So, one day, I got a call for an audition at a Big New York Theater (BNYT). The character description read:
30s-50s. (actually ageless) The tribal chief of the NaKong of the lost city of Pahatlabong – a very war-like people. Proud of his culture. Very smart and very observant. Truly a fish out of water . . . he speaks only a few words of English, but picks up on many English customs during the course of the play. MUST BE A GREAT PHYSICAL COMEDIAN.
Okay, great. A tribal chief.
An indigenous person.
A native. I could look ‘native’.
Asian, sort of.
“NaKong “ and “Pahatlabong” sound vaguely Pacific.
Pacific Islander? I’m Filipino. Check.
This is great. There are only a handful of actors I know that could go out for this. For once, I’m happy I don’t look Chinese. Very few of my East Asian actor friends could look like they were a native from a Pacific island. This is a GREAT opportunity for me. The pool just got smaller.
I check out the sides. The sides are all in a made up Polynesian sounding language:
I speak Tagalog, so this is definitely something I can do and sound ‘authentic’, even with a fictional language. I can make all this made up language sound REAL.
I read the play, and the character first appears wearing blue paint and tattoos and feathers. And knickers.
STOP. Wait a minute.
Am I going to be okay with doing this role? We’ve struggled so hard to get away from these stereotypes: the tribal chief? The non-English speaking savage? Talking in some whackadoo made-up language? Are the white people having a laugh at our expense, AGAIN?
Wait, I said to myself, read the play at least. If it’s funny, and with a twist, maybe it’s worth it. Maybe it’s even genius.
The play turns out to be very, VERY funny, and is actually lampooning the European explorers who find these ancient tribal people and claim to have discovered them. The play even centers around the woman who brings this tribal chief to England, only to have a hard time joining the club because, well, she’s a woman.
Hey, look what I found!
The play specifically exposes white European male exclusivity and here, the white European males are all made to look absolutely ridiculous! Fantastic!
I tell myself, yes, I can do this role. It’s spinning the tribal stereotype on its head. It IS genius.
FIRST. My audition is with the casting director and her assistant. The casting director laughs; throughout the ENTIRE thing. Everything that came out of my mouth was GOLD. Wow, that may be the best audition I’ve ever had. I’ve NEVER had anyone respond that positively in the room. EVER. I get called back.
SECOND. In the callback, another casting person is there, which makes three, along with the playwright and director. I knock it out of the park. The room is bigger and the laughs are louder. I am SO getting this. If the writer and director love me, it’s a done deal. I get called back again.
THIRD. In the second callback, a producer of the BNYT is there, along with everyone else from the second callback. The laughter isn’t as robust, and the producer has a permanent sneer, but the casting director nods her head with a big smile throughout the entire thing. She’s rooting for me. The rest of the room seems tempered by the presence of the producer, but they laugh anyway. This is in the bag, I thought.
I didn’t get the part.
So, I’m crushed. I want to know who got it. In my mind, I go through the people I know who might’ve gotten it; I wonder if I was too confident in that final callback; I wonder if I should’ve played nicer with the producer; I wonder if it’s because I don’t have any major theater credits in New York, that I was passed over for someone with Broadway credits.
Then, one day, I see my agent. On the way out, I tell him how devastated I was about that audition for that BNYT a few weeks back. He said they decided to go with someone more ‘physical’ and then he dropped the bomb:
“They cast a white guy.”
But he’s “The tribal chief of the NaKong of the lost city of Pahatlabong – a very war-like people . . . . he speaks only a few words of English.”
I go online and see the cast.
My jaw, my heart, my soul drops to the floor.
How could they cast a white guy?
They couldn’t find anyone a shade darker than this?
This was their idea of a tribal chief of a very war-like people.
I know who this is. I’m sure he had a fantastic audition, because the guy is VERY talented and very funny. He also has Broadway creds and a ton of other credits that I probably could never accumulate in 20 years.
But he’s WHITE.
Obviously, I had some questions:
1) Was there really an injustice done here? Is anyone even going to notice that the tribal chief is white? And if they notice, will they care? Will it matter?
2) And if there WAS an injustice done, is it even worth mentioning? On the scale of injustices, if the sectarian massacres on the beach towns of Syria, involving the killing of women and children and babies and unborn fetuses are a TEN, if a thousand Bangladeshi garment workers dying so my t-shirt could cost $10 instead of $15 is a TEN, then surely this casting choice injustice (if it is one), is down somewhere around ONE. Maybe even a .5.
3) Are people even going to CARE what the race is of the actor playing the part of the tribal chief? It’s a comedy! White comedians play colored folks all the time on Saturday Night Live. No one’s holding up banners at 30 Rock. Doesn’t comedy get a pass? It’s a farce, it’s comedy, lighten up! It’s not a history lesson, it’s not even a real Pacific Island, it’s about a fictional people! It’s about laughs, have a good time!
4) Since this is the FIRST statement in this BNYT’s mission:
“INNOVATE. Our mission is to produce a season of innovative work with a series of productions as broad and diverse as New York itself”
. . . wouldn’t this have been a good opportunity to fulfill that mission statement, by casting a character of color with, you know, an actor of color? In the name of diversity and New York City?
5) Wasn’t the character supposed to be a NATIVE that comes out in tattoos and feathers and blue paint? I guess Braveheart wore blue paint . . .
Wasn’t he in Apocalypto?
But still. He was from Scotland. Blue paint or not, he was supposed to be white.
6) Speaking of movies, would this casting choice be made in a movie? If this play were a movie, would Jim Carrey be the native? Will Ferrell? Zack Galifinakis? Surely they are some of the funniest physical comedians around. And white guys playing native always gets a laugh. And surely a financial venture as costly as a movie, easily 20 times more expensive than an off-Broadway play, would cast the BEST comedian; the funniest, hottest, best known comedian they could find, because it would be the best way to guarantee a hit, so they could recoup their gargantuan investment. Hollywood would cast a white guy if this play was a movie, right?
7) Speaking of color, would this BNYT cast a white guy if this role was a fictional AFRICAN tribal chief? If he was the chief of the zebra-herding Mbutu clan of the Zamazinga savannah, would they cast a white actor? Or, because of the vast melanin gulf that exists between black and white, would the BNYT have to cast a black actor in that instance? Is the difference between white and Asian LESS than the difference between white and black? Is the difference so small it doesn’t exist AT ALL?
In mathematical terms, is the following statement true:
If W – A = 0, then W – A < W – B.
8) How will the play poke fun at the white European male explorers when the tribal chief in front of them is . . . a white European male? What about satirizing the 19th century European explorer/colonizer, and the racist attitudes that he embodied? Shouldn’t the actor playing the tribal chief be anything BUT white?
9) Did ANYONE at the BNYT even say “Hey, wait a minute guys, I just realized something: the tribe is not in Europe. So, the tribal chief is probably, you know, dark. Or dark-er. We cast a guy who is probably Irish by descent. Is that . . . weird?”
10) And if someone DID say that, what was the following conversation like?
11) Isn’t the play also about a woman who isn’t allowed in the club because she’s a woman? Surely a writer who is fully conscious of the ideas of exclusivity (and has written a brilliant play about it) and how the old notions of inequality are downright silly, surely SHE would object to having the savage played by a white man. Right?
12) But isn’t this the magic of theater? That anyone can play ANYTHING? Anna Deavere-Smith played all sorts of races in her one-person shows.
She’s so good.
So does a whole bunch of other super talented actors in their own one-person vehicles. What does it matter that this role is played by a white actor, as long as the story is told and the audience is entertained?
13) Should I really be complaining about the lack of parts for Asian actors? Didn’t the Signature just do a season of David Henry Hwang plays? Hasn’t Here Lies Love, a musical set in the Philippines with Filipino characters, just been extended at the Public? Wasn’t Chinglish on Broadway last year? Why gripe about this ONE part at this one BNYT?
14) Are they doing something so witty and so 21st century post-racial that I can’t even grasp it: casting a white person to play a noble savage in a play about how racist white people are (or were) to show how crazy it is when white people are/were racist?
15) Was I just simply not good enough? Was no other colored actor good enough? Although I looked the part, the actor they cast was just SO much better, just way funnier, that the BNYT decided “Hey, he may be white, which is the completely wrong skin color for this role, but he was just SO damn funny! Plus, look at his resume. No, don’t look at his headshot, look at his resume.” Was the actor they cast just THAT good?
16) Am I just being too sensitive again? Am I just being the bitter actor who didn’t get the part?
These are not rhetorical questions. If you have some answers, please .
Before I found out who was cast, before I realized I hadn’t gotten the part, I had a nightmare.
I dreamt I was in some town hall type meeting. Representatives from the BNYT were there, along with the artistic directors of every major ‘ethnic’ and off-Broadway theater in New York, as well as actors, other theater folk and activist types.
I dreamt that the BNYT had cast a white actor in the role I auditioned for.
I dreamt that the BNYT people said that while I was good, they went with someone that had a bigger name, and that it was simply a business decision.
I dreamt that I thanked the BNYT for allowing this conversation to take place. (I was extremely polite in my dream.) I said I completely understood their decision, and of course it was their right to do what was best for their business, which their theater is, after all. A BNYT is not in the business of giving jobs to actors of color, they are in the business of theater, of entertainment. I get that, I said.
Then, I dreamt that I began telling the crowd what the role was: how the character first appeared, how he would be dressed, what he would say and how he would say it.
I dreamt that I heard the crowd gasping in disbelief. I dreamt I heard murmuring turn into yelling, and shouts. I dreamt the crowd turned into an angry riotous mob, and their cursing and screaming turned towards the representatives of the BNYT, demanding answers.
I dreamt the BNYT people attempted to defend their actions, stammering out half-sentences at the increasingly furious body of angry colored people. I dreamt they were yelling over the din, desperately trying explain their choice again, and I dreamt I said to these BNYT reps:
“No. You’ve had your chance to talk. It’s MY turn now.”
What do you know? Dreams do come true after all.
The Asian Actor Exits.