Sri Lankans in Anatevka? Another Take on the Racial Casting Debate


In 1984, or thereabouts, Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carri√®re, and Marie-Hél√®ne Estienne started a worldwide tour of a play.

Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata.

The process of writing it had taken them eight years-not surprising, considering that the play was based on a Hindu epic: the Mahabharata. The original text is about ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, dates back somewhere between two and three thousand years, and is one of the greatest (and longest) works of human literature, ancient or modern.

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The Mahabharata epic saturates Indian culture. Its opening lines, attributed to a mystical sage, contain the confident declaration that “whatever is here is found elsewhere, but whatever is not here is nowhere else.” Given its 200,000 verses, that’s not an idle boast. A television version that aired on Indian TV from 1988-1990, which many people complained cut out important parts of the story, ran to 94 one-hour episodes, and the streets emptied whenever it was broadcast.

Brook’s stage play was nine hours long and had to be performed with two long intermissions, during which the audience was expected to leave and take lunch and then, in the second intermission, dinner. The play was adapted into a three-part, 6-hour film which, like the longer stage version, is a wonderful piece of work (at least, Western reviewers thought so). Whether Brook’s interpretation is actually the epic from which it takes its name is, of course, a matter of debate.

Robert Langdon Lloyd, Bruce Myers, and Antonin Stahly-Vishwanadan in the film version of Brook’s The Mahabharata.

One of the interesting things about it, for me (as a person who grew up with the Mahabharata as a part of my surroundings, which is true of most people from India), is that it’s literature I know interpreted by someone from another culture, with a completely different result. Brook sees and relates to things in the Mahabharata that I didn’t, and vice versa. One of Brook’s central points is that the epic claims to be the “poetical history of mankind.” As such, Brook used a multinational, multiracial cast, to play up the epic’s universality and also to hint at the idea that, during the golden age the story depicts, all races must have lived together harmoniously, not divided as they are in our darker, more spiritually corrupt times.

I never got to see the production on stage (it had a very successful run at Brooklyn Academy of Music), but I’ve watched the film version many times. It’s one of my favorites to this day. The austere production and a few amazing performances, most of all by Robert Langdon Lloyd as the sage who is said to have written the epic, gave me a whole new frame of reference for these familiar stories. The religious comics I grew up with in India, the Indian television version, the stories traded around in my childhood, had a gaudiness and hugeness to them. It was refreshing to see them reinterpreted. I don’t recall feeling any outrage, only delight, at seeing this familiar material through new eyes.

Not so for everyone, however. Brook’s deliberate casting of non-Indians as these archetypally Indian characters caused a huge controversy. Enraged Indian scholars demanded that the production be stopped, one of them denouncing the play as “cultural rape,” and called for Brook to issue an apology to all Hindus for appropriating sacred texts. Brook was never able to get permission to actually perform it in India.

I must note, and this is significant in this particular discussion, that the Mahbharata is an actual piece of cultural history-not an interpretation or a fantasy of another culture. Bear with me, this counts in this argument.

Why do I dredge all this up from the dusty chronicles of the ’80s and ’90s, during which all this took place?

Because it’s happening again; in fact, keeps happening. As observed on The Clyde Fitch Report earlier this week, the casting of The Nightingale, a play adapted from a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, has caused a storm of race discussion. Terms like “color-blind casting,” “rainbow casting,” and such are being thrown around.

Some background: Andersen’s allegory presents the story of a Chinese emperor who falls ill, and is restored to health by the singing of a nightingale. He then becomes enraptured by a mechanical version of the bird. It has been widely speculated that Andersen was writing about his unrequited love for opera singer Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” which might explain why he set the story in a distant locale.

The issue is apparently that the La Jolla production of the play, an adaptation of the original fairy tale by Duncan Sheik and Steven Slater (of Spring Awakening fame), features a multiracial cast. The characters portrayed are Chinese, the argument goes, and so why not give the parts to Asian actors? (To be precise, there are Asian actors in the play, just not all Asian actors.)

Find the Asians: La Jolla Playouse’s production of The Nightingale.

I note with interest that the director of the play is Moisés Kaufman, a great artist known for, among other things, The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Kaufman is no stranger to controversy, but nor is he ignorant of issues of cross-cultural storytelling. The choice of a multiethnic cast was obviously intentional, not racism against Asians or laziness in auditioning Asian actors, as some have (to me, unbelievably) hinted.

Now, this is a tough issue to pull apart or pin down. It’s a moving target, and every voice that chimes in makes it more complicated (generally while saying, “this is what it’s really about”).

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“Rainbow casting,” to use one of the terms that’s been going around, is about casting people of multiple ethnicities in plays that may not have been conceived in that way by the playwright. The Mahabharata is one example. The La Jolla production of The Nightingale may be another, but save that one for a moment.

The other point of view on this-let’s call it “literal casting”-would involve always casting people of the ethnicity depicted in the play. So, for example, the only non-Caucasian role in Shakespeare (please correct me if I’m missing any, scholars-and please, don’t bring up Caliban) would be Othello. Only Indians could act in The Mahabharata. And so on. In the extreme, for example, Kurosawa wouldn’t dare attempt Throne of Blood, given that Shakespeare would never have envisioned that Macbeth could be adapted into Japanese, much less played by Japanese actors. A play set on Mars could only be put on by Martian actors, because otherwise we’re discriminating against them by not casting them in a play about their culture (even though the play was written by a human).

Where does either of these points of view leave us with The Nightingale? Hans Christian Andersen, had he actually adapted his fairy tale into a play himself, wouldn’t have had a lot of Chinese actors wandering around, so in theory he would have used (or envisioned) Caucasian actors playing Chinese people, in an allegory intended to deconstruct aspects of Western society. Or to tell, in an obfuscated way, a story primarily about subjects close to his heart and cultural conceptions, through a veil of exoticism, by transposing familiar subjects to a distant locale. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but Shakespeare did this in much of his own body of work.) So casting only Chinese actors, in this case, might be inauthentic.

The Mikado: see any Asians here? Didn’t think so.

And what about something like Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado? Are those roles, written as Western fantasies of the mystical Orient (and with some degree of allegory and parody, to boot), to be played only by Japanese actors since the play is set in Japan, despite the absurd, not-actually-Japanese names like Nanki-Poo, Pish-Tush, and Yum Yum? (And why would you do that to self-respecting Japanese actors?) Or do we remain true to the creators’ intent and feature Caucasians only, embodying the comedic stereotypes featured in the story?

How about neither. Some will remember the controversy about the casting of Miss Saigon when it made its way from London’s West End to Broadway. To sum it up, not only was the play (itself adapted distantly from Madame Butterfly) lambasted for ostensibly racist portrayals in the story itself, but the casting then also became an issue. Largely because, in London, the play had been acted by Western actors in bronzer with prosthetic eyes to make them look Vietnamese. The controversy continued because though Lea Salonga, an Asian woman (who, incidentally, is Filipina, not Vietnamese), was finally cast in the lead female role on Broadway, other Asian roles were still played by Westerners.

Lea Salonga in Miss Saigon.

The whole thing finally imploded when there was a backlash against Salonga, who, though racially acceptable, turned out not to be a citizen of the U.S. or the U.K. and thus could not be a member of Actors’ Equity. In other words, the same community that decried the production not using enough Asian actors then discriminated against her, almost preventing her from playing the part, because of her citizenship. (The AEA finally bent the rules to allow her to join.)

See how far these things can go? It should tell us something that these arguments keep folding in on each other and getting more complex and convoluted. As arguments do when something is being avoided, and to me this is the key. Rather than deal with what some of these works say about us, for example that not so long ago Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicted daily life in America, we get into firestorms over who can play the roles. Then we have messes like Miss Saigon to talk about and don’t have to sit down and admit that, as a society, though we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

The true horrors, like the brutal realities of the Vietnam War, greatly outstrip anything portrayed in Miss Saigon, so we get ourselves caught up instead over aspects of the issue that are, in the end, very much about semantics. We make allegories out of allegories and then forget that we’re three levels deep; we reverse and contradict ourselves, and start to take very literal stances. We forget that a play is, at its most incisive and realistic, a representation, not reality: it’s a “play.” Good intentions and correctness turn into righteousness and indictment.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I totally see (and vocally protest, often) the sorts of roles that go to various non-Caucasian ethnicities, the poor reflection of our actual culture by many films and plays, and other oddities of casting. I felt like I needed a Xanax when I watched the film version of Memoirs of a Geisha (a story about Japanese brothels, which was written by a Western man) and a majority of the actors were Chinese, not even Japanese. Was the message that American audiences couldn’t tell the difference? Then there’s the way South Asians and people of Middle Eastern descent are cast (and portrayed) on screen and stage, often rather interchangeably, and even more often offensively. And don’t get me started on the issues of straight-playing-gay or vice versa. So yes, I get the casting controversy, and am deeply sensitive to portrayals of race and identity.

I think a production of The Nightingale using all Chinese actors would be artistically interesting, given the story’s Western origins. I just don’t think that’s the only way to put on a production of it, or that anyone casting the roles with other than Chinese actors should be labeled racist.

What would Shakespeare say about a female Prospero?

The Arabian Nights, were it to be written today, would cause nothing but outrage. It would be dismissed as racist, reductive, and downright inaccurate. As would most of Kipling. Or, for that matter, The Mikado, in all its (to us, today, racist) silliness. These works were products of their time, written by people with specific cultural conceptions, for audiences with particular mindsets and tolerances. They are interesting for exactly that reason: they document mores of a different period, and challenge us to look more closely at our own. Yes, Euripides wrote with only his fellow Greeks in mind, as the subjects of his plays, to act within them, and to be his audience. Still, despite this narrowness of origin, for their ignorance of all we’ve learned since ancient times, his plays have a resonance and some level of applicability, across this vast gulf of time and geography, to the human condition today.

The fact that Euripides wrote for ancient Greeks does not mean that only Greek people may act in his plays, or that performances of them in our present time (in translation, no less-just like The Nightingale!) ought to be dismissed or attacked for inauthenticity or some sort of racial bias, or that we may only use props that would have been available to his stagehands. If we take the “literal casting” viewpoint to its furthest extreme, no play would be performed outside the culture in which it originated, in anything but its source language, nor acted by anyone of a race other than that specified. No book would be translated. No ignorant portrayal, however instructive it may be of a time, a place, or a culture, would be worth considering through other lenses. No artwork would be available to us, because surely, we couldn’t understand it without a full immersion in its cultural context. Julie Taymor would need to be duly strung up for daring to use technology in her stage designs for The Magic Flute, because, surely you know, Mozart couldn’t (and therefore wouldn’t) have presented it that way.

A Korean version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed at The Globe Theatre in April.

I, for one, find it interesting when a director or actor reinterprets a piece, especially an anachronistic one. I can say with certainty that most of the Shakespeare I’ve been lucky enough to see didn’t present only what could be managed at the Globe in Elizabethan times (unless that’s your intent-I tip my hat to those who favor “original practices” to authentically recreate this very thing). This highlights the universality of the work and the human emotions and predicaments and triumphs the work is intended to illuminate, and points up differences that are enlightening and make us more thoughtfully consider our present. Directors adapting these stories into modern times, actors the original playwright may not have imagined (or had access to) playing certain roles, all this adds texture to these works.

Here is one odd example from my own life. I attended an international school in Indonesia when I was a teenager. We had 41 different nationalities in my graduating class alone. Like many high schools, we put on plays. One of these was Fiddler on the Roof. I’ve joked many times about the bizarrely multicultural Anatevka we created: Tevye was Irish, and Golde and Perchick were English. There were a couple of Canadians and Australians too, if I recall correctly. And that’s about it for the Caucasians. The rest of Anatevka, minor and major roles alike, was comprised of Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Indonesians, one or two Koreans, and others I’m sure I’m forgetting (and me, an Indian, in my brief but no doubt deeply memorable, one-line role as the constable).

With all this talk of racially authentic casting, should we have been forbidden from putting on this play unless we could produce Russian Jews for each role? Or what about when the Jakarta Players did Cabaret? Let me tell you, Berlin was never such a rainbow-and I’m not just talking about Isherwood’s subtext. We weren’t trying to make a statement with such casting; these were simply the actors we had available to us, and we made do.

We live in a changing world. Cultural conceptions (and misconceptions) evolve over time. What these casting controversies demonstrate, to me, is that our rapidly changing society is still struggling with issues of race, representation (both artistic and demographic), and a relationship to our own past. The subtext of The Nightingale-both the fairy tale and the play adapted from it-make us uncomfortable because they are anachronistic. Yet they’re literature, they’re part of our treasured past.

So I’ll echo the general outrage already expressed here on the CFR. Yes, Asians (and everyone) should get more, better, and more accurate roles. Duh. But let’s not flip our wigs over questions of “authenticity” (read: the thinly disguised beginnings of inquisitions) just because we can’t cope with the closed-mindedness of our own cultural pasts, encoded in the work of our most cherished cultural figures. They have a lot to teach us, as much through their omissions and blind spots as by the timeless, universal gems embedded in their lines. And the pain rightly felt by people feeling marginalized and invisible should be traced to the right source: the people around us, in society, not those who seek to chronicle our existence through art.

So good going, La Jolla Playhouse and Moisés Kaufman-you’ve taken material that no one’s thought about in a while and done something interesting with it. The proof being, people are thinking about it. Let’s hope at least a few really look into the issue, and don’t stop at:

“This is a professional theater with a budget and access to any and every Asian American Actor in the country. There are no Chinese people in a show set in China.” (This is from blogger Erin Quill, who expressed her outrage IN MANY CAPS.) Erin, go see The Mikado. In Tokyo.