Friday, July 20, 2012

Another Casting Controversy: ‘The Nightingale’

Echoing my post “Yellowface Top Ten,” another casting controversy has been recently roused.  The La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California, has originated a new musical (one still in development, in fact) called The Nightingale, based on the story by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, with music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, the team behind the hit musical Spring Awakening.  Andersen’s story, you might know, takes place in long-ago China, a setting that the new musical preserves.  From the news reports I’ve read, Sheik, Sater, and director Mois├ęs Kaufman did not see The Nightingale as taking place in the China of history; they saw it set in a China of the imagination, China as envisioned by a 19th-century Danish writer.  For this reason, they say, they decided to cast The Nightingale “colorblind”: auditions for the musical were open to actors of all races  The result is a cast that is largely non-Asian, with a Caucasian actor playing the protagonist of the Chinese Emperor and an African American actress playing the Empress Dowager.  Only two performers in the twelve-member cast are Asian American.

The Nightingale’s casting sparked some heavy criticism by Asian American actors and others in the arts community for not casting all of its parts with performers who are ethnically Asian.  The controversy has become so widespread that the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, Christopher Ashley, has scheduled a discussion on the subject following the musical’s matinee on Sunday.  I appreciate the people of the La Jolla Playhouse for taking the issue so seriously.  When Asian American actors complained in 1990 over the casting of British actor Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon’s Asian male lead, the producer cancelled the show’s upcoming Broadway premiere until Actors Equity dropped their objections.  It’s nice to see the La Jolla Playhouse taking a different tack because I agree with the Asian American actors’ complaints. 

Now, I haven’t seen The Nightingale, but there is no doubt in my mind that the show as it now stands is a good one.  I don’t doubt that the present cast — Caucasian Chinese Emperor and all — execute their roles with the utmost professionalism and aplomb.  I might even regard their performances as excellent.  My issue is not with these thespians themselves; my issue is with the creative team of Kaufman, Sheik, and Sater and their decision to cast The Nightingale in this way instead of casting primarily Asian American actors in these roles. 

By casting The Nightingale colorblind, Kaufman and company disregarded an important issue: Asian American actors do not have equal opportunities to play roles, especially lead roles, in the mainstream American entertainment industry.  Most roles on Broadway or in Hollywood are written as non-Asian, and Asian American actors are rarely considered for such parts.  So, this automatically tilts the industry’s playing field in favor of non-Asian actors.  Also, the entertainment industry has a long and troubled history of casting roles written as Asian with non-Asian actors while seldom, if ever, allowing the reverse.  As a result, whenever a non-Asian is cast as an Asian character — however well intended — this diminishes already scarce opportunities for Asian American actors and perpetuates a racially discriminatory double standard in casting. 

The issue that I’ve just stated is often misrepresented by its detractors as, “This means that only Polish American actors will be able to play Stanley Kowalski.”  No, it doesn’t mean that: Polish American actors don’t suffer from racial discrimination.  Asian American actors, by contrast, are subject to the unspoken racial assumptions of Broadway and Hollywood.  The issue isn’t ethnically specific casting; no one is saying, for example, that only Danish actors can play Hamlet.  The issue is the entertainment industry’s preferential treatment of its Caucasian talent over its minority talent. 

If the La Jolla Playhouse cast more of its shows colorblind, its creation of a multi-racial China in The Nightingale might be viewed differently.  But this is one of the Playhouse’s few productions calling for Asian lead roles.  As such, I believe that The Nightingale’s creative team should have given priority to Asian American actors for their show’s cast.  I think that professional theatres (including regional theatres like the La Jolla Playhouse) and movies should continue this practice until it achieves true parity among actors of all races.  Once this is accomplished, controversies about casting according to skin color will go the way of all flesh.  

Part One of the discussion following the July 22, 2012, matinee of La Jolla Playhouse’s “The Nightingale”

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Film Dwarfed by Controversy

This week, I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman, this year’s second revisionist take on the familiar Grimm Brothers fairy tale (the first being Mirror, Mirror), most widely known in its Walt Disney iteration.  The film was an intriguing, action-packed, PG-13-rated rendering of the story.  Of course, the tale’s best-known supporting characters are the seven dwarves, but Snow White and the Huntsman took so many liberties with the story that I began to wonder if the erstwhile titular characters would be part of the film at all.  Then, longer into the story than I would have imagined, the seven familiar figures inevitably appeared.  I appreciated the seven dwarves’s hardscrabble gruffness, which was perfectly credible given the film’s miserablist milieu.  

But as I watched the on-screen dwarves, I began to talk to myself.  “Hey, that dwarf looks like Ian McShane.  And that one looks like Bob Hoskins.  That one bears a certain resemblance to Ray Winstone.  I know Toby Jones is short, but he’s not as short as his lookalike dwarf on the screen.”  After reciting this litany of non-dwarf actors (with the possible exception of Jones, who isn’t an achondroplast in any case) inside my head, it gradually dawned on me: the film had digitized these regular-sized actors into dwarves.  I heaved a sigh of dismay.  Later, I discovered that a controversy about the casting of the dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsman had been brewing for a month.

If you’ve read my blog post “Yellowface Top Ten,” you’ll know that I’m attuned to issues of casting underemployed minority actors in mainstream entertainment.  If a role is written as something other than a youthful, able-bodied Caucasian, casting directors ought to look to the pool of acting talent from those non-able-bodied and/or non-Caucasian communities first.  Why?  Because the overwhelming number of lead roles in mainstream entertainment are for thespians not from those communities.  This gives white TAB performers an enormous (functioning) leg up in the industry.  Casting directors first eyeing minority actors for minority roles helps to level the playing field a bit.  

But when someone puts forward the idea of reserving non-white or non-able-bodied roles for non-white or non-able-bodied actors, there is often some pushback from some quarters.  The usual retort goes something along the lines of: “It’s called acting!  It’s about the performer pretending to be something other than what s/he is!  Should only Danish actors be allowed to play Hamlet?”  This kind of reaction, of course, doesn’t view casting disputes in the context of the entertainment industry’s hiring practices, which is the source of such disputes in the first place.

The average dwarf actor in the industry has very few mainstream roles to choose from.  No director this side of John Waters is going to cast him as Fitzwilliam Darcy or her as Lizzie Bennet — or virtually any other mainstream character besides.  With his roles in The Station Agent and Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage has probably the highest profile of any dwarf thespian in the world, but he is very much the exception.  Other dwarf actors usually earn their money from other occupations and are lucky to be cast as one of Santa’s elves in a Christmas commercial.  

Snow White and the Huntsman could have given seven dwarf actors a rare opportunity to show their stuff on the mainstream screen, perhaps even discovering the next Peter Dinklage in the process.  Instead, the movie gave these opportunities to well-known character actors whose careers don’t face the same obstacles, thespians who have more character options than an elf.  

Snow White and the Huntsman’s snubbing of dwarf actors is rather personal for me.  As you might already know, I myself am very short.  I have a dwarfism (spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia tarda) that leaves me standing only four-feet, eight-inches tall.  I’m not an actor, but I did some amateur acting in high school and college, and I know what it’s like to be told by a director that I won’t be cast in a part because, however good my audition was, I’m too short.  When I did land a role back then, I was often complimented on my performance.  Would I have been drawn more to acting if I had been taller?  We’ll never know.  

But you might say, “This has been done before.  The Lord of the Rings digitized regular-sized actors into Hobbits.”  But Hobbits aren’t humans; they’re a fictional species.  In fact, I was rather relieved that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy used CGI instead of dwarf actors for its Hobbits because I’m tired of little people being portrayed as beings other than members of the human race (for example, Time Bandits, Willow, Munchkins, elves).  Although they inhabit a fairy-tale world, the dwarf characters in the Grimm story (and its various adaptations) are flesh-and-blood humans and not magical or supernatural creatures, especially in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang once said that when he watched television as he was growing up in the 1960s, he would change the channel when an Asian character appeared on the tube. He did that because he knew that the TV show would get it wrong, because he knew that the Asian character would do more to reflect the writers’ ignorance of Asian people than the character would to reflect Asian people themselves.  I feel pretty much the same way when it comes to portrayals of little people in the mainstream media: the non-dwarf creators are going to get it wrong, and the little person will wind up being a stereotype, usually the butt of a joke.  So, you might ask why I set myself up by going to see a movie version of “Snow White.”  I’m not entirely sure, but given that dwarf characters are so central to the story, maybe I’m hoping that a Snow White movie might prove the exception and get the dwarf characters right for a change.

Snow White and the Huntsman’s use of digital dwarves in place of real ones is especially disappointing because the film boasts the most intriguing portrayal of little people that I’ve seen on the screen in some time.  But in seeing these non-dwarf actors in the roles, my mind left the story and thought about all those dwarf thespians who don’t have the opportunities of an Ian McShane or a Bob Hoskins and who were passed over for this rare acting opportunity.  I also wondered if CGI dwarves would become the norm in the future, if instead of hiring dwarf actors for dwarf roles, movies would just digitally shrink a normally proportioned actor.  If so, that role as Santa’s elf in a Christmas commercial, for dwarf actors living in a non-dwarf world, may become one more thing out of reach.