THROUGH THE FIRE: It’s Not About Color

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By SHARON YAMATO

There is so much complexity to the current controversy surrounding the La Jolla Playhouse’s casting of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” that it’s not surprising it has created a groundswell in both social and print media. So much so that you’re probably sick of hearing about it by now.

However, at a time when Asian Americans are still considered the silent and invisible minority, it’s heartening to see their names in the news, not to mention to feel their fury unleashed on Facebook. JA actors Greg Watanabe and Chris Tashima deserve a special shout-out for their active roles in keeping the community informed.

When the creative team behind the play based on a story set in feudal China decided that a white actor should play a Chinese emperor (not to mention nine out of 12 other characters in the play), it brought to mind another all-too-familiar controversy way back in 1990 that swirled around the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the lead in the Broadway play “Miss Saigon.”

Later, when playwright David Henry Hwang used that event as the basis for his acclaimed work “Yellow Face,” he commented on both the hope to get past racial differences and the knowledge that racism is alive and well.

Here we are in 2012, and things are even more subtly complicated with a mixed-race president who grew up in Hawaii running for re-election against a white Mormon backed by billionaire conservatives.

There are those who say that this election is not about color, but somehow it brings to mind another thought. Whenever someone insists “it’s not about the money,” you can bet that it is. And in this world where race still defines who we are (for better or for worse), perhaps those who call themselves color-blind are the most chauvinistic of all.

There were 56 comments posted on the La Jolla Playhouse Facebook site in response to artistic director Christopher Ashley’s comment that it was their “intention to create a multicultural cast in a reinterpretation of this Hans Christian Andersen classic fable blending East and West, past and present.” The responses included statements on everything from casting and inclusion to racism and the artistic process.

In my opinion, there’s no question that in an ideal world James Earl Jones playing Willy Loman with B.D. Wong and Benicio del Toro as his two sons would be fabulous casting, but I think it’s safe to say we aren’t there yet. Still, the creative team behind “The Nightingale” thinks by deliberately casting a multicultural ensemble to define some sort of mythical reality, we can somehow magically move forward to a time where race doesn’t matter.

In all fairness, the creative team behind “The Nightingale” probably never imagined the overwhelming response that it received for this gigantic racial faux-pas. And once Ashley got wind of the uprising, he did his best to quell it. He went so far as to state at a public forum held after Sunday’s performance, “We didn’t mean to offend fellow artists or the Asian American community. We inadvertently did so, and we are sorry.”

It’s nice to know that some creative feathers were ruffled, and people like influential director Moises Kaufman could call the conversation “one of the most important in American theater.”

But for those Asian American actors who still can’t find roles, an apology may be nice, but handing out jobs even better. And for the larger population of us who care about theater, we can only hope this is just the beginning of a dialogue with those mostly white directors, playwrights and artistic heads toward understanding what it means to be Asian American.

Better still, perhaps it will lead to more Asian American playwrights writing specifically about our experiences and getting the opportunity to take those plays to the larger stage. That this conversation is happening some 20 years after “Miss Saigon” may be seen as both failure and progress, but let’s hope that it doesn’t take another 20 years to change the way we are perceived and portrayed.

Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at [email protected] expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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