The Fallout Over 'Miss Saigon' : It's Time to Overcome the Legacy of Racism in Theater

Race. Artistic integrity. Non-traditional casting. "Miss Saigon."

These words ricochet as Actors' Equity, the Asian-American community and the producers of "Miss Saigon" argue about whether Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian, should be allowed to continue his performance as the Eurasian Engineer in the musical's Broadway production.

Asian Americans argue that the Engineer must be cast with an Asian American. Producer Cameron

Mackintosh argues that, after diligent, race-con- scious casting efforts, he found that Pryce was the best actor for the role. Equity argues that it must protect the needs of its members.

Everyone wants to pretend that this situation is simply about artistic integrity or about race or about censorship. It's about all of them, but in such complex and mind-bending ways that sorting them out is difficult. We found our way to the haystack, but nobody's really got their hand on the needle. We're all rummaging about in the hay doing nothing but getting blurred vision.

When it comes to race, the "Saigon" situation, in its current rendition, is not either/or (that is to say, white or Asian). It is difficult for me to listen to arguments about something being red or blue, when that something is actually violet. The role of the Engineer is neither Caucasian nor Asian; it is Eurasian--half Caucasian and half Asian. If the issue were simply about whether the role should be cast appropriately regarding to race, then we should be lobbying for a Eurasian. If a Eurasian can't be found to play the part, then find the next best thing.

It has been said that the Engineer's role was originally written as Vietnamese, but changed to Eurasian to suit Pryce. I don't know if this is true. If this is the case, then the matter is open and shut. It was Mackintosh's responsiblity to cast the role properly in the first place and the Asian-American community's energies are aptly aimed. There are already too few roles for Asian actors.

The larger, catalytic issue is the legacy of racism that exists in the American theater. The majority of roles go to white male artists. Equal employment opportunity for minority artists remains more well-intentioned theory than practice. The policy of non-traditional casting was created for exactly that reason: to create professional opportunities that would combat the historical prejudice.

Some producers say it means anybody should be able to play anything now. Certainly, there's some truth to that position, but when will these same liberal-minded producers start casting minorities in the leads of plays such as "The Heidi Chronicles," "The Cherry Orchard," "Speed the Plow" or "King Lear"?

The argument about Morgan Freeman being cast in "The Taming of the Shrew" is not applicable because Freeman is a star. Casting him is more about box-office economics than non-traditional casting. The same can be said about James Earl Jones playing "Othello." The point is, we need to work toward a theater where nonwhites can play lead roles--including ones that have been traditionally cast with whites.

Let's stop talking about non-traditional casting and do it. Artists are supposed to be on the vanguard of political change in this country, yet the theater is slow in doing plays that challenge the politics of race and in casting minority actors in non-traditional roles.

Amid the brouhaha, let's remember that from the minute the audience takes its seats, the theater asks for a suspension of disbelief. Despite the fact that theater is art, however, it is also a powerful and affecting medium.

The American theater must learn to be more fair and reasonable toward its artists of color. It is no wonder that these artists become restless and reactive. They have to be. They're mad and they won't be silent anymore. Yes, there's been censorship and discrimination in the theater, and 95% of it has been levied (consciously or otherwise) against minorities and women. There is much enlightenment to be wrought.

"Miss Saigon," among other things, is about the Amerasian experience. Amerasians are neither American nor Asian. We are painfully, inseparably, blessedly and cursedly both. This conflict emphasizes that few understand Amerasian identity. It's sadly ironic that such a musical has led to a public battle about race--a battle where both sides ignore the fact that the character in question is biracial.

Minority artists must choose their battles carefully. If a battle is fought with blurred vision, the cause is set back. The "Saigon" role was not the best battleground because it is a complex issue. It also would behoove Asian Americans to take a look at their policy of discriminating against multiracial Asians within their own literary and artistic environments.

The crimes are: misunderstanding race (an American affliction), the legacy of racism in the American theater, and the manipulation of the true spirit of non-traditional casting. Keeping Pryce from performing is not going to solve these crimes or appease the victims.

The Asian American community has shown its strength. We severely need the wisdom of racial politics into which "M. Butterfly" playwright David Henry Hwang and actor B.D. Wong have led us. I applaud and remain a vociferous proponent of casting minorities in more roles. The Amerasian League's position enlightens the issue a little further. Now perhaps the show can go on, with Equity reaching some kind of compromise that benefits both the show's producers and the minority artists.

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