Recently Playbill asked their Twitter followers who they would want most to play the King of Siam in the forthcoming Broadway revival of The King and I, and posted what one presumes were the nine most popular responses on their site. Of those nine, four of the profiled actors were not Asian. Of those four, one was Michael Cerveris. This prompted an actress colleague of mine (herself an Asian) to very respectfully ask @playbill if they would ever suggest that Michael Cerveris would make an excellent Coalhouse Walker in a revival of Ragtime. The implied question, I think, being “why do you feel it appropriate to list non-Asians for a traditionally Asian character if you would not do likewise for a traditionally African one?”
Now, I don’t know anyone over at Playbill personally (though I suspect all they’re guilty of is reporting on how their audience responded to a question), and I’m no casting director either. But for better or worse, if I was compiling a list of possible Coalhouses for my production of Ragtime, I’m fairly certain not a single Caucasian performer would enter my mind without a little help from their agents. Likewise for the King of Siam. (I know about twelve other Asian dudes who didn’t make that list who probably should have.) Now, that might totally confuse you because it hardly seems fair that a person of color can be “non-traditionally cast” in a traditionally white role (Norm Lewis, I’m looking at you), but the reverse is somehow taboo. Because believe me, it is. Totally, totally taboo. But I would wager the reason for your confusion about this is because Non-Traditional casting and the hiring of actors-of-color in shows about raceare actually two separate conversations that often get lumped together and mistaken for the same thing. The resulting conversation only maintains the status quo it seeks to redefine and neither solves the problem nor furthers our understanding of it.
So let’s start here. This is what non-traditional casting isn’t: Non-Traditional casting isn’t the act of making a character’s identity, ethnicity or culture irrelevant by hiring an actor of a different color and it isn’t the act of employing an actor of color because he or she is under-represented. Although to a degree, both things occur when we do it, defining it as either is a little bit of cart-before-the-horse. I like to think of Non-Traditional casting as the act of taking a known “historical” work and allowing it to reflect a more modern sensibility. Allowing a cast of brown, yellow, white, red, black, orange, purple and blue people to tell us the story of Romeo and Juliet is, in essence, the act of saying their story is our story. It’s saying we don’t have to be from Verona to understand the passion of an illicit love or the folly of a generational feud. A more recent example is casting the outrageous Alice Lee as Heather Duke in Heathers. Sure, everyone knows that Shannon Doherty made that role iconic. But as you can see six nights a week at New World Stages, making her Asian doesn’t make her any less hilarious. Or frightening. (Alice, call me.)
“Great,” you say. “I’m down with that. We’re transcending cultural barriers to examine a fundamentally human experience. But why aren’t I allowed to play Miss Saigon?”
Well, that’s a very good question. And one that can’t be addressed until someone (okay, me) first says outright: you absolutely should be allowed to play Miss Saigon. Non-traditional casting, by my definition, should absolutely work both ways. But the public mindshare first needs to undergo and recognize a few paradigm shifts before that can happen, and we’re not quite there yet. Some may disagree, but a non-Asian actor in the title role of Miss Saigon is exactly the kind of world I want to live in so long as that world doesn’t take twenty eight years to put the second of two Black men in the role of the Phantom of the Opera. OH. WAIT. (Shout out to Robert Guillaume, who succeeded Michael Crawford in the L.A. production over two decades ago.) In that context, casting Michael Cerveris as the King in a production of The King and I isn’t any more Non-Traditional than casting Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Google it. You’ll be like “OMG I can’t even.”)
Like it or not, the reality of the situation is your world is enormously, mind-blowingly culturally diverse. Yet Broadway and your TV are a generation behind in accurately representing the cultures and ethnicities of your closest friends, your cable guy, your voice teacher. You might not notice, because you probably watch a lot of stuff on a computer, which has these great equalizers called Youtube, Twitch, and Vine. But trust me – Broadway and your TV are slightly behind the curve when representing to reasonable degrees of accuracy how culturally diverse your world is.
Sure Jenna Ushkowitz and Harry Shum Jr. can stand up on Glee, sing and dance their face off and then drop the mic. And sure, they do it amazingly well. But consider that for most of the first season Mr. Shum’s character was jokingly referred to as “Other Asian” and it’s clear that even Glee recognizes how rare it is to have two Asian-American characters in the same story. The logic for this is funny and sad at the same time: two Asians couldn’t possibly be principles on Glee because then it would be a story about two Asians. Because whenever we see more than one in any story it’s usually a story about race and the culture of being “other.” But those stories are only ever written (in many cases by me) because there aren’t enough shows with two Asians in them being fierce and dropping the mic to begin with. And thus the cycle begins anew.
There are so many great pieces of theater that directly address race, class and culture which presently, still get produced primarily for that reason. (Ragtime, I’m looking right at you.) And though many of us can dream of the world where The King and I is only celebrated for its glorious writing and not its social significance, we still live in a world where it is one of three mainstream jobs an Asian person can act in without prejudice. Which itself makes a strong case for the fact that we still need it for its social significance.
Yes, it is an incredibly slippery slope. And there isn’t an easy answer. Because differences of opinion are what fuel discussion and creation. Because there’s so many great shows about so many great characters so why can’t we sing all the songs? Because the marriage of art and commerce is a thin skinned egg on a bed of nails in an earthquake during the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Because no show exists to exclude. Because all of the above. But we bring our best to every audition, every class, every rehearsal. And we do that with preparation and by listening. Why shouldn’t we bring our best to every discussion too?
Here’s the TLDR version:
Alice Lee as Heather Duke is nontraditional. And awesome. Making an Asian girl play every Heather Duke from here on out is boring and uninspired, but shows how far we have to go before another Caucasian can play the King of Siam.
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