By Melissa Slaughter
In 2007, my college did a production of the show Speak Truth To Power. The first show of my college career, it was a monologue piece comprised of speeches by civil rights activists. Bishop Tutu, Wei Jingsheng, Hafez Abu Seada, Doan Viet Hoat, and Elie Wiesel were just a few of the activists featured. I was one of three freshman who got a prized speaking role. I played Kek Galabru, a Cambodian activist during the Khmer Rouge. I looked like my Auntie Jean Omiya.
One of my freshman year friends played an El Salvadoran refugee. Another played Juliana Dogbadzi, a Ghanaian activist who fought against human trafficking. Both of these characters were women of color; both of the actresses were not. This happened over and over again throughout the course of the show. The whitewashed portrayal of activist Wangari Maathai became a running joke. There were two black men, a Mexican-American girl, and myself as the only actors of color in a play that was majority POC. We watched as white-washed role after white-washed role played out onstage.
Throughout the next few years in the program, the pattern of whitewashing continued. A doc-theatre piece about the Bhutan Death March and Japanese Internment had no actors of Asian descent. The production started the fall semester that I was abroad, and when I came back, I wasn’t allowed to enter the class. I was the only person of Asian descent in the program; I was the only person of Japanese descent in the whole school. No one thought it was strange that the performers were all white. No one except me. That semester, I listened as my Caucasian classmates portrayed Japanese internees, reading monologues from Farewell to Manzanar as I mentally recalled my own family’s history with internment.
But I didn’t have the vocabulary, or the faculty support, to fight the class alone.
From day one, at my tiny liberal arts school in New Mexico, everyone in that program was taught that whitewashing was an acceptable practice. Those college kids would continue into the world as theatre practitioners who would see no problem with continuing to marginalize people of color because they weren’t taught otherwise. My teachers, though caring and resourceful, were irresponsible in a number of ways. They taught their students that white-washing was fine, that tokenism was fine, and that diversity wasn’t a necessary part of storytelling.
I went to school from 2007-2011. Social media activism wasn’t a thing. Facebook was barely a thing. Same goes for Twitter. Hashtag protests hadn’t come about. The word “woke” was far from being in the mainstream. If what happened at my school had happened now, it would have gone viral. Instead, it just lives in my memory.
What if I had had the tools to speak my own truth to power, like Cindy did? What if the problem of white-washing and yellow facing could be nipped in the bud by introducing these concepts to teens early on, and teaching the history and effects of these issues? It’s 2018, and it’s time to start teaching middle-school, and high-school students that these practices are unacceptable. Instead of ignoring the issue (as has been the standard for decades), let’s incorporate it into theatre classes. Now is the time, if any, with groups like the Asian-American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) and Actors Equity tracking the number of people of color in professional shows. Progress is moving towards diversity in casting, not just in terms of race. There’s also a push for more diverse casting amongst performers who are queer, trans, gender non-conforming, or disabled. 2015’s Deaf West production of Spring Awakening was a smash success because diversity is a money-maker. Leaving that out of theatrical education is to leave students behind. But by introducing the ideas, we eliminate them forever, like a vaccine to a virus.
Between 2014-2017, a few instances of white-washing and yellow facing in schools have hit the news. Some kids stood against it, some students saw no problems. Adults who never met the students attacked them on Twitter. A playwright pulled his own show, and many students were left confused and hurt by the aftermath. What if the teachers had given them the tools to understand why representation matter? We could eliminate the pain and anger for both the underrepresented who’s voices aren’t heard, and we could empower all students to tell their own stories instead of telling someone elses.
Jesus in India
In late 2015, a group of students at Clarion College in western Pennsylvania were rehearsing for Lloyd Suh’s play Jesus in India. The predominately white school cast white leads in a show that the playwright had specified was meant for South Asian actors. Mr. Suh, through a representative, asked that the full production be cast with minority actors. When he saw that the school just “forgot” his request, he sent a letter to recast the show. When that wasn’t honored, he proceeded to pull the rights of his play.
Outrage ensued. The director of the theatre program, Marilouise Michel, wrote an essay in as her response, which dripped with privilege and her attempt to continue to marginalize Asian-Americans. Throughout her piece, she doesn’t name Lloyd Suh once. But she does consistently refer to him as the “Asian playwright,” thus othering him in the process. (Lloyd Suh is Korean-American.) She does the same for the performers, referring to students and professionals alike as “non-Asian” or “Asian.” By removing their American nationality, she continues to make them the other. In addition, Ms. Michel continues to use language that systemically props up white institutions and disenfranchises minority students. Multiple outlets critiqued her statement and the school’s response. The school put a statement that the students were being “punished for their race.”
So what have the students learned from this situation. First, there’s the director’s blatant disrespect of the playwrights vision. Ms. Michel flippantly took the work of an artist of color and removed parts of the narrative that Mr. Suh had imbued in the show. Will these students disregard works done by other artists of color, or by women or by queer writers? Imagine a production of Angels in America where the “gay fantasia” has been removed from the themes. Instead of teaching them to respect the writer’s work and integrity, Ms. Michel taught them they their own white gaze could prevail.
From the school, the white students have learned how to uphold the ancient systems of institutionalized racism. From their teacher, they’ve learned that as white performers, they should be allowed to play and explore every role. Will they see a problem playing a trans role, as cis-actors? Or playing a disabled character, as an able-bodied actor? What will they do when they read the statistics that marginalized groups are cast significantly less that white actors? Will they even care?
As for the minority students, what is their takeaway? When the show was picked, and the cast was a mostly-white cast, they probably learned their stories and voices don’t matter. That even something intended by the playwright doesn’t matter in the face of a white institution. Or maybe that their stories certainly don’t matter to the teacher who thinks that a teacher’s “ purpose in higher education [is] push boundaries and ask questions,” but she can’t have her own ignorance questioned.
The situation at Clarion was full of missed opportunities. The school could have discussed demographics amongst the student body, brought in diversity educators to talk to students in the aftermath, had a sit-down with Lloyd Suh about why author’s intent matters. Clarion College as a whole did their students a disservice. By choosing a show they couldn’t cast, and by reacting with such vitoril and ignorance, they set a negative example to their students that will surely stay with them for years.
Hunchback of Notre Dame
Ithaca High School
In January 2018, a group of students from Ithaca High School made national news when they spoke up against the casting of a white student in the production of Hunchback of Notre Dame. In all three professional productions (La Jolla, Paper Mill Playhouse, and the 5th Avenue Theatre), the role of Esmeralda has been played by actors of color (Ciara Renée and Dan’yelle Williamson respectively). So precedence states that the role should go to an actor of color. In addition, Esmeralda related to Quasimodo as they’re both the “others” of their world. It’s a superb learning opportunity for students to explore the roles of “othering” in society. Instead, Ithaca High School chose to cast a white actress in the role.
Five students, Annabella Mead-VanCort, Maddi Thrasher-Carroll, Ari Burch, Eamon Nunn-Makepeace, and Prachi Nouhuys, started a letter writing campaign to raise awareness of the issue. In an eloquent and pointed piece, the students referenced the theatre department’s history of predominantly casting white students of students of color: “the many talented brown and black female students at IHS…have received the message that IHS musicals are a playground of the white privileged students of our school.” In an interview with Onstage Blog, the students reveal that this is most amount of activism they’ve been involved in.
The aftermath of what followed was harrowing. A social media explosion led to students and adults alike being attacked on Twitter, Facebook, and even having their personal information made public. The show was eventually cancelled, with the school promising a “collaborative” production instead. Despite the national controversy, it appears that the school took the time to listen to their students. By using their voices, the students were empowered to take the situation into their own hands and make space for themselves in an institution that wasn’t making room for them.
There is one major pitfall to this plan: educators must be able to teach these devices without making a microaggression out of their lectures. The most well-meaning of teachers can be the most degrading as well. Cindy Tsai chronicled this phenomenon in her piece “The Nuances of Racism in Theatre School.” It was published as a part of Emerson’s POWER Coalition, a student led group focused on “advocate for stronger cultural competency within the faculty and administration of Emerson College and bring a more concentrated awareness to the experiences of the students of color within the community.”
And as seen above, my own professors failed me and my classmates. Marilouise Michel continued to uphold her own internalized white supremacy in the face of backlash. And Claire Zhuang documented her exit from her MFA program in the piece “A Parting Letter to my MFA Program,” due to the systematic Asian erasure and institutionalized racism. Our stories are not few as one might hope. Unfortunately, for many, they are the norm. Not included in this pieces was the whitewashing in the Latinx and black characters in the Xavier College Prep production of In The Heights, or the egregious casting of a white actor to play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop at Kent State University. Or the many productions of West Side Story, Hairspray, and Thoroughly Modern Millie that just don’t cut the muster.
On a national scale, there’s been discussions of whether or not educators need to start addressing white privilege and systems of oppression more directly with students. A school in Wisconsin tried to it, and it wasn’t well-received. But the conversation isn’t stopping. So what if theatre is the answer? If well-trained educators can start introducing the idea of white-privilege, power structures, revisionist history, white-washing, black-face, and yellow-face, in stories like Hunchback of Notre Dame, or a kid’s production of The Mikado, then maybe this brings society closer to the equity and parity so necessary for our democracy. The training exists, as do smart, thoughtful, progressive educators. So take the next steps! Get some data on casting at your school, look back at what kind of plays are normally present, which writers are favored. Create a curriculum based on that data. Focus how color conscious casting, instead of color-blind casting. Do the work. As far as I can see, in order to break through the bamboo ceiling of theatre, we have no other options.