Full confession: I got awfully verklempt this morning when I read about Gabby Douglas’ Olympic gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around. I don’t have television in my apartment (I do have a television, but it serves solely as a video game monitor), so the last thing that I’d heard about Douglas before the headline of her victory was how people have apparently been being haters about her hair. And then, not gonna lie, when I watched the video recap of her showing in the all-around competition, much to my surprise, a single tear might have threatened to fall from my eye.
I am a huge Olympics fan. Yes, yes, there’s corruption and corporate meddling and a shit-load of jingo-ism — and sometimes, let it never be forgotten, horrific, shameful tragedies — but the thing that the Olympics are never lacking is great stories. And my stars, but do I love a great story. And I’m really fucking weak for Inspirational Sports Movies and Burning Shounen Spirit, and the Olympics basically provide a 24-hour, real-life Inspirational Sports Movie for over two weeks with a shit-ton of Montages Set To Rousing Music, which are another extreme weakness of mine.
Getting into the spirit of things, when I was restarting Firefox because it had become a memory black hole, I noticed that there were various Olympic browser themes available and decided to change things up a bit in the spirit of the Games. The obvious choice seemed to be the United States theme, but there was also a South Korean theme available. Dilemma!
Now, in my younger days — i.e., before I was on the internet — I would have jumped at the chance to be decorated in something Korean because you didn’t find much Korean shit where I was from so you scooped that shit up when you had the chance. In the years after that, it would have been American, no question. And I mean, no question. You aren’t questioning me, right? Because I am so totally American. I’m here courtesy of the red, white and blue! U.S.A., ALL THE WAY!!
I’ve calmed down a little since then. Amazing how being more secure about an aspect of yourself — such as my American-ness — results in you being a lot less rabidly defensive about it.
Racial politics and national identity are a whole other can of worms into which I intend to dive headlong at some point — just imagine that delicious squishing noise in your head now — but today is not that day. That requires way too much work and it’s hot and I have a fucking headache and I have some serious online gaming to do later tonight. But it does bring me to the doorstep of something that I’ve had on my mind for the past month or so.
In early July, I heard about a production of a new musical called The Nightingale at La Jolla Playhouse. The show was based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Emperor and the Nightingale, which amused me greatly, as the first production in which I participated following my undergrad graduation was a different new musical based on the same story.
More disappointingly, the way that I heard about this production was through the blog post Moises Kaufman Can Kiss My Ass & Here’s Why, where the writer points out a very glaring, facepalming-ly idiotic thing about the show: in a story explicitly set in feudal China, out of the eleven people in the cast, only one was Asian.
Since then, the outcry about the casting has been addressed by the creators — which, to their credit, is more than can be said of many others guilty of the same artistic gaffes — and in late July, as noted in an update to the original blog post, “La Jolla Playhouse decided to have a talk back to discuss the casting. [. . .] I would hope that the people who wrote anonymously and bitterly of the notion that Asian Americans would and should speak up, would pay particular attention to the fact that both the Artistic Director of La Jolla Playhouse and the Director of the play itself, Moises Kaufman, apologized.”
There are a number of articles linked in the edit to the post, as well as links to video of the casting talk with the creators.
Kaufman’s apology is in the second video (above), and while it’s great to really get a thoughtful, articulate and sincere apology, he follows it up with an explanation of the thought process that’s pretty bewildering to me, such as how in order to make the story mythical, they decided that they needed to make the cast “multicultural” (i.e., have a lot of white and otherwise non-Asian actors playing Asian characters).
This YouTube comment gets it: “How do we create a mythical land? How do we create the suspension of disbelief that will allow you to believe that a bird is real?” They have already done so by making this a musical theater piece and casting a human as a bird. They don’t need to do much else to convey fantasy. This should be a given.
It was around the time that I first saw the Nightingale post that I followed the link on a friend’s blog to another essay: Frustrations of an Asian American Whedonite.
Shouldn’t it be a priority, if you’re trying to tell a believable story about a Sino-American future, to include Asian characters? Isn’t it marginalizing to fantasize about a “mixed Asian” world completely absent of Asian people, especially when you live and work in a city that’s almost 1/8th Asian? [. . .] The issue isn’t Joss Whedon. It’s the blinders. All the blindspots that make it tough to understand problems that you’ve never or rarely ever had to personally deal with. The blindspots that make it tough to understand why, sometimes, race should influence casting decisions. That sometimes it should be a mission statement–or, at the very least, a priority.
But let’s back up a bit.
The first non-children’s album that I can recall listening to was The Premiere Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, one of my parents’ CDs that I would later confiscate as my own. My grandmother had a small library of records of original Broadway cast recordings, from which she’d make me cassette tapes. The first professional musical that I ever saw was the touring production of Meet Me In St. Louis when I was seven. I’d been going to community and high school productions before that, and while I was pretty much limited to what happened before the mid-1970s (with the exception of the ALW), my depth regarding that field was great.
I was a Broadway baby, through and through. When asked by my kindergarten teacher whom I’d like most to meet, I answered Andrew Lloyd Webber. When invited by my first-grade music teacher to sing a song in class, I hopped up and belted “We Need A Little Christmas” from Mame. I was determined that I was going to be a Broadway performer. And by the time I was in elementary school, I’d figured out how I was going to do it.
Step One: find a production of The King and I.
Step Two: get cast as one of the King’s children.
Step Three: reach adolescence and be promoted to the ingenue role of Tuptim.
Step Four: eventually age out of that and hang out in the chorus of the King’s wives for a while.
Step Five: reach a respectable middle age and take on the part of Lady Thiang, the head wife.
I mean, that makes sense, right? After all, I was really young, so Miss Saigon was too new and risque for me to learn that I could also play a Vietnamese prostitute; Pacific Overtures is a relatively obscure and rarely-performed show with an all-male cast; and even I wasn’t desperate enough for South Pacific, the only other show that I actually knew at the time that had Asian characters, and where the Asian ingenue role is non-speaking and my body type is such that I would never be fat enough to be Bloody Mary, who was a lot older than I was anyways. But The King and I? Chock-full of Asians! For all ages!
Then, when I was eleven, I saw something that changed my life. Turning on PBS, there were a bunch of people in costume standing at microphones and singing. As fate would have it, I had stumbled upon the Tenth Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables. I was intrigued by what I saw and later caught the entire show — and would go on to become obsessed with the musical, and then obsessed with the book, both of which have had a deep impact on my life.
But in addition to being my first exposure to that story, that specific performance also affected me in another way. Because I turned on the television and saw some Asian woman as part of the cast, just like everyone else. And it opened my eyes and forced the realization: that could be me.
Of course, that didn’t end up being me. I would eventually discover my place backstage, where I’m happiest. But I don’t think it’s coincidence that it was at that point that I began to explore more “contemporary” theatre. Theatre was no longer some strange combination of historical artifact and charming if somewhat slightly hobby. It could be something relevant and truly great.
After graduating from college, I had decided to give up theatre for more responsible pursuits, figuring that I would be able to toy with community theatre on the side. As it turned out, a dear friend of mine had written a musical for a local children’s theatre troupe called The Emperor and the Nightingale, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name. I jumped in, had a blast and learned that doing amateur theatre would drive me out of my mind and that I needed to go pro.
It also provided me with the joke that the first theatre gig I landed out of college was being cast as a Chinese noodle cook. Which isn’t so much a joke as a statement of fact, but I suppose that statements of fact can sometimes be jokes.
Still, it’s with chagrined amusement that I note that our completely volunteer amateur theatre troupe (that performed during school hours, eliminating anyone with a traditional job) from white-bread upstate New York state managed to have the same amount of Asian-ness in its cast as La Jolla Playhouse. It’s interesting to me to note the differences between the “colorblind casting” that changed my life with Les Mis and the “multicultural casting” that makes me want to bang my head through a wall with The Nightingale.
There are a few things that I consider when looking at the casting issue. The first is generally if race matters in the show. For some shows, race is an important, significant element in the plot; examples that come to mind include Ragtime, Memphis and Flower Drum Song, even Bye Bye Birdie. An exception proving the rule is that classic case of Hairspray, where an amateur community kids’ production was done with an all-white cast because their local community was really just that white. But that was, again, an amateur production done after the fact, and the creators of the show still addressed it, allowing the production to happen but acknowledging and addressing the issues it raised. And La Jolla, a well-respected professional theatre, certainly doesn’t have the excuse of local lack — even if they couldn’t bring in anyone from anywhere, they’re in San Diego, California for pete’s sake!
Now, back to our two examples. In Les Miserables, race is close to a non-issue. I say “close” because although the story takes place in France and we never see a character who isn’t French, there is one character who is, in fact, a member of an ethnic minority, a bit of background that is mentioned in the book. That character is Inspector Javert, whose mother was Romany — and who, interestingly enough, despises his ethnic roots and becomes a stalwart champion for the society of which some would consider him not to be completely a member… and he’s the villain. But as interesting and full of potential as that is, it’s given the weight of a relatively minor detail in a 1000-plus-page book, so it was rather sensibly one of the many things lost in adapting the story to the stage. So in the end, overall, Les Mis is not a story where race plays a role at all. Colorblind casting would therefor not affect the story.
The Nightingale is set in feudal China and we never see a single character who is not Chinese. In that way, race doesn’t play a role in the story — everyone is on the same page as far as ethnicity and nationality, so it’s not a character issue. But then again, The Lion King is set in Africa and we never see a single character who is not African, and while a couple of roles of “outside” type characters are traditionally cast as white, it is, overall, a show with a black cast. While race is not a factor between most of the characters, what would the presented story look like if Simba were to be played by a white man? What is the gut feeling provoked by that image?
Of course, some people might say that the China presented in Hans Christian Andersen’s story isn’t really China. And of course it isn’t, no more than the Japan of The Mikado is actually Japan. Andersen’s China and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Japan are both appropriations of other cultures in order to create an exotic “other.” And if the creators of The Nightingale had wished to be true to the story’s imperialist roots, then they were free to do an historical show fully embracing that good ol’ chinoiserie chic. But when what is being created claims to be something relevant and contemporary? It doesn’t fly.
It especially sinks like a lead balloon when looking at the creators versus the source material. Now, nothing will get my eyes rolling like endless refrains of “Write what you know!” We have imaginations, and thank goodness for that or else the Twilight series would skeeve me out even more than it already does. But it’s one thing to put yourself in another person’s shoes and another thing to steal another person’s shoes and say that it doesn’t matter where they came from, it just matters that you’re the one wearing them now. If you’re taking things from someone else, be mindful and considerate of where they came from, even if you’re getting them second-hand.
Back specifically to my experiences of Les Mis and The Nightingale, there’s also the direction of the colorblindness. Colorblind/multi-cultural casting is intended to overcome our biases that viewed white as neutral or default or preferable when that was not, in fact, the case. Its intention is not that not only can white people play “white people” roles (even if those roles, when you think about them, don’t actually have to be played by white people), but they can play all of the other roles, too! Granted, in Nightingale, the multicultural casting wasn’t only white actors playing the Asian characters, but I think it’s pretty fair to say that Asians are some of the least represented in American media and that us lovely “POC” aren’t actually interchangeable — if we’re going to divide people up, the divide doesn’t actually end at “white people” and “not-white people.”
Finally, there’s always the risk of that annoying Might Whitey trope. [WARNING: LINKS TO TV TROPES. I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY LOST TIME.] Yeah, yeah, we get it, white people come in and do our culture just like us, only better. What the fuck ever, your ex-wife still beat you at the Oscars, so suck it, James Cameron.
I have no real conclusion to this, except that it continues to be relevant food for thought. The very show that I’m working this summer had me doing some artistic soul-searching, as it’s an original movement piece “inspired by Japanese folk tales.” Out of everyone in the rehearsal room — the director/conceiver/choreographer/set designer/puppet and mask designer, the dramaturg, the four white actors and one half-Asian actor — as well as all of the other designers and staff, I turned out to be the one most knowledgeable about the culture and language of our source material. I would even feel slightly uncomfortable at times, as I would witness those much more directly responsible for presenting the material onstage mangling the language or not even attempting to use it.
But you know what else? Our show isn’t fucking set in Japan. For the most part, the actors themselves aren’t even characters — they’re moving bodies, operators of the masks and puppets. The pieces within the show grew out of the feelings inspired by the stories. More than many other efforts that use the word “inspired by” to mean “carelessly stealing from,” I feel that these pieces are truly expressions of what was actually inspired within this individual people by hearing and reading this particular collection of stories from Japan. A Japanese-inspired aesthetic can also be seen in much of the design, but it seems natural that the result would retain something of its source, even as it passes through us without that conscious intention.
In any case, we know that we can count on Asia for many things. South Korea will continue to supply the coaches for Olympic archery teams around the globe. China will show you how a person with a tiny paddle and a ping pong ball can actually be fucking terrifying. People will forget that “Asia” doesn’t mean just the countries along the east coast of the continent. And Japan will go ahead and really build GIANT MECHA.
No really, you can buy your own controllable giant robot and pretend that you’re a gundam pilot