I wish I could say the same of the Asian American community and thus I have a great amount of respect for the understandable outcry in response to the La Jolla Playhouse Page to Stage workshop production of Sater and Sheik’s work-in-progress The Nightingale. The musical is set in “mythological China” with a cast of characters with Chinese names, refers to Chinese geography yet the present cast of twelve contains only two Asian-American performers, neither of which is the protagonist. Ouch.
But the night I saw the production the 50-minute post show discussion was dominated by criticism of the casting despite several attempts by La Jolla staff to encourage the audience to consider other elements of the workshop performance they’d just seen. Somewhere between the arrogant young actor name-dropping and the older patron who blatantly stated “I’ve seen Uncle Vanya without a single Russian on stage. What’s the big deal?” I started to get mad. Really mad, actually.
How could I not? The angry raging blog posts, the FaceBook chatter and Tweets, and the contentious public forum that took place on the very stage has tongues wagging. Everyone seems to have an opinion on everything from what race each character “should be” to what shoes they should wear. This controversy has seemingly stalled the play’s development in the Page to Stage forum and people have completely dismissed that this is a production in flux. The attacks on the cast and creative team are like barbs hurdled at a teenager being expected to rule a nation without proper education or experience. The Nightingale production is not that unlike its woeful protagonist. A boy emperor longing to see the world but denied access to it – a play longing to find its true spirit but denied its room to grow.
The creative team of Steven Sater, Duncan Sheik and Moises Kaufman maintain that their vision of The Nightingale is one of layered multi-cultural casting and design. They openly apologized to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition for their failure to fully develop their vision in a manner that was clear to their audiences at this workshop staging. They apologized for hurting anyone unintentionally. Their dismay is evident. They are under attack. It is evident to me that somewhere in the shock and awe of hurt feelings, activism and good intention we’ve lost a major piece the discussion on both sides.
Yet the AAPAC continues to unload years of frustration and fury on La Jolla as if this one unfinished project was the single most significant casting of Asian American Actors of all time. Yes, only 1.3 percent of Broadway performers were Asian-American in the last five years. It is commendable and remarkable that the AAPAC was able to prove with their research, what many have long believed about Asian faces been woefully under-represented in the American media and performing arts. The very fact that the AAPAC exists to advocate for and celebrate the wildly underutilized Asian American talent is an honorable step towards inclusion and an improvement to that sad statist. But the manner in which The Nightingale, at the some-what polite public forum discussion between the AAPAC and La Jolla an AAPAC member Anna Hu, went so far as to threatened a picket line should casting not change to meet her demands that Asian actors be cast in roles that are implicitly Asian. The AAPAC Facebook page includes the taunt “Hey, La Jolla Playhouse/ When you cast an Asians as Jesus/ We’ll accept your non-Asian Chinese Emperors”.
But are the roles in The Nightingale implicitly Chinese? Yes the source material is about a fictional Chinese Emperor in a mythical China with a palace made of porcelain and a bird that speaks. But the playwright and director have clearly articulated that the production is attempting to expand its scope and consider additional influences from the Middle East, South America and beyond while embracing the whimsy in the impossible and magical elements in the source material. This is not literal China. It wasn’t literal China in the fairy tale, either. Hans Christian Anderson was a Dutchman who’d never traveled to China but was fascinated by a culture he knew next to nothing about.
The universality of The Nightingale’s themes unites all people and thus I think is the value in this struggling musical’s development.
In The Nightingale I see the same potential to ignite a somewhat latent text with contemporary insight and significance as we experienced in Spring Awakening. But Spring Awakening was not being scrutinized under a microscope before it was finished. In listening to the heartbreaking vitriol spew from young Asian actors who are understandably hurt by this workshop, I can’t help but wonder if this whole situation would not even be an issue if Steven Sater, Duncan Sheik and Moises Kaufman were not at the helm.
Money. Why has no one touched this issue? Perhaps because La Jolla is often considered an endlessly funded launch pad for multi-million dollar success stories on Broadway. But this is a Page to Stage workshop – the seventh workshop production in an eleven-year development of an ambitious play. It is for all intensive purposes a rehearsal that the audience is allowed to view and comment upon with the hope of developing a stronger and more tangible debut that is ready for press- in the future. They’re hoping to get the training wheels off the piece and consider the next phase toward a major city debut.
New York Casting Director Tara Rubin explained, though vaguely as to not insult the present cast members who still have two weeks of performances to go, that offers were made to actors of varying races that were not accepted and since this is a workshop they did not and could not have a lengthy casting process to keep searching for the ideal mutli-cultural cast.
La Jolla certainly invested a great amount of time and money in this workshop but it is also evident that they were not equipped to recruit and retain the ideal casting and design that will become a “finished” version of the play. The workshop is presented sparsely in a black box so that it can be revised daily.
The fact that the creative team is being lambasted for being transparent about their process is horrifying to me.
To be honest in this staging of the piece the “color blind” or “multi-cutural” casting does not work. Perhaps because the text and design appears so characteristically Chinese and the actors are United Colors of Benetton diverse. It is confusing. A blonde white emperor's mother is dark skinned African-American and his "double" appears Middle Eastern. It is hard to tell whose family is whose and all these non-Asian people butchering Chinese names made me wince.
This beautiful musical is on the verge of being destroyed because of race controversy that is snowballing like gangbusters.
This is quite a pickle for our American Musical Theatre.
This humble dramaturg’s observations?
So basically I think the production can work - and SHOULD BE FOUGHT FOR. But something has to give. I can imagine a few options that will make for a clearer experience for the audience but each comes with significant compromises.
Unify the casting to match the text. Why CAN'T there be an all-Asian cast of a Chinese Fairy Tale musical? Thom Sesma and Telly Leung would be BRILLIANT as the older and younger Emperor. Anne Harada would sing the SHIT out of that Empress Dowager and probably have a lot more heart to boot.
BUT what is the down side of going "All Asian"? Dramaturlogically it actually strips the production of its universality. It makes the piece very predictable and kind of trite. Will it appeal to a winder audience?
I think what Sheik, Sater and Moises Kaufman were trying to create the multicultural experience of the current cast is that no matter what color you are or where you are from the themes of family, loss, compromise, love and sacrifice are universal to everyone!
The other option is to neutralize the text and omit the very specific Chinese names and geographic locations from the narrative. It will still be very clear if the characters have names, which reveal their rank. And given that the fairy tale was created by the German Fairy Tale master Hans Christian Anderson, and he had never BEEN to China but was fascinated by the culture from afar- is that REALLY getting too far from the source material? Not really.
But imagine the fall out if THAT happened? Minority groups and the politically correct press would CRUCIFY and the show across the board – because they simply do not get the point.
Sater has developed an embellishment of the original one layer fairy tale that has the opportunity to be both politically and culturally resonant yet this whole mess seems to be cutting his efforts down at every turn. The young emperor is a puppet leader and I do not think it is by accident that he was quite George Bush like. Hummmm....
Which brings me to my real problem with this whole situation. The American commercial theatre is impatient and too quick to judge. The fact that the Asian American community of actors is demanding roles in a show that they feel slighted from - is actually destroying the show before it is even finished! And there were two Asian actors in the production – the Princess stole the damn show for crying out loud, but no one is talking about that. The La Jolla Playhouse Pages to Stage program is a forum for work to develop and experiment and change. Tommy, Jersey Boys, I Am My Own Wife, Caroline or Change, Memphis ALL came from La Jolla. They literally re-write every day after fielding questions with the audience of every performance.
However at last night's talk back no one was focusing on holes in the narrative or places where songs could be cut or amplified (Remember "We Were Pirates"? It was cut from "Spring Awakening" because it wasn't necessary). Instead they were lambasting the staff for their casting choices and nit-picky details like someone's shoes! But there wasn't much considering a. WHY they chose to go muti-cultural or b. if Asian American actors even auditioned WANTED to be in this production before all the hubaloo. Or c. if La Jolla (a regional theatre embedded in UCSD) could afford them - Telly Leung isn't going to leave a Broadway gig for a workshop - even if he is PERFECT for this principal role. And Thom Sesma just came out of an 8 year run as Scar in The Lion King in Vegas. Who knows how big a salary he can command at this stage of his career.
So basically I'm sad. Duncan Sheik, Steven Sater and Moises Kaufman are being thrown under the bus for doing what theatre artists SHOULD do. They are trying to take their time. See what works. Experiment and revise until it all clicks. And it is a darn shame that the impatient public and press are jumping all over them for pushing boundaries in their storytelling and challenging people to think beyond the obvious image they see in their own mirrors.
What we're likely to loose in this battle? Some amazing music and theatrical writing and a valuable lesson that was clearly being developed for universal appeal to parents and children of all cultures.
I can't help be see these three men - three artists that I consider my heroes in many ways - trapped helpless together in a golden cage while the buzzards prepare to descend.
La Jolla's Website
Watch the Debate: Here