Public Forum on ‘Nightingale’ Casting Controversy in La Jolla

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From left: Aaron Serotsky, Corbin Reid, Charlayne Woodard, Jonathan Hammond and Eisa Davis in a scene from "The Nightingale." (Photo by David Schwartz)

LA JOLLA — The La Jolla Playhouse has invited the public to a free post-performance panel discussion on the controversy surrounding the mostly non-Asian casting of its current production, “The Nightingale,” based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale and set in China.

This open forum will be held Sunday, July 22, at approximately 3:45 p.m., following a 2 p.m. matinee, at the Potiker Theater, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla. The audience will include those who have seen the show and those attending the forum only.

In the play, which opened July 10 and runs through Aug. 5, a young prince is about to be crowned emperor, but his rebellious spirit first longs to see the realm he’ll rule. When a courageous young fisherwoman brings him a wild nightingale that sings the song of his heart, he can no longer resist the world outside the palace walls.

Nikki Castillo in the title role and Bobby Steggert as Young Emperor. (Photo by David Schwartz)

The show features Tony Award nominee and Playhouse Gala honoree Charlayne Woodard (“The Night Watcher,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) as Empress Dowager; Obie Award winner Eisa Davis (“Passing Strange,” “Angela’s Mixtape”) as Fisherwoman; and Bobby Steggert (Broadway revival of “110 in the Shade”) as Young Emperor.

The cast also includes Serra Mesa resident Nikki Castillo (“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) as Nightingale; Aaron Serotsky (Off-Broadway’s “The Blue Flower”) as Minister of State; Corbin Reid (Broadway’s “Sister Act”) as Feiyan; Jonathan Hammond (Broadway’s “Ragtime”) as Emperor; Kimiko Glenn (“Spring Awakening” national tour) as Princess Ssu-Ming; Steve Gunderson (“Memphis”) as Chief Eunuch; and Matthew Patrick Davis (“Limelight,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) as Lieutenant Eunuch.

The casting was an issue on social media long before the premiere. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition posted the following statement:

“Though AAPAC is primarily concerned with Asian American representation on New York City stages, we felt the current Page to Stage production of ‘The Nightingale’ at La Jolla Playhouse is relevant to our mission and warrants our attention.

“The story of ‘The Nightingale’ is set in China. Of 11 cast members, however, only two are Asian American; the rest of the cast is made up of other races. We are deeply disappointed that in the rare instance of a new musical set in an Asian country, the creative team (Moises Kaufman, director; Duncan Sheik, composer; Steven Sater, lyrics) did not decide to cast all or mostly Asian actors.

“We do not in any way blame or begrudge the actors currently cast for their involvement — this is not about them. We simply find it baffling and frustrating that unlike ‘The Lion King’ or ‘Bombay Dreams,’ musicals where the majorities of their multicultural casts have been comprised primarily of African and Indian American actors, respectively, the creative team would not consider it an artistic or social priority to find and cast Asian Americans in the majority of roles for a story set in Asia.

“That Moises Kaufman was a part of this decision — an artist who has long been concerned with giving voice to an oppressed minority and speaking their truth — is even more disappointing … Was there a perception on the part of the creative team that the Asian American talent pool was inadequate? Was it based on fear that there wasn’t enough of a box-office draw with an all-Asian cast? Was there not even that much thought given to telling the story with an Asian American cast in the first place?

“‘The Nightingale’ is a glaring example of the continued lack of employment opportunities given to Asian American actors. This invisibility reinforces how Asian artists are often denied a voice in shaping how Asians are represented, particularly when it comes to the appropriation of Asian cultures and themes.

Kimiko Glenn as Ssu-Ming with Steve Gunderson as Chief Eunuch and Matthew Patrick Davis as Lieutenant Eunuch. (Photo by David Schwartz)

“We urge all of our friends and supporters to speak out against cases of exclusion like these. Stand with us in our opposition to minorities getting excluded from future projects under the seemingly benevolent guise of ‘multicultural casting.’”

The panel will include La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley; Cindy Cheung and Christine Toy Johnson of AAPAC; and Tara Rubin, the production’s casting director, from Tara Rubin Casting in New York.

“I’d like to thank everyone engaging in the conversation about the casting choices for our Page to Stage workshop production of ‘The Nightingale,’” Ashley said in a Facebook post on July 11. “It was our intention from the onset to create a multicultural cast in a reinterpretation of this Hans Christian Andersen classic fable, blending East and West, past and present.

“We are still in the process of discovering this piece in the Page to Stage environment and fully acknowledge that some of our choices may change as the project develops. We truly value this feedback and look forward to continued discussions.

“In fact, it is just this kind of discourse for which the Playhouse’s Page to Stage program was designed. These developmental workshop productions allow the space to explore questions about what a piece is and wants to become. Audience reactions and feedback help drive the changes that are made on a nightly basis, which are incorporated into the show throughout the run.”

Regarding the panel discussion, Ashley said, “It is very important to me and the playhouse to address the many valid casting conversations that are taking place around our production of ‘The Nightingale.’ I think the best way to do this is to have frank discussion in a forum open to all in the community who wish to participate.”

Multicultural and Mythic

Lyricist Sater told U-T San Diego, “Hans Christian Andersen was writing a satire of the West, and setting it in China. And we actually have done a great deal of research into Chinese history, and drawn on Chinese history. … (But) we’re very much retaining the world of fable – contemporary fable.

“On the subject of casting, I have to say, we had a workshop that was fully Asian, and it’s not appropriate to the piece (we’ve written). It’s not about Asia. What’s really important to the piece is to have completely color-blind casting. Completely multicultural. Which is what we have. We have an African American mother of a white son in our show now. Our cast is not even predominantly white. It’s a mix.”

Composer Sheik added, “It’s mythic China. We’re not trying to do something that’s completely authentic to its time, because it’s a fairy tale.”

Sater and Sheik, both Grammy and Tony winners, previously collaborated on “Spring Awakening.” Director Kaufman is a Tony nominee whose credits include “33 Variations,” “The Laramie Project,” and “I Am My Own Wife.”

Although he will not be able to attend, actor and Oscar-winning filmmaker Chris Tashima (“Visas and Virtue”) has created a Facebook event page to encourage others to speak out at the forum and also post their opinions online.

Tashima expressed dissatisfaction with Ashley’s statement: “Even this short note already sounds to me like he just wants to explain himself — i.e. defend his artistic choices. There is no excuse. The best thing he could do is apologize for this huge blunder and try to do better in the future.”

In a post directed at the show’s creative team, Joyce Liu of Los Angeles wrote, “What exactly WAS your casting process? How many Chinese/Chinese American actors and actresses did you actually audition relative to non-Chinese? Heck, how many Asian talent in general did you audition relative to non? …What drove your decisions to cast NO Chinese in your cast for a tale about a Chinese emperor in China?”

Actor Ken Narasaki, former literary manager at East West Players, commented, “The casting of this play feels like an egregious example of a director/theater using ‘color-blind’ casting to discriminate AGAINST Asian American actors … This kind of casting is something many of us thought was on its way out in the 1980s, but 30 years later — an entire generation later — it is still a widespread problem.

“Only designated shows are to be cast multiracially and too often, they are the few shows that should be cast ethnically specifically. America is a multiracial country. American theater should be a multiracial enterprise. However, if the show is either geographically specific, culturally specific, or about race, and as long as American theater remains far behind in its intermittent struggle towards diversity, then for God’s sake, cast minority actors.”

Actress Erin Quill, who is of Chinese, Welsh and Irish heritage, wrote on her blog, “I have read that La Jolla Playhouse is calling the casting of this show ‘a rainbow.’ Here’s the funny thing about rainbows – the color yellow is rarely in that rainbow when it falls on other shows. Also, diversity has a time and a place – it’s usually an unnamed place in the future, in a multiracial world, or set in modern times – it’s not in feudal China. Let’s get one thing straight about feudal China – diversity was never an issue.”

Some observers found the controversy reminiscent of the debate in the early 1990s over the casting of the hit musical “Miss Saigon” on Broadway. Jonathan Pryce, wearing prosthetics, played a Eurasian pimp called The Engineer, and critics charged that no effort was made to find an Asian actor for the role. In subsequent productions, several Asian actors have been cast as The Engineer.

A few years earlier, Asian American actors were dismayed when the producers of the action movie “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” chose Joel Grey to play Chun, an elderly Korean martial arts master.

For more information on “Nightingale,” visit www.lajollaplayhouse.org/nightingale.

For comments on the controversy, go to www.facebook.com/christashima, which includes a link to the event page.

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2 Comments

  1. Political Cynic on

    This is silly. If people challenged an Opera like, say, ANYTHING by Wagner, all of which was written in locations where the cast would be WHITE, for casting an Asian, or an African American, or a Native American it would be considered racist. The casting of ANY show should be based on the performers and their abilities-NOT on their race. DEMANDING that “a play set in China have an all-Asian cast” is equally racist.

    You do not achieve equality be demanding race be considered. You acchieve it by simply ensuring it is not a factor.

  2. P Cynic. I think you miss the point on this. It’s about underrepresentation and exotification of Asia, which has long been a bothersome act of the White majority. I was at the panel and one woman from Asia said it perfectly: “You take all these things about our culture, our dress, our food, yet you have none of us in it.” By casting White males as leads, it perpetuates the social power dynamics in the U.S. = White males in charges. I’m White dude. I can say this stuff because, for one, I see it, even if I’m not affected by it. And It ABSOLUTELY has to do with race in this case AND ability. It is possible to have both: there are equally talented AA actors who would do just as well. They just didn’t cast them on purpose. So don’t go down that road. Not relevant.

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