Tuesday, July 24, 2012

No More Nice Nightingale

The Nightingale is about a nondescript little grey bird who wows the Chinese court with its song but is replaced by a bejeweled mechanical wonder that can only sing waltzes. It's actually pretty fitting that the controversy at La Jolla Playhouse should be over the casting of a musical based on this fairytale.

In case you've somehow missed hearing about it, out of twelve actors, only two are Asian. The Emperor of China is being played by a white guy; there are no Asian men. It's supposed to be 'multicultural' and set in a mythical not-necessarily Asian land. It's also supposed to be a workshop production. But let's face it, for a play set somewhere vaguely Oriental, all the people in power are white guys. Instead of taking on the real deal - Asian actors for a musical set in China - La Jolla Playhouse has opted for the artificial bird. And it sings the old familiar tune. I mean, can we say The Good Earth?

I'm a little late on the bandwagon for this because it's really depressing to me. As if being in the arts isn't hard enough, if you're Asian-American apparently you can't even get cast in a musical set in China.

What's worse is that this play is in San Diego - home to over 400,000 Asians. I think it's the 10th largest population of Asians in the country. UC San Diego, which is in La Jolla, has a student body that is 44% Asian and only 24% Caucasian. Has La Jolla Playhouse never had a discussion as to how it might appeal to this demographic? Do they just assume that Asians aren't interested in theater? Or maybe they think Asians would be too meek to complain?

And the play is directed by Moises Kaufman, a director I really like. I remember him way back in like 1988. He directed one of his first plays in New York at Theater for the New City, back when I lived in cage in the basement. You would think a Jewish, Romanian-Ukrainian maricón from Venezuela would be a little more sensitive and inclusive.

Plus this comes right on the heels of the Knicks giving up Jeremy Lin. I mean, jeez, this kid plays on a level that electrifies the entire world, makes the cover of Sports Illustrated twice, instigates a rush on tickets at Madison Square, gets the most unlikely people to watch sports (including me, yes I confess), and even with that much game, he doesn't rate more than one offer.

So yeah, I've been pretty discouraged, with these events corroborating what I've been feeling about the deck being stacked. I mean it's hard enough being poor and a woman, but being Asian-American too, I'm a triple nightingale. An overlooked bird, an outsider to the palace. It doesn't matter how well we sing. Or play ball.

So with all that, I drank a glass of wine tonight and watched the entire hour-long panel discussion at La Jolla Playhouse that took place yesterday. I swear, in my curmudgeonly old age, I'm turning into a wino. And a cat lady. But the panel was actually a lot more hopeful than I expected.

After a brief upset when it seemed the creative team might not even attend, Moises Kaufman and writer Steven Sater were indeed present, as were casting director Tara Rubin, and Christopher Ashley, the Artistic Director of La Jolla Playhouse. On the other side of the room were the angry Asian-Americans: Cindy Cheung and Christine Toy Johnson, both of them representing AAPAC, and Andy Lowe, founder and producer of Chinese Pirate Productions.

The moderator started things off by asking the Asians what they thought about the play. Christine struggled with emotions as she said, "To see this production....which clearly to me looks like it was set China...with so few Asian-American faces... reminds me how invisible we still are and how we are so often not invited to sit at the table. And to not be invited to sit at the table in a play that takes place in an Asian country, is like a knife to the heart."

Cindy added, "I'm still getting over the shock of seeing it and having so many people being okay with this. It was disturbing."

This made me think of a strange experience I had two years ago when I went to Governor's Island on a balmy night with one of my closest friends. There was something Dutch going on that day and we stayed late and danced to a band from Holland. Then the singer announced that it was the last song of the night and launched into something that went (I kid you not), "There was an old man from Hong Kong and he once said something very wise... ching chong ching chong chong ching chong." Not only was everyone expected to dance to this, but they were encouraged to sing along to ching chong ching chong, which the entire crowd of over a hundred people did. Gleefully. Even my friend, who is one of the smartest guys I know, obliviously enjoyed himself while I tried not to be horrified. I am still flabbergasted by this experience.

But I digress. There was a previous panel that was instigated by AAPAC, which I didn't manage to attend, partly because I had a bit of an issue with how it seemed they were knocking at the gate of the elites, can we come in pretty please? But I guess that was my curmudgeon talking, because after watching the entire panel, it did seem that something crystallized.

First, the Artistic Director, Christopher Ashley, conducted the discussion with grace, unlike Guthrie Theater's Artistic Director Joe Dowling, whose televised response to a question about the lack of women and minorities in the theater's 50th season was, "This is a self-serving argument that doesn't hold water." In contrast, Ashley apologized, "We did not intend to offend fellow artists or the Asian-American community. We did so and we are sorry."

But change doesn't just come from the ones in power - it has to come from the ground too. And there did seem to be a rumble of something shifting during the (mostly unfortunate) audience comments, which began inauspiciously with an old lady who wondered if there were enough talented Asians out there and also what did it matter. Sigh.

After she spoke, the audience seemed to be sharply divided between angry Asian people who shouted and had to be shut up, and non-Asians who rambled in circular platitudes that only illuminated their confusion at why everyone was so upset. Why can't we all get along? I really liked what one angry (Asian, male) audience member said before he was shouted down for going on too long, "When the Asian play comes along, it's suddenly 'mythical' and 'multicultural'... It's incredibly irritating to hear terms like 'multicultural' and 'color-blind' used to reduce the number of minority roles."

But Cindy had already laid it all out on the table and it was a royal flush, "There was a point in history when it was acceptable to have a white person play Othello... and at some point, the community stepped up and said this is no longer acceptable.... The Asian-American community is saying it now. That we find it unacceptable as well."

She was even bad-ass enough to throw down an extra ace in her sleeve, "We know [the play is] not a finished product and it's why we are here, to influence. We don't want to see this anymore. If it were a finished product, we would be outside with pickets. And we will be if it keeps going." 

So maybe a sea change really is occurring. As both Cindy and Christine said, it's no longer the way it used to be back in the prehistoric age like twenty years ago, when the Asian-American theater community really was like a small high school. Now it's like a dozen high schools who have play-offs and debates and dances together. After which they get on the Staten Island Ferry and make out. While I go home to my cat and a glass of wine.

But okay, Asian-American theater community, now in addition to prying open the gentry's gates a little, how about some support for Asian-American producers so we can survive and come up with more work for everyone? I might even make out with you on the Staten Island Ferry then.

No comments:

Post a Comment