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Theatre Program’s Forum to Tackle Issues of Asian Casting

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When it was revealed earlier this year that Scarlett Johansson had been cast to play Major Motoko Kusanagi, a character from the Japanese anime series Ghost in the Shell, members of the Asian theater establishment voiced disbelief that producers couldn’t find a suitable Asian actress to play the part.

Next week at Fordham, a forum will plunge into the thorny casting issues that arise in theater.

On May 2, the theatre program co-sponsors Beyond Orientalism: The Forum, at 7 p.m. in the Pope Auditorium. The forum, which will feature two panel discussions and a breakout session, is co-sponsored by the Asian American Arts Alliance, Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), Theatre Communications Group, and Alliance for Inclusion for the Arts.

The University hosted a similar forum with AAPAC four years ago, when the group released a study indicating that Asian Americans received only 3 percent of all available roles in the nonprofit sector, and only 1.5 percent of all available roles on Broadway in the past five years.

Matthew Maguire, director of the Fordham theatre program, said the situation hasn’t improved much since then, as evidenced by a series of yellowface/brownface theater productions around the country last year.

“This just infuriates Asian Americans,” he said. “If you’re in a commercial situation, you should never take a job away from someone who has fewer opportunities than you do to get that job. That white people are taking jobs that ought to go to Asian actors is just wrong.”

He said that Asian actors are often still viewed as foreigners. He recalled that one actresses attending the 2012 forum said it was common for people to compliment her on how well she spoke English—not realizing she was born and raised in the United States.

The timing for the forum is fitting, he said, given that this year’s Mainstage Season, “A Season from the Mountaintop,” was about inclusion, and featured an Asian classic, The Orphan of Zhao, directed by Ralph Peña, a native of the Philippines.

The difficulties with that production illustrated the challenges that lie ahead, Maguire said.

“We cast all the Asian actors we have, and the other roles were played by white actors,” said Maguire. “But they weren’t playing yellowface, meaning they weren’t trying to appear Asian—they weren’t changing their eyes, wearing black wigs, or speaking with an accent. We treated it like a classic in the same way that we would treat Shakespeare, giving work to our Asian actors but also giving other actors the chance to explore another culture.”

“I thought this was a wonderful thing, but there were some Asian students who were upset. A few, in fact, were quite upset.”

This debate about what constitutes proper casting is not limited to Fordham. Last year, the playwright Lloyd Suh insisted that a Pittsburgh college halt production of his play Jesus in India because of the cast’s ethnic composition, said Maguire.

Maguire said he disagreed with the decision to limit that production, saying that if you want to spread the word about the Asian-American experience and Asian-American writing, you should expose it to as many people as you can. He joked that in tackling this topic at the forum, the organizers are deliberately “opening up a Pandora’s Box.”

“The productive side of this is, now all the demons are rushing out and we get to look them in the eye and see if we can find common ground,” he said.

For more information rsvp at BeyondOrientalism@inclusioninarts.org.

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