I wonder why being Asian/of Asian descent is relevant today, when so many of the conventions of Japanese/Chinese theatre are known by a wide spectrum of performers/directors. Are we still seeking some magic "authenticity", or pushing foreign ethnicities to explore their roots?
I find Mr. Leiter’s comments bigoted. In American theatre artists are cast based on their abilities and not their ethnicity. The fact that he looked at the program to see if the actors had Japanese last names is beyond ludicrous. Mr. Leiter, you should know that casting an actor based on race is against the policies of the Actor’s Equity Association as well as being illegal per the New York City Human Rights Law that forbids discrimination in hiring based on race.I agree with Jonah’s comments: theatrical productions have long incorporated and blended devices from different cultures. Thank goodness artists don’t subscribe to Mr. Leiter’s point of view where actors can only play characters of their own race and artists can only tell stories of their own ethnic background. If they did, we would live in a world without Nessun Dorma.
Thanks for your comments, Jonah and Che, although I find them both surprising and oddly out of date. We’re not talking about college theatre here; this is the New York professional arena where actors of every sort of background are struggling to get jobs. Ever since the 1930s American actors of color have been struggling to play roles for which they are more ethnically suited than the white actors who normally played them in black, red, or yellow face. Like it or not, that’s why so many controversies continue to be stirred up all over the country when professional productions of shows with non-white characters are cast with white actors. It’s why no one dares mount a major production anymore of shows like The King and I or Othello with white actors in the title roles (although the practice continues in opera, as in Madame Butterfly or Turandot). Re: Asian actors of Asian descent, the brouhaha in 1989 surrounding the casting of white actor Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer (half Caucasian/half Vietnamese) in Miss Saigon remains a powerful moment in New York theatre history; David Henry Hwang was even inspired by it to write his play Yellow Face. After Pryce eventually departed, every actor in his role during the show’s long run was of Asian descent, even if only partly.No one anymore, at least not in the professional New York theatre, would ever think of casting a non-Asian actor in a specifically Asian role anymore, whether or not it’s technically “legal.” This is not only because it makes the character seem more “authentic,” but because it provides much needed work for non-white actors in a profession overwhelmingly dominated by white characters and actors. Try doing a revival of Lute Song today with white actors and see how far you’d get, Equity, Shmequity. Ability is essential, but so—at least, relatively (no one playing the king in the recent King and I were Thai)—is ethnicity, at least in those roles where it’s part of the character’s identity. Happily, The Pearl Diver was cast with actors of Asian ethnicity. What I was implying was that, with all the theatre artists of Japanese ancestry in New York, I found it a little curious that none were involved in telling this Japanese story. But it certainly wasn’t a game breaker. If you deem that "bigoted," that’s your privilege.