So. “The Nightingale.” Where do I begin?
I am an alum of the MFA program at UCSD/ La Jolla Playhouse. I have many fond memories and a certain allegiance. You could call it a filial love for the place where my inner artist was trained and nourished. And so it was with great trepidation that I drove down to see the Page to Stage Workshop Production of “The Nightingale” (TN), having read the copious blogs, posts, articles, responses/ rants on the subject and having prepared my own thoughts and ideas. I am an Asian-American woman of Chinese and Filipino descent who also happens to call acting ‘my trade’, so I have a personal as well as professional stake in the issues that are brought up surrounding the casting controversy with this production. I was saddened by the message that the lack in casting telegraphed, but truly, deeply, wanted to reserve judgment and give the proverbial benefit-of-the-doubt to a place I consider to be an artistic home. This is what happened:
The lights dimmed, the show started and my jaw dropped. The show was set in a foreign place that, well, was unmistakably China. How did I perceive this to be, you ask? Well, inside the program, notes included an article about “The Forbidden City” – the emperor’s residence in Beijing in the 15th century; the play mentions things like the Mongol invasion and refer to a yellow kingdom, neighboring Japan, and had character names like Zhang, Ssu-Ming, Feiyan, Empress Dowager; set pieces included Chinese lanterns, props included puppet fishermen with conical hats, and the Empress Dowager, in addition to having platform shoes that paid a not-so-subtle homage to foot binding, was dressed like Padme in “The Phantom Menace” – but come to think of it I suppose it could have been mythical Naboo in a galaxy far, far away, but no, they did mention China in the show. But the play went on.
There were in fact 2 Asian women among the company of actors: the wee Filipina Nightingale, exoticised and objectified in her fanciful bird costume and elaborate makeup and headdress that rendered her unrecognizable except to be an olive-skinned person of small stature and the sexy princess arranged to be married to the emperor, dressed in a costume that exoticised and objectified her as well since she was the only character whose limbs were revealed in a sexual manner. And the play went on. The darker African American woman was bossy and mean (empress dowager) and the lighter skinned African American women were barefoot peasant fisher folk. Oh yeah and then there were 6 white men, 2 of whom played the emperor. But this is a mythical, fabled land called China with multi-cultural, rainbow casting. So it’s ok, right?
No, actually it’s not.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Julie Taymor, the creator of the hit Broadway show, “The Lion King” regarding the casting of that show: “What I love about The Lion King,” says Taymor, “is that this is a show with a predominantly nonwhite cast that is not about race. On the other hand, it’s all about race — and that should be acknowledged, because there are very powerful traditions from a certain race, and that fact shouldn’t be ignored. “We shouldn’t have to think about it,” the Disney people insisted. “And I was saying, ‘No, you’re absolutely wrong. We are absolutely going to think about race here. We’re going to have a person representing the king on that mountain and he’s going to be wearing African-inspired clothes.’ White people may say that race doesn’t matter, but to black people, race matters, totally. As some have told me, ‘It’s the first time my son has seen a black person representing a king on stage.’ That moment at the top of the mountain is the first time he’s seen in a position of power, the father kindly talking to his son about what it’s going to be like to be king — something that white people take for granted, but it’s very, very powerful. America is up on stage, and, I hope, the future of America, where race is interchangeable.”
Unfortunately we are not yet at that place in the future where race is interchangeable. Maybe we are at a place where the American public is discovering for the first time that race matters to Asian Americans. And the bottom line is, it’s not OK to cast a white man (or in this case, 2) in the role of the Emperor of China
Race matters. PERIOD. It is naïve and dangerous to say “I just want to feel what the person on stage is going through, it doesn’t matter what color they are.” It TOTALLY matters. Because the picture, worth a 1000 words, that is being painted on stage tells me that Asians are not important to this story that is set in Asia.
Someone in the audience during the post-show discussion said to think of the children and the messages we are passing on to them: the messages of exclusion and invisibility? I am 20 weeks pregnant with my first child, a boy, and these days that is all I think about. What do I tell my Asian American son about race in America? How do I explain one audience member’s comments: that because the original story was written by a Danish author there is no responsibility to tell the story set in China with Asian people? How do I tell him to live his dreams, and convince him that anything is possible when another audience member’s question regarding the lack of Asian Americans on stage is if there is enough of a talent pool to populate the play when I am sitting 5 feet away? Who do I say sees him as a person whose feelings can get hurt, and not as a submissive Oriental outsider looking in at artifacts of his cultural heritage that have been appropriated for use in a story where people like him aren’t telling it?
To their credit, Christopher Ashley and Moises Kaufman apologized sincerely for the unintentional hurt that they caused. Moises mentioned the fact that they tried to include Moroccan lanterns and Iranian princely robes (which still vaguely looked like cheongsams – traditional Chinese garb) to create a multi-cultural atmosphere, but acknowledged that most people, (myself included), do not have cultural references to recognize the subtle design choices. I think they really heard for the first time that their lack of awareness caused hurt. And I hope that the situation surrounding this show can begin awareness of the inclusion of Asian Americans in the racial politics of America. Because, up until now, I don’t think Asians have been taken seriously enough, RESPECTED enough, to prevent them from being the butts of jokes on shows like “Two Broke Girls” or films like “The Hangover.”
And to the African American young man in the audience, Michael Benjamin Washington, I have a letter for you:
Dear Michael Benjamin Washington,
My name is Jennifer Chang and I was in attendance at last Sunday’s matinee performance and post-show discussion. While I have a great respect for your differing opinion, I felt the need to reach out and begin a dialogue with you.
I am an alum of NYU/ TSOA (BFA) as well as the UCSD/ La Jolla Playhouse MFA program and have worked on a Page to Stage production myself directed by Des MacAnuff.
While your career, which you let the entire audience know, is illustrious, I believe, with all due respect that you missed the point and your response on Sunday was in fact hurtful. Perhaps it is because of your success that you fail to see how a misstep is still that, a misstep. Yes, this production is outside of NY and is a workshop, but it isn’t created in a vacuum — it is performed for public consumption in front of hundreds of people every night over the course of a month. It was created by artists of the highest echelon, who are known on a national and international scale in the world of theatre. The creatives are respected and the message they decide to telegraph matters. San Diego is not a cultural backwater. People spend >$40 for a performance in the Potiker theatre and many Page to Stage workshops go on to Broadway. By saying that it’s out of town makes it seem like the audience members, the people, who see what the creatives have put on, do not matter. You implied that the message they receive doesn’t matter, that the money they spend doesn’t amount to anything and the opinions they form are not important. You cannot say that because someone might call an African American the ‘n-word’ in a small general store that it makes it less wrong than proclaiming it at Macy’s in Herald Square. It matters to the person who was hurt in the moment. And I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be an African American man in this country, but you also do not know what it is like to be Asian in America and seen often as foreign or invisible. I could make the comparison that where African Americans were asked “to sit in the back of the bus,” Asian Americans haven’t been allowed on it.
In addition, I’d also like to respond to your comment that the talented actors who are in the cast were asked to do this workshop because they know how to break the bones. I don’t negate their talent — they are all completely, phenomenally talented and that isn’t what was being argued. I argue that there are a lot of talented actors who may not have had the opportunity for a role that gets award-nominating attention who can also ‘break the bones of a show’, who can read music and memorize lines and have the training and experience that you and I have. I know, because many of my friends were in that first Asian American cast workshop of “The Nightingale” and your comment implies that Asians just aren’t as good as the multi-ethnic counterparts on stage. But see, that’s just it, we often aren’t given the chance to show what we can do.
I know you didn’t intend the above, but I did feel that in the spirit of friendship, I want you to know about the message you in turn are sending. Because that’s the whole reason why people are upset. There is a message being communicated that probably is unintentional but exists and is hurtful to a whole community of people. That’s why I went down to see the show for myself and attended the post-show discussion and formulate my own opinons. I wanted to see what the message really was and also convey the message that I am receiving as a Chinese American whose cultural artifacts are appropriated for use on the stage when it is convenient to tell a mythical story, but whose Asian-person-hood and talent do not count and is excluded from telling the story.
Thank you for your time and consideration and I hope that you can read my letter with the open heart that I am reaching out to you with.