Jonathan Pryce should play his role of the Engineer in “Miss Saigon,” Sidney Poitier should play Torvald in “A Doll’s House” and Mako, the Moor in “Othello.”
In a perfect world this is possible. But the world is not perfect. Parts playable by any actor are not open to people of color, but to white actors who move easily from role to role, ethnicity to ethnicity. This is “traditional” casting.
Pryce as a Eurasian is our most current example. Though, according to some who are familiar with the show, the “Miss Saigon” script itself does not indicate a character of mixed blood but the production has made him Eurasian. The Eurasian label has traditionally been the loophole for white actors to get Asian parts, eg., David Carradine in “Kung Fu.”
Usually, producers and directors don’t even bother with the label. Roland Winters, Warner Oland, Peter Sellers, Joel Grey, Angie Dickinson, Peter Ustinov and Ross Martin have all played Asians. The reasoning: No qualified Asian Americans were found, so they had to choose a white actor. To look at this history, you’d think Asian-American actors have been unqualified to play themselves for nearly a century. This would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic and so wrong. This “traditional” casting is racist casting.
Robert Guillaume as the Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Ahmanson Theatre is an amazing act of non-traditional casting. How about the novel idea for “Miss Saigon” that Asians play themselves? Not a chance.
The vehement national backlash against Asian Americans is bewildering. Many actors and producers at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and the Mark Taper Forum, people whom I would have thought held the same convictions of honoring a community with sensitivity and respect, are fiercely opposed to Actors’ Equity’s position. They do not see the necessity of the union stand--that it upholds our dignity.
If a white man were to play the lead in “Purlie” in blackface, the uproar from the African-American community would be joined by all the above theaters. But when we are enraged because a white man is slated to play a Eurasian, we are attacked for being racist censors of artistic freedom. The regard and consideration accorded the African-American community doesn’t translate over to Asian Americans.
We have a hit show, with an insightful message, bringing in millions of dollars, with a terrific performer--but something is wrong. Fundamentally wrong. It is this contemptuous notion that we, people of color, are incapable of portraying ourselves and, even worse, that others can do it better.
A whole American population is denigrated by a white man donning “yellowface,” whether in spirit or in fact, expressing issues that are specific to people of color. Tarzan comes to Saigon.
And what about the jobs? They’re losable. Other than the lead woman’s role, the Asian actors provide background, Vietnamese hookers and Viet Cong. Yes, a healthy paycheck, but background.
Curt Flood, the former baseball player, said that a slave, whether well-paid or not, is still a slave. A show that degrades a community, whether it pays its actors well or not, still degrades that community.
To those carrying on the fight, there are worse things than being a voice in the wilderness. Makibaka! (Tagalog for “Struggle, do not be afraid!”).