the larger point that it's a missed chance for decent work for Asian American actors.
posted by Abiezer at 12:52 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not fun to be invisible.

While I completely agree with the sentiment behind them, I could not disagree more strenuously with those particular words in that particular order.
posted by figurant at 12:58 PM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sure, you think so. But then you start wearing bandages, a trilby hat, and sunglasses and screaming that even the moon hates you, and soon you are being hunted by the police. I've seen how this invisibility thing plays out before.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:04 PM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I prefer the version where I wear bandages, a trilby hat and sunglasses, and run around punching Martians.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:06 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


blucevalo: With you up until the implication that, somehow, a Japanese-American is not a valid Asian.

To my eyes, she was talking about the OPP writer's statement in her blog post that the La Jolla Playhouse casting crew could have selected one actor with Chinese ancestry for a role in a show set in China and instead, for the single Asian actor they picked, selected an actor with Japanese ancestry instead.
Still not agreeing. A website was set up where people were surveyed on what nationality various Asian people were (based on their photos). It was run by an Asian-American, and he discovered Asians were fairly incapable of making an accurate distinction, despite their common belief that the nationalities looked very different.

So, it's akin to casting a Frenchman to portray Hercule Poirot (a Belgian): devoid of inherent racial issues, because they are the same race. Everything else is nationalism, which is prideful crap.

However, this isn't the point of the problem. If they hired one or two single Chinese-Chinese, the vast majority of the cast would still essentially be wearing "yellowface".
posted by IAmBroom at 1:06 PM on July 11, 2012


What's interesting is there seem to be quite a few directors who think they can get away with this and that there is no problem with it - and at a very high level. Witness the storm that erupted around the TheaterWorks production of The Motherf@*ker With A Hat in Hartford. Even the playwright was pretty pissed off. And the director there responded fairly inappropriately, even trying to throw the casting director under the bus before owning up to it - and not really admitting that it was problematic.
posted by redbeard at 1:06 PM on July 11, 2012


I prefer the version where I wear bandages, a trilby hat and sunglasses, and run around punching Martians.

Is that the one with Chevy Chase?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:10 PM on July 11, 2012


Memoirs of an Extraordinary Gentleman
posted by griphus at 1:11 PM on July 11, 2012


TBH he spent less time punching Martians and more time punching Mina which is why I hate him.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:18 PM on July 11, 2012


slkinsey: "And the argument here is that some people are pissed off that there aren't enough ethnic Chinese actors in the cast? Really?! Is this what it's come to? "

No, the arguments presented in the entirety of this thread are actually really reasonable, and written in a way that is pretty easy to understand if you wanted to.

These are the arguments that you've completely ignored in order to keep hacking away at your "PC-run-amok" strawman.
posted by danny the boy at 1:22 PM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Shakespeare clearly had no concpetion of what Denmark or Danes were actually like.

What? Several of the actors in Shakespeare's company had performed in Denmark. James II was married to a Dane. John Dowland worked as a court musician there for many years. English ships going to the Baltic would have paid taxes to Denmark as they passed. It's not like it was on the other side of the earth.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 1:25 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well yes I'm not saying I'd do everything Griffin did. There would also be a dramatic decrease in invisible boarding-school rapes.

So more like the movie version, really.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:28 PM on July 11, 2012


Well, that's a much better rationale than saying 'he'd know about Denmark because Danes populated part of England a few hundred years before,' so I will concede that he probably knew something about Denmark.
posted by lodurr at 1:28 PM on July 11, 2012


So more like the movie version, really.

The Venice car chase will prove problematic.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:33 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't actually think it's "PC-run-amok" so much as I think it's misplaced ire.

I agree that there have been plenty of reasonable arguments for why Asian actors should be cast in Asian roles, and for that matter why more Asian actors should be considered for "ethnically neutral" roles. I happen to agree with all those things.

I just happen to think that these arguments are wrongfully applied here given the fact that the story is clearly set in a pseudo-oriental fantasy land, and not actually in China or any other Asian country in any meaningful sense. Indeed, I think there's an argument to be made here that, given the nature and provenance of the story, it would be more appropriate to cast the show with non-Asian actors. It's also worth pointing out, as others have with respect to operas set in ethnically specific locales, that this is a musical, not a play. As such, it requires specific kinds of vocal abilities depending upon the roles and the writing. Maybe a million Asian actors with equivalent acting experience and vocal chops showed up (or would have showed up) to the casting call for this show. But maybe not. Certainly it's true in opera that one cannot often find enough singers of the target ethnicity who are good enough singers with the right kind of voice. I don't believe there has ever been a notable all-Chinese production of Turandot, for example.

Regardless, it's amusing to imagine how I could "keep hacking away" at a strawman with my first post in the thread.
posted by slkinsey at 1:36 PM on July 11, 2012


The Venice car chase will prove problematic.

Less so than his encounter with Hyde would have.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:39 PM on July 11, 2012


"Asians represent about 5 percent of the American population, so their representation on stage is less than half of what it would be just for parity's sake. Had it not been for the plays of David Henry Hwang, who often writes specifically about Asian and Asian-American subjects, that number would probably have been much less."

The latest number is 5.8% of the total US population. This really is the main point of the thread, and other similar ones we have had in the past: Representation.

I just happen to think that these arguments are wrongfully applied here given the fact that the story is clearly set in a pseudo-oriental fantasy land, and not actually in China or any other Asian country in any meaningful sense.

Don't call it China if it's not actually China in any meaningful sense. There is no need to specify the country if it's not relevant to the story. This production has chosen to call the place China; the onus is on them to either make it relevant or drop the reference.
posted by fatehunter at 1:50 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


As Erin Quill writes: "Kimiko is a Japanese name – I don’t care, happy she is working, I’m just using it to point out – there are NO CHINESE PEOPLE IN A SHOW SET IN CHINA."

I just realized that Quill has decided that this other actor is not Chinese based on her name -- while her own name sounds English/European. How does she know that the other actor is not of Chinese descent as she is?

And there other thing is: while I totally understand East Asian people being annoyed at non-East Asians not understanding the differences between the many, many cultures in East Asia, the whole thing where people claim that someone who is Japanese cannot play a Chinese character (or vice versa) is ridiculous. As pointed out above, people of European descent play other ethnicities all the time. Of course, white people all do look alike - that's why we have to have different colours of hair, otherwise we can't tell each other apart.
posted by jb at 1:59 PM on July 11, 2012


Don't call it China if it's not actually China in any meaningful sense.

Take it up with Hans Christian Anderson.

If his story is set in a pseudo-oriental fantasy land he called "China" and not actually in real China in any meaningful sense, it doesn't actually follow that the onus is on the producers of a musical based on the Hans Christian Anderson story to either make it relevant to real China (although how casting lots of Asians would accomplish this, I'm not sure) or drop the reference.

Hey, there are a number of bit parts in the Puccini opera Turandot that can be sung by most any singer, including plenty of Asians. There is also a big chorus, and they could be all Asians too. For that matter, there have to be at least a few big-voice Asian sopranos and tenors out there who can sing the leading couple reasonably well, and there are a number of Asian sopranos who can sing the secondary soprano role. Should opera companies make an effort to cast this show with as many Asians as possible? Or was the onus on Puccini to make Carlo Gozzi's story relevant to real China or drop the reference?
posted by slkinsey at 2:02 PM on July 11, 2012


fatehunter: maybe they could just call it the kingdom of Qin.

and I am curious: what is the distribution of nightingales in Eurasia? According to wikipedia, "It is a migratory insectivorous species breeding in forest and scrub in Europe and south-west Asia," so it seems that (unless it was imported) there were no nightingales in ancient China.
posted by jb at 2:03 PM on July 11, 2012


It seems (from my cursory hunting) that this may be the "nightingale" in question, now commonly called the red-billed Leiothrix.
posted by blucevalo at 2:23 PM on July 11, 2012


It seems (from my cursory hunting) that this may be the "nightingale" in question, now commonly called the red-billed Leiothrix.

Why wouldn't it have been the same European nightingale with which Hans Christian Anderson was familiar?


Interestingly, it looks like this isn't the first time this story has been turned into a musical.
posted by slkinsey at 2:26 PM on July 11, 2012


Take it up with Hans Christian Anderson.

If his story is set in a pseudo-oriental fantasy land he called "China" and not actually in real China in any meaningful sense, it doesn't actually follow that the onus is on the producers of a musical based on the Hans Christian Anderson story to either make it relevant to real China (although how casting lots of Asians would accomplish this, I'm not sure) or drop the reference.


1) Hans Christian Anderson was not an infallible god, and he lived in a time less enlightened than ours. If he lived now, produced a work that he set in a specific country, and made it wholly irrelevant, people would call him out for it. And they would be justified.

2) The onus is on any production to decide how they wish to adapt any existing work. Kaufman can and should drop the China setting if he feels it's not relevant to his production, regardless of what HCA intended for HCA's story. Or Kaufman can modify the story so that the setting is actually relevant.

3) Since people see musicals, it might help if the characters specified as Chinese looked like they could be Chinese.

For that matter, there have to be at least a few big-voice Asian sopranos and tenors out there who can sing the leading couple reasonably well, and there are a number of Asian sopranos who can sing the secondary soprano role. Should opera companies make an effort to cast this show with as many Asians as possible?

If you have to ask this question after reading this thread in its entirety, you have missed the point.
posted by fatehunter at 2:33 PM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I just happen to think that these arguments are wrongfully applied here given the fact that the story is clearly set in a pseudo-oriental fantasy land, and not actually in China or any other Asian country in any meaningful sense.

Except, of course, when a play or film is set in a pseudo-Medieval Europe, that land is also, weirdly, full of Caucasians rather than Asians.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:35 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Except, of course, when a play or film is set in a pseudo-Medieval Europe, that land is also, weirdly, full of Caucasians rather than Asians.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:35 PM on July 11 [+] [!]


if someone argued that such a play should NOT cast Asian actors, I would think that was kind of racist. For this reason, we also colour-blind cast Shakespeare, as many of his plays are set in a pseudo-medieval Europe with little or no resemblance to the actual history of the place.

Caucasians dominate American arts and media because they are a majority, and too often seen as the "default" - just as male is the default gender. I totally understand her annoyance when characters whose race is not pertinent to the story are more likely to be cast as white. (As opposed to, for example, the Colour Purple). However, this play is also a case where the race is not pertinent to the story and it looks like they did colour blind casting. The play only has a handful of roles - we can't expect even colour-blind casting to reflect the racial makeup of a nation if there are only 5 or so major roles being cast.
posted by jb at 2:41 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


When watching something that's meant to have a period look, colorblind casting can throw you out of it for a moment if you're not used to it. But when you get right down to it, the accents are probably all wrong, half the mannerisms and speech patterns and street scene details and three-quarters of the props are probably wrong in some way, and probably most of the actors are taller and better-nourished than they would have been. But we don't seem to get our undies in a bunch about those things the way we do skin color and eye shape.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:34 PM on July 11, 2012


But we don't seem to get our undies in a bunch about those things the way we do skin color and eye shape.

Maybe because these things are attached to actual living, you know, humans? (The skin and eyes, not the undies.)
posted by hermitosis at 3:46 PM on July 11, 2012


And accents, speech patterns, mannerisms, and overall apparent health are not?

Personally I find all the straight white teeth in, e.g., Tudor period films to be weirder than ethnic indicators.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:54 PM on July 11, 2012


But we don't seem to get our undies in a bunch about those things the way we do skin color and eye shape.

Probably because people aren't discriminated against for not having an era-appropriate accent.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:57 PM on July 11, 2012


By the way, in case a pile-on is building up here, I am actually defending BBC-type colorblind casting generally, NOT the apparent exclusion of Asians from the production in question, which I agree crosses into another territory entirely
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:00 PM on July 11, 2012


"Maybe a million Asian actors with equivalent acting experience and vocal chops showed up (or would have showed up) to the casting call for this show. But maybe not."

See, this is why people are wondering if you've read the thread. Casting at La Jolla is invite only, and they are a nationally known theater. They seriously could have cast it however they wanted. And if they'd wanted to go with Asian performers they'd have had a huge pool to draw from. No theater at La Jolla's level ever has any problems casting Pacific Overtures or Miss Saigon or Flower Drum Song or South Pacific or Shogun or any other musical that calls for Asian leads.

"Certainly it's true in opera that one cannot often find enough singers of the target ethnicity who are good enough singers with the right kind of voice."

Yes, that is true. But opera draws from a much smaller casting pool, which both contains fewer people and a smaller percentage capable of handling the leading roles within that population. In the opera version of Othello, the lead is still all-too-often performed by a white singer in blackface, something that would cause a riot in the world of musicals or stage plays. (If there are those not familiar with opera who think this practice can't still be common, 20 seconds of searching found me Johan Botha appearing as Otello in New York and San Francisco in 2008-2009. (It's still common enough that the fact that he was in blackface is something you might miss from reading the reviews unless you happen across this one, idly mentioning that since "Mr. Botha is a South African ... it would be interesting to know how he felt about appearing in blackface.")

On a different note, in response to a different subject and set of posters:

"[Casting a Japanese-American in a Chinese-American role is] akin to casting a Frenchman to portray Hercule Poirot (a Belgian) ..."

This is not an unreasonable argument, and saying that they clearly made the effort to cast at least one East Asian performer in this small cast show seems like a fair point.
posted by kyrademon at 4:12 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seriously, that's happening? Weird. I mean, I think it's terrible casting in that the role as it seems to be written is a mind-boggling waste of Lucy Liu, but whatever.

Yeah - I don't have any links to give you right now, but most of the kvetching I've seen has been coming from the Sherlock BBC fans. Watson isn't a woman, it changes the dynamic, Watson's supposed to be British, casting a female actress as Watson is homophobic, Liu's a terrible actress, the network's going to make it a love story, etc, etc. Even the little preview CBS put up on Youtube's been downvoted to hell from (I'm presuming, going by the video comments) Sherlock BBC fans. (If you're interested in some links, memail me, I think I just accidentally started a derail.)

If his story is set in a pseudo-oriental fantasy land he called "China" and not actually in real China in any meaningful sense, it doesn't actually follow that the onus is on the producers of a musical based on the Hans Christian Anderson story to either make it relevant to real China (although how casting lots of Asians would accomplish this, I'm not sure) or drop the reference.

I'm sort of clawing at my face here, because I don't know how to explain myself and I'm exceptionally shitty at making much proper English when I need to but this whole idea that 'it's not the real China' is really, really reductive. Even if the maker said it wasn't really 'China', he still based it on China and drew inspiration from it. But this fake exoticised 'inspired' Orientalist view of a country and setting that only exists in the Western mind - it bugs, because picking and choosing 'exotic' elements to decorate and set your story in reinforces crappy, old stereotypical ideas about Chinese culture held by the West. If you (general you) say that the original Anderson fairy tale isn't China in 'any meaningful sense', why shouldn't the producers making this play in 2012 update and correct it, especially if it's written as a fairy-tale parable sort of story? Why not fix something that's obviously based on an old world-view? What value is there to keep old, skewed ideas about Chinese culture?

Setting something in China and then saying, 'oh, this isn't the real China. It's the China I came up with based on China, but it isn't China' is lazy. That's wanting to appropriate something you like and want to use as decoration and set-dressing without having to deal with the history it comes with. It's dismissive, I suppose, though I'm not sure if that's the right word for it.
posted by zennish at 4:26 PM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Setting something in China and then saying, 'oh, this isn't the real China. It's the China I came up with based on China, but it isn't China' is lazy. That's wanting to appropriate something you like and want to use as decoration and set-dressing without having to deal with the history it comes with.

Perhaps, but it's worth mentioning by contrast that that is precisely true of The Mikado, which is absolutely and uniformly a satire on contemporary Britain, with only aesthetic and for the most part, excruciatingly wrong elements of the real Japan.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:33 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Indeed, kyrademon. I've seen Otello performed in blackface. I didn't realize it at the time, because the makeup was quite well done and I was very impressed that a small Canadian opera company had brought in a black tenor for the role, when they normally had a small pool of regulars they cast. But no, just convincing makeup.

It definitely raised an eyebrow when I found that out.
posted by figurant at 4:40 PM on July 11, 2012


"The Mikado, which is absolutely and uniformly a satire on contemporary Britain, with only aesthetic and for the most part, excruciatingly wrong elements of the real Japan."

Yes, but The Mikado was written over 100 years ago. I strongly suspect that if it had been written in modern times, it would simply have used a made-up country.

The only modern equivalent I can think of immediately would be "Borat" (and it may be worth noting that Kazakhstani government was not overly happy about that movie.)
posted by kyrademon at 4:41 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


... most of the kvetching I've seen has been coming from the Sherlock BBC fans. Watson isn't a woman, it changes the dynamic, Watson's supposed to be British, casting a female actress as Watson is homophobic, Liu's a terrible actress, the network's going to make it a love story, etc,...

Oh, well, that they're afraid the network will turn it into a love story just means they've seen American TV. Liu is like any actor, she's got to have material to work with, and she's shown that with strong material she can deliver. As far as the anti-revisionist stuff, that I expect, but 'homophobic' is a fun one. I didn't realize how mine-studded the waters of homoeroticism in the vicinity of Sherlock Holmes had become until I went to see Richey's Holmes II with a lesbian lit major, who was visibly upset at the idea that Richey might be trading on the homoerotic angle.

Anyway, that American adaptation looks like it's specifically tailored to avoid triggering lawsuits for infringement from the BBC and so it's a monstrosity on several levels. I'll be amazed if it can survive a half season.
posted by lodurr at 4:43 PM on July 11, 2012


Mick Jagger in The Nightingale
posted by homunculus at 4:49 PM on July 11, 2012


If you (general you) say that the original Anderson fairy tale isn't China in 'any meaningful sense', why shouldn't the producers making this play in 2012 update and correct it, especially if it's written as a fairy-tale parable sort of story? Why not fix something that's obviously based on an old world-view? What value is there to keep old, skewed ideas about Chinese culture?

Indeed. By comparison: Anyone who remembers the old Tarzan novels reasonably well will remember that they bear very little resemblance to Africa except in some very small parts (I seem to recall his depiction of the west coast wasn't so very far off). But successive generations of adaptation have made it progressively more realistic (as much as you could do, to Tarzan), and people generally seem to think that's a good thing.

Anyway, I feel like the whole discussion of whether it's "really Chinese" is a distraction: As has been pointed out, given the conspicuous absence of asians in modern theatre and especially in proximity with a student population that's, what did we say, 40% asian, this looks pretty insulting.
posted by lodurr at 4:51 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Othello/Otello is a Moor, i.e. of mixed Berber and Arab descent, so traditional "blackface" is wrong anyway. Though he is supposed to look different and dark, one presumes that would have been from Shakespeare's pasty Northern European perspective. Aida, on the other hand, is an Ethiopian princess but I've never heard of singers being blacked up for the role (often it's more of a good bronzing like the rest of the cast who are supposed to be Egyptians).

But as already noted opera usually cares much less for visual/ethnic fidelity (Porgy and Bess being a specific counter example because of Gershwin's instructions that the role was never to be played in blackface, apparently in the story I heard to stop Jolson from butchering it).
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 5:33 PM on July 11, 2012


Another 20 seconds of searching:

Aida, Los Angeles Opera, 2005: No fewer than 6 people in blackface.

Aida, the Met, 2010: Violeta Urmana performs the title role in blackface.
posted by kyrademon at 5:48 PM on July 11, 2012


OK, maybe I should have googled around some more, but then we might end up arguing the line between bronzing and blackface. Anyway, to sort of come full circle, how about this one: a chinese Ethiopian, without any apparent heavy recoloring (though her father is suspiciously blue).
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 6:04 PM on July 11, 2012


Wonder if we're finally seeing the last decades of operatic blackface ... I mean, as late as the 1960's, theatrical blackface was somewhat surprisingly common outside of the opera world as well. Jolson is the usual example, but you could also bring up Orson Welles or Laurence Olivier.

But the theater has now left it pretty much behind, and I veyr much hope that opera does someday as well.

(It may take a while yet, though, if it happens at all. In Italy, for example, my understanding is that no one even considers it a problem that needs to potentially be addressed.)
posted by kyrademon at 6:32 PM on July 11, 2012


I'd be happy to leave blackface behind completely in opera as elsewhere, but as with the above Lyric Opera example, i'm not sure that just painting them blue instead is not really an improvement. Also, not playing Othello in blackface is great, but if that means that we never again get the equivalent of a Welles or an Olivier playing the role (unblackened) I don't think we've gained that much.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 7:22 PM on July 11, 2012


the ones who suddenly demand absolute accuracy when Idris Elba gets cast as Heimdall.

Well, now...that's really a Norse of a different color.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:25 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


When we live in an America where Asian-American actors can get 'white' roles, then we can re-address the appropriateness of staging a show in FEUDAL China and having 1 adult Asian actor in your cast (who is probably actually Japanese-American).

Do you accept Linus Van Pelt as a "white character"? If so, that's happened.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:37 PM on July 11, 2012


David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) wrote a play about this very topic (Yellowface) and his experience with the same issue during the Broadway casting of Miss Saigon. At the level of Broadway the issue is a little more nuanced than forgetting to ask Asian actors if they were interested (it's highly unlikely there were any open calls). My experience (which includes being part of a theater company specifically created to address issues of colorblind -- or not -- casting) would have it that theater, in general, is very sensitive to this issue, probably much more so than the audiences that make up Broadway ticket buyers. If this is frustrating to you, seek out local theater and support it. A lot of it is awful, but some of it isn't. Give those people your time, and you can be part of glacial change that obviates stories like this.
posted by 99_ at 8:45 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Indeed, kyrademon. I've seen Otello performed in blackface. I didn't realize it at the time, because the makeup was quite well done and I was very impressed that a small Canadian opera company had brought in a black tenor for the role, when they normally had a small pool of regulars they cast. But no, just convincing makeup.

It definitely raised an eyebrow when I found that out.


The lead role in Verdi's Otello in any company of note is invariably portrayed by a caucasian singer with his skin darkened. This is frankly simply because there haven't been any top level Italianate-voiced dramatic tenors who weren't caucasian. What's weird, in my opinion, is that there have been any number of top level black baritones capable of singing Iago, and especially a ton of top level black sopranos capable of singing Desdemona -- but they never get to sing these roles because it would mean making them up in "whiteface."

In opera, making people up like they belong to a different ethnicity is commonplace. There are a small number of roles (Aida for black sopranos, Cio-Cio San for Asian sopranos) where being of the "appropriate" ethnic type can be an advantage. It certainly didn't hurt that Leontyne Price, one of the great Aidas of the 20th century, was black. But, on the other hand, the famous white Aidas far outnumber the black ones. In my performing history I've been made up black, Indian, Chinese, etc. any number of times. Maybe that's why I think this is a bit of a mountain out of a molehill. I would no more expect the La Jolla Playhouse to cast this show with Asians than I would expect the San Diego Opera to cast Lakmé with Indians or Turandot with Chinese.

Again, it's interesting to note that the 1982 musical adaptation of The Nightingale featured such Asian performers as Sarah Brightman, Andrew Shore, Gordon Sandison and Susannah Fellows. In these fantasy-type shows, I just find that it's usual not to cast the show with a slavish preference for performers of the "correct" ethnicity. At least they're not making up the cast to look Chinese which, believe me, is exactly what an opera company would do.
posted by slkinsey at 8:50 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why wouldn't it have been the same European nightingale with which Hans Christian Anderson was familiar?

Hell, it could have been a freaking bobolink for all I know.
posted by blucevalo at 9:07 PM on July 11, 2012


slkinsey, I figured the pool of talent might be a limiting factor (I know next to nothing about singing at that level, but I do understand that the role requires a suitable stage presence, a top-level tenor voice, and a firm grasp of the language. Probably not many people of any ethnicity can tick all those boxes). I had a chance to chat with the a member of the production staff a few months after the show I saw, and with some gentle probing it seemed like blackface just wasn't something they even thought of in racial terms. If anything, I detected a bit of professional pride that I'd been fooled by the makeup.
posted by figurant at 10:58 PM on July 11, 2012


(And Seven Samurai and Yojimbo of course)

What the fuck do Seven Samurai and Yojimbo have to do with anything in this thread? Do you somehow think that Seven Samurai and Yojimbo are also based on Shakespeare plays?
posted by kmz at 11:30 PM on July 11, 2012


"Also, not playing Othello in blackface is great, but if that means that we never again get the equivalent of a Welles or an Olivier playing the role (unblackened) I don't think we've gained that much."

In non-operatic theater, the tendency these days is to reverse cast if you have a Welles or an Olivier you want as your Othello - that is to say, cast Othello white and the rest of the cast as black. That's what they did when Patrick Stewart played Othello in 1997, for example.
posted by kyrademon at 1:12 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


fatehunter: "The onus is on any production to decide how they wish to adapt any existing work. Kaufman can and should drop the China setting if he feels it's not relevant to his production, regardless of what HCA intended for HCA's story. Or Kaufman can modify the story so that the setting is actually relevant."
Just checking: you of course also think this applies to Hamlet being set in Denmark, and that contemporary productions of the play should make the Danish setting relevant or scrub it from the production (changing the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Wilson and Johnson, etc.)?
slkinsey: "Why wouldn't it have been the same European nightingale with which Hans Christian Anderson was familiar?"
Of course it would, the red-billed Leothrix is a red herring. Andersen never travelled further east than Istanbul.
posted by brokkr at 1:34 AM on July 12, 2012


Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish: "Martian"

And here I was thinking I was in a species-blind thread.
posted by Samizdata at 3:49 AM on July 12, 2012


>Do you somehow think that Seven Samurai and Yojimbo are also based on Shakespeare plays?

Well, Yojimbo is based on a Hammett novel, so I think it would be fair to demand that Kurosawa cast all northern-Californians.
posted by lodurr at 6:59 AM on July 12, 2012


Re. blackface in Aida: I wonder if that's not a case of weird homage to afrocentrism -- specifically, the idea that had precedence for some time that the pyramid-builders were black africans instead of arabs, as had traditionally been supposed. So it would be un-PC in pursuit of obsolete PC.
posted by lodurr at 7:02 AM on July 12, 2012


Even the little preview yt CBS put up on Youtube's been downvoted to hell from (I'm presuming, going by the video comments) Sherlock BBC fans.

What, they are trying to make an American remake of the British modern-remake Sherlock?

That's crazy - and I would complain/boycott it on the sole grounds that remaking one of the finest tv programs of the last decade is idiotic.

also, they already have an American modern remake of Sherlock Holmes - it's called House.
posted by jb at 7:56 AM on July 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


And we know how fast that went to hell, so I'm not too upset about them giving it a second go.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:02 AM on July 12, 2012


Nothing should be sacred in art. If they want to cast R2D2 or a Swahili warrior in the roles they should be able to.
posted by judson at 8:33 AM on July 12, 2012


If all productions were color blind, I don't think that Erin Quill would have an issue. She seems to be making two arguments:
1. Most productions are not colorblind, especially when it comes to the starring roles.
2. If you aren't going to be colorblind for most productions, then why, suddenly are you being colorblind in the one production where it would otherwise make sense to hire Asian actors?

As an Asian-American actress, she loses both ways.

I think the crux of her argument is the lack of employment for Asian-American actors, which is something that has been in the industry for years.

I'll never get over the anger I felt when I found out that Hollywood could have chosen Bruce Lee over David Carradine to play the lead roll in the television show Kung Fu.
posted by eye of newt at 8:46 AM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


lodurr, in Aida there are both Egyptians and Ethiopians; Aida herself is an Ethiopian princess captive in Egypt. I'm sure that at some point all the permutations in color of make have been used somewhere (i.e. blue), but under normal circumstances where there is makeup dark enough to qualify as blackface (given that all stage makeup often hugely alters natural skin tone) it's not the Egyptians who are wearing it.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 8:53 AM on July 12, 2012


kyrademon: On a different note, in response to a different subject and set of posters:

"[Casting a Japanese-American in a Chinese-American role is] akin to casting a Frenchman to portray Hercule Poirot (a Belgian) ..."

This is not an unreasonable argument, and saying that they clearly made the effort to cast at least one East Asian performer in this small cast show seems like a fair point.
Fair, but statistically insignificant. The cast wasn't that small; as noted elsewhere, the school is ~40% Asian.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:26 AM on July 12, 2012


Oh, I definitely agree. But I wanted to acknowledge that the line of argument wasn't in and of itself crazy.
posted by kyrademon at 2:55 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


don't know about the play in question, but I do know that the original author of One Thousand and One Nights set the story of Aladdin in mythical fake-China as well, and we certainly don't see accurate representation of that angle in most media other than the excellent 2000 ABC miniseries Arabian Nights. That said, there certainly is a problem about lack of casting of Asian American males in American visual media other than for stereotypical roles. I don't think this story is the right place to highlight that cause, but might as well make use of the outrage to spread awareness.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:56 PM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


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