Why I’m Tired of Being an (Asian) Actor

The Call

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.

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:

Luigi Sides

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!

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.

The Audition

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.

The Bomb

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.”

BOOM.

BOOM.

Huh?!

WHAT?!

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.

The Questions

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?

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.

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 respond.

The Dream 

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.

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130 thoughts on “Why I’m Tired of Being an (Asian) Actor

  1. By casting the object of racist ridicule, a Polynesian Chief, white, in a play about colonial attitudes to race, superiority and women’s rights, there is an argument that this in itself highlights and throws a spotlight more clearly onto the actual racism itself. Far from it being the last colour of skin to be cast, it is arguable from this point of view, that it is the only colour of skin to be cast. It would, I imagine this argument to go, be too distateful to have a real person of colour being mocked and lampooned – its detracts from the funny.

    It could be for this reason the casting went against you, and I am sorry you didn’t get cast. Perhaps they made this discovery / decision at the 11th hour? Perhaps this is not it at all…

    Be that as it may, as a London based British Asian actor, this story fills me with dread. We are here many years behind you guys in terms of equal representation – and this is what we have to look forward to? One similarity between the two, which you touch upon, is the relative strength of lobbying power the black communities possess compared to the Asian. I doubt the above argument would be even attempted if it were, as you say, a black African chief. They would cast as funny a black actor as they could. Similarly, here in UK the arguments and justification (see RSC’s recent Orphan of Zhao news reports) for casting white guys as East Asians simply would not be given if the parts were black.

    Power to you and good luck getting a better job (which is not race specific).

      • From playwright A. Rey Pamatmat:

        “Look, here’s the thing: if you’ve written a role for a person of color that you’re afraid to cast a person of color in, then you already know you’re doing something wrong. Giving the benefit of the doubt, though, if the satire is more effective with an all-white cast, then you’re still doing something wrong. Because if you’re going to write a piece — satire or not — that addresses issues of ethnic fetish/persecution/dehumanization, and you’re going to use an all-white cast, an all-white creative team, and have it produced by a theater with an all-white senior staff, then you are saying that the only people who matter in this discussion of race and ethnicity are white people.”

      • @alexiscamins I agree with everything you’ve said here, which saves me the time of individually replying to your (not so rhetorical) questions. Also, you said, “Here’s the thing” which is the subtitle of my blog, so, I’ve got to follow this thing and see what you’re about.

    • And to Paul and the OP (Alexis?) I completely agree with you that it seems the Asian community is marginalized in terms of lobbying and representation in mainstream Western arts. Do you guys know if there some kind of BET Asian American (or British) complement for arts and entertainment? My husband and I are both mixed (Eurasian) but really lament the lack of representation.

  2. I think you have a starting point for a play or a movie here – think Tootsie. You’re a writer, you may have to write yourself the part.

  3. But – I do feel your frustration. It must absolutely suck to have so few opportunities. More reason to write, yourself.

  4. I wish I had a better answer for you. You would think that if the play is about lampooning colonialism, then casting a white actor as a person of color– an act of colonialism in itself– is either the most preposterous casting nonsense one can imagine or pure genius. My money is on the nonsense. I think this is inexcusable in 2013. Not to be a douchebag (which is what people say right before they commit an act of douchebaggery) but I wrote about these issues in my own blog, Bitter Gertrude: http://bittergertrude.com/2013/02/13/in-the-land-of-the-color-blind/ . My take is that “color blind casting” is nonsense because YOUR WHOLE POST, and that color-conscious casting needs to be where we go. I think we need to continue this conversation until this kind of thing never happens again.

  5. What about the white guy auditioning for a role that was clearly created for a colleague of color? Where is his respect for his colleagues, for being an ally, for fighting for something in his profession that is bigger than he: increased opportunities for actors of color? It seems to me that as an actor, one must walk a fine line between expanding his/her acting capacities and respecting the fact that there are certain roles that are intended to be played by other actors. As white people, we often forget this (yes, I’m white), and as such commit (sometimes unintentional) acts of oppression, while taking full advantage of the privilege that comes with our skin color. I certainly can’t believe that this actor auditioned for this role because there are not enough roles for white people elsewhere. The abuse of privilege comes with serious consequences, including the degradation of his reputation. It’s hard enough to find roles for actors of color, let alone to have white actors take them…makes me think, regardless of whether or not it’s true, that he couldn’t get a role in the big pool of white roles, so he went for what appeared to be a shoe-in. White people have more opportunities = bigger resumes and bigger salaries, which often translates into a cycle of privilege and recognition, all the while closing the door to colleagues of color. Perhaps it’s time for the new tribal chief to read up on Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Links are below — you could add to her ever-growing list: “Auditioning for a role that is designated for a character of color and subsequently getting the role.” It’s abuse of privilege and nothing more.
    http://www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf & http://www.deanza.edu/faculty/lewisjulie/White%20Priviledge%20Unpacking%20the%20Invisible%20Knapsack.pdf

    • This same question is being posed no Facebook, where a lively dialogue is happening. Is it the white actor’s fault?

      I don’t want to blame him, but as you suggest, he, along with the producers, made their decisions. And those decisions have repercussions that go beyond himself.

      Thank you for your thoughts and the links, which I will definitely share and look into.

      • As a white actor who IS sensitive to this stuff, one might argue that unless you’re Julia Roberts, you don’t choose your work, your work chooses you and even if it’s wearing a cat costume and licking the back of your hand you take the job because that means you will not get dropped.

      • To Drew,
        at certain level, you are right, you let the work comes to you. But you should see, this white actor applied first to the job, that’s not ” you don’t choose the work”. And THAT should be noted.

  6. I have to take issue with one point you make here: you say “A BNYT is not in the business of giving jobs to actors of color, they are in the business of theater, of entertainment.”

    I disagree. I think that by virtue of being a BNYT, one of a relatively small group of theaters that can consistently provide well-paid work for its actors, they do have a responsibility to give jobs to actors of color. I wouldn’t argue they need to start choosing their shows on the basis of how many minorities they can hire (Joe Dowling’s “tokenism is the worst thing you can do” fiasco at the Guthrie last season comes to mind), but when presented with the opportunity, I think it is on them to take it. There are fewer roles written for actors of color, period. Even fewer roles in BNYT-produced shows. While the actor who was cast is very funny and very talented, he has considerably more chances to show off his talents in any given season.

    And to pull this on a show ABOUT race just blows my mind. Perhaps point 14 is correct – Alex Timbers did just that in Bloody Bloody, though, and lots of people got mad in that instance. People should be getting mad about this.

    There are so many factors that go in to casting a show, I wouldn’t presume their reasoning. Maybe you really did blow that last callback. Maybe the actor who was cast really was just that good, or happens to have one particular quality they were looking for, what have you. But shouldn’t one of those factors be the chance to provide work for a largely underserved community? In my opinion (and admittedly, nobody asked), this is a missed opportunity to provide paid work for an evidently hard-working and talented actor of color in a role that seems to specifically call for it. Like NYTW casting a hearing actor in Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or FOX casting a an actor who can walk as the kid in the wheelchair on Glee, this is a sadly prioritized decision, and as you point out, I don’t think people would stand for it if the role was an African chief.

    Yes, the BNYT is “in the business of entertainment,” but I can’t imagine anyone would want to serve an audience for whom the show would be less entertaining with an apparently capable actor of color in the role.

  7. I appreciated this post.
    I don’t think you should consider BNYT a business. They are a non-profit organization, mostly dependent on charitable donations. Artistic institutions (like this) are supposed to make artistic decisions in the best interest of artistic integrity, and be free from the the influence bottom line profits. Whether or not you think they are or are not attempting to live up to this integrity (I, for one, do not) is a discussion point own it’s own.
    And (just throwing it out there): Should actors of any specificity have any sense of entitlement that the entertainment industry is going to look out for their best interest and offer them opportunities? Perhaps ideally. And I am utterly sympathetic to the sentiment above. But these entertainment institutions and businesses have no real obligation or incentive to act accordingly.

  8. A friend of “color” recently articulated to me that it was their observation that white people like to see the world as being post-racial, and in that view, shouldn’t casting be color blind?

    But that isn’t really the case, is it? There is still a “dominant” culture in this country, and it is caucasian, and that invariably means there are voices that are underserved, artistically and otherwise.

    I think every point you brought up is valid – and they do conflict with each other. There is more grey area, it seems, when it comes to artistic expression — in this case, the black and white of it is the opportunity missed; yours to play a part you’d found challenging and interesting, and their’s to draw from an under-represented pool of talent and artistry.

    • I am all about opportunities for all… First off, congrats to you on an amazing audition — seems like you impressed a lot of people through the process. Best of luck on getting cast after this blog post. I get your rant — I am an actor of color with very limited opportunities for roles — but hell, even when the Saigons & Flower Drums come to town, all of us flock to it and I still feel my chances are just as much as any other show. To expose the process, the people behind it and thinking you had it in the bag, but lost out to ::gasp:: a white actor… suddenly it’s an injustice? And it would be ok if a fellow brotha got it? In my perspective it’s terrible thinking to me. How amazing for Lea to breakthrough and play Eponine in Les Mis, J Elaine to play Lily St. Regis in Annie. Those are the breakthroughs and it was never about the color of their skin during that audition — it was about their talent. Half the time when I walk into an audition, a piece of me already thinks “well, I won’t get this because I’m Asian…” but when I turn that off, I get cast in roles I never thought would be mine.

      • Yes. If it had gone to a fellow brotha, I wouldn’t have written a blog.

        Like all actors, I get rejected more than I get cast; I know the drill, I’ve been doing it for 10 years. It’s not just about not getting cast. It’s about who was cast instead.

        If you feel that a white actor has just as much of a right to play this part, then no, no injustice was done.

        I tend to disagree.

    • I think it’s human nature, you can’t avoid it. People always picture their imagination with their own image. Deities in Asia looks like Asian local people. Jesus looks like Jewish people, and probably later looks more like Caucasian? White people will always feel everyone else should be like white people, isn’t it? You have to really have a strong mind to beat the subconsciousness with your own consciousness

  9. I’m sorry that you lost the part to a white guy. I don’t have the answers to your questions, but I did wonder why, if they cast a white guy to play the part of a savage, they didn’t cast a white guy to play the part of a woman.

  10. Reading this article fills me with great sadness, we have our first Black President, we have many strong and powerful people of color in many positions of influence and power, there seems to be more and more people who have become more open minded about everything. But then with things like this happening still, seems like with some things, the there are still pockets of resistance to this brave new world. My personal most worst casting choice that I have seen was Linda Hunt in the movie…”Year of Living Dangerously”

    Hope things gets better for the writer and I hope to see him in some bigger and better projects in the near future! Good Luck!!!

  11. Pingback: Permanency, Perception, and Identity | Academy of Meaning-Making and Observations

  12. sounds familiar, this happens over and over again in Hollywood as well. change is tough, things will change. keep chugging!

  13. Pingback: Wtf. | RachelLovesSunflowers

  14. I entirely sympathize with the issues that you bring up, and realize that the pool for actors of color is still too small and too cramped in stereotypes. On the other hand, I keep thinking, if in order to fight that, we say that “If a role was written with Asian features in mind, it must go to an Asian,” would that be the best logic? Wouldn’t that actually raise higher walls for actors of color wishing to play roles traditionally given to white actors? I do understand that “color-blind casting” in today’s world still has a long way to go, and may ‘colonize’ non-white roles while giving no benefits the other way around, but is that good enough reason to call for color-linear casting, something that may obstruct more open chances in the future? My understanding may indeed be faulty as I am not in the field myself, and live in a predominantly Asian country, but this is a point I still haven’t been able to answer myself, and would like to discuss. Thanks for reading!

    • Thanks for your comment. Here’s the thing that’s often missed in this color-blind casting debate: Roles for actors of color have been traditionally underrepresented (and misrepresented) in the US, both in theater and in film. I’m fine with white actors playing colored characters, but ONLY if I have an equal opportunity to be cast as a white character. And that’s not happening.

      That’s where the logic breaks down. Should white actors have access to both white characters AND colored characters, while I only have access to characters of color? Not only that, the number of roles that REQUIRE an actor of color are already minute compared with the roles for white actors. In essence, that’s taking a piece off of an already tiny piece of the pie.

      WE WANT SOME PIE. And when it’s supposed to be our piece, as tiny as it is, we want it. With ice cream.

      • I agree. I do think it was wrong to cast a white actor when they had the opportunity to have you. I also believe “color-blind” is a misnomer. We DO see color and pretending we don’t disrespects the culture, experiences, and realities that surround a person’s being.

  15. My sympathies, it’s not a fair world in any respect. Good for you for bringing attention to it. I’d like to think maybe the producer and the actor were just friends or someone was doing a favor for someone else, rather than it being racism. But you need to be able to get some pie. I hope you get a good part soon!

  16. I love your post. It does a lot of great work with race relations in the entertainment industry. I’m white, so I can’t really comment without sounding like a total d-bag. Instead I offer the words of the amazingly talented Beau Sia:

    Good luck!

    • Thanks for the the very funny video post.

      And you may be white, and you’re right, there’s a good chance that you’re going to sound like a d-bag, but I want to know what you have to say. That’s what’s missing from the conversation.

      This isn’t about Asians, this is about how we talk about race, and we can’t have one-sided conversation. So, how do you REALLY feel?

      • Well, I think if he’s a great actor and a possible name draw-business wise it’s the wright choice. It adds a beautiful irony to a piece intent on ripping down the system. Like icing on the cake.

        Should you be upset? Perhaps. I think as an actor today every rejection would be hard to handle (like writers). Artists are feelin’ the pain all over.

        Should you be upset because you lost to white guy? I don’t know. Can you honestly answer how you would feel if you lost to an Asian, who might be a better actor than you? If you could you swallow it easier, what’s the real trouble? (Not that you would find it easier, just floatin’ around questions to think about.)

        I think it’s a bummer you didn’t get the part-because I think it’s a bummer when anyone has to face that, but is there something new coming for which you might need to be available? Is it really that insulting to lose out to a great talent? Isn’t rejection all part of the audition system?

        Does it really reflect poorly on you at all?

        I have a feeling it doesn’t. I can send a a gazillion Nobel worth pieces out to the world, and get rejected for every one of them. Is it me? No. I can’t always tell what the market wants. Does the audience want to see a white guy in the part more than and Asian? Highly unlikely. They just want to escape for 2 hours, they don’t care about the details.

        I feel for you-it sucks to know you are worthy, and see shite get picked all around you. But again, it is never a reflection on your talent. Sometimes all we can do is just shrug our shoulders and get busy with something else. Take the boost you got from the first two auditions and run with it.

        Do I think we have racial problems all over. You betcha. But maybe we are so pushed into that thinking, that we miss what’s really going on. We create a problem where there isn’t one just to make ourselves feel better.

        Again, not assuming I am even close to being in the ballpark on this one. Just know that as a writer, I don’t give a damn about rejections. they don’t matter to my priorities, which are 1) walk my dog 2) walk my dog. I kinda keep it simple-it helps to eliminate all the questions so I can just focus on being awesome.

        My dog is giving me “Hurry Up!” face, so I’m hitting send without proof-reading. I’m not too worried, you’re pretty effing intuitive, so I know you’ll manage 😉

        • Thanks for your thoughts.

          This question has come up often: Isn’t acting all about rejection? What about if they cast a fellow Asian?

          Well, yes. I’ve been a professional actor for 10 years, and I’ve been rejected about 96.4 % of the time. I’m used to it. Most times, I forget my audition by the time I’m on the train and reading a book. I lose out on parts ALL THE TIME. I don’t blog about it, because it happens TOO often. Sometimes, I mourn for a day or two if it’s a big one. But this is different, because of who was eventually cast.

          I can honestly answer how I would feel if a fellow Asian was cast: I wouldn’t have written the blog. Plain and simple. If I lost the part to Broadway veteran Orville Mendoza or the incomparable Jojo Gonazalez, I would’ve bought a ticket by now. I’m not mad because I wasn’t cast. This is about the choice the theater made, and why they made it, and what it means that they made it. It means they believe that yellow face or brown face, whatever you want to call it, is okay in 2013.

          And I’m simply saying: it’s NOT.

          • Then I’m glad you came forward and wrote about it. it is good to keep this discussion on the table. Thank you for sharing 🙂

            And perhaps don’t rule out being a writer!

        • I don’t know… imagine if you sent in a work you were proud of, and the publisher said, “We love it, but we’d rather you have an Asian sounding name. We think it will market better. And we’re going to put a picture of this Asian guy on the cover.”

      • I’m actually replying to “This is about the choice the theater made, and why they made it, and what it means that they made it. It means they believe that yellow face or brown face, whatever you want to call it, is okay in 2013. And I’m simply saying: it’s NOT.” as apparently they will only allow the comments to nest so deep.

        Are they actually going to use yellowface or is he going to look white? That would be putrid. If they’re going to cast a white guy they need to have the courage of their decision and have it out there on stage that he’s a white guy.

        As a theatregoer, I’ve started making the choice that if I know a play is going to use inappropriate face, or that they are casting whites in obviously non-white roles, I don’t go. (Not sure if I would have given Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 a pass if I had known there’s a black character specifically written to be played by a white actor, but I didn’t know, and in retrospect I can sort of see the logic. The same theatre was also doing August Wilson’s Seven Guitars at the same time, which I also saw, so there were plenty of roles for African American actors. But Cloud 9 still felt odd to watch for that reason.)

        I’m a white playwright trying to write good roles for actors of color, and I’m starting to write forbidding of [whatever]-face into my scripts.

        I presume in a production, I would only have yes-or-no say in casting. Right now, I’m in the process of developing a play, and the producer has been very open to my casting suggestions.

        The play in question calls for one monoracial actor of color, three biracial actors and one other monoracial actor, any color. For my upcoming reading, that last monoracial actor happens to be South Asian, because she hit the right notes for that character in her audition, but that character is supposed to share a race with one of the biracial actors, which I think she doesn’t (although I actually can’t tell the mix of two of the biracial actors and I don’t want to be rude and ask).

        But my actual struggle is that the monoracial actor of color is ideally indigenous American and I haven’t developed the contacts or done more than a few queries to be able to find such an actor. I’ve re-cast an Asian American actor in the role because she so totally nailed it on the previous reading. Some lines in the play do change if the actor is not indigenous, so it’s not redface, but I still feel awkward about it and that I could have done more to find a young, female indigenous actor.

        I like to think that were I involved with a theatre that had resources, I’d have better luck finding an indigenous actor who doesn’t look mixed, let alone any indigenous actor. As an unproduced (in full-length work, at any rate) playwright with no MFA, that’s not quite open to me at this point. Still, I regret having not tried harder.

        • I’m not certain how the production will ultimately solve their Caucasian actor playing this role. The fact that the play is set in England, this ‘tribal chief’ would not seem so exotic if he was just white. Stage directions indicate he’ll be covered in blue paint, which I guess would cover his skin, so that no one would even KNOW he was white. Except you. And me. And anyone else who has read this blog.

          Or, who knows, maybe they’re going to give him one helluva tan.

  17. I enjoyed reading your post as well as the comments. Maybe you were too young? too good looking for the part? (As a minority myself, I know we tend to go to the obvious.) I agree with some of the comments—you are a very good writer, very funny and thoughtful, and you should write a part for yourself!

  18. I could never be an actor and especially couldn’t be an Asian actor. Performing in front of anyone makes me un easy! Isn’t this the case for most?

  19. Ridiculous and highly disappointing. Yes, they’re in the business of making money, but sometimes the reasonable long-shot turns out to be more profitable than the “just business” decision. Idealistic me wants to believe they made the choice without race in mind. But sometimes, maybe race should be in mind? as you said, would an African chief be cast as a white guy, or a white guy be chosen to play an Indian in a classic Wester–dang it, Depp!

    • I think the whole situation just remind people of the era in history that all actors are white male, and they have to use shoe-shine on their face to play black characters. And during those times, they don’t even allowed black actors to be exist.

  20. Bless you, Bless you, Bless you for speaking out. I am half Japanese. Born in Japan and spent my childhood in Japan. When white men are in charge of any endeavor, you know you have achieved true integration when men of color are cast in leading romantic roles with no attempt to “explain” or “rationalize” their race. I am an aspiring actress, and have experienced the same limitations of race in other ways. Because I am half, I tend to be generically ethnic, so people don’t know how to cast me. I once went to a casting call for Japanese people and was told I didn’t look “Japanese” enough. Acting is a tough business. Stay strong. The only way it will change is if we keep making our presence felt.

  21. This is more than just your issue. This is the issue facing all minorities in film, theater, and entertainment in general. Thank you for your post, hopefully this will open someone’s eyes. I for one am tired of stereotyping as well as parts being given to people who shouldn’t have them i.e johnny depp playing a native american, Bane (latino) being played by tom hardy, Mandarin is clearly chinese but a british actor plays him, yet they go out of their way to make sure Captain america is American and recast a guy who already played a character in marvel to play him, while the internet is up in arms over the guy who replaces him in that role possibly being black. Oh and everyone’s still pissed about Sam jackson. But the majority gets all the roles even the ones MADE for minorities its mind blowing.

  22. First I want to thank you for your clear and thoughtful post about a situation that I wouldn’t have been able to be so coherent about. Second, I call shenanigans on that theater company. If they were indeed going for that uber ironic post-racial whatsis thingy – the description of the character would have included that they were specifically looking for a white person to play it. Or maybe things have changed since my fleeting brush with acting in Los Angeles in the mid 90’s. I would go for all the “Black Chick” roles or any female roles that didn’t mention race, but they usually did.

    At anyrate, either they realized what they wanted to do ahead of time, and should have been clear about it, and saved you wasting your time and having to go through what you did, or they decided to go white last minute when Irish McWhitedude showed up to audition – Mr. Privilege himself; Or they knew him from his impressive resume and had called him outright to come in and audition, and left the description as-is with no intention of casting an Asian actor. Much shenanigans going on either way, and I’m so very sorry you got caught up in it.

    This sort of thing makes me sick at heart, because I know – I can feel it in my BONES – there was something most definitely Not Right going on. And what makes this whole thing so utterly hard to reconcile or even deal with even as elegantly as you have, is the nature of the beast itself. Acting. Auditions. Characters. Roles. Without racial shenanigans going on, you never can tell, and rarely ever do find out why you didn’t get cast in something.

    I also wanted to comment about the whole color-blind casting thing. It is actually called non-traditional casting, because it is also supposed to include gender. When there is a role where race or gender is not germane to the character, then casting people need to think out of the white male box and “cast” a wider net. From leading roles on down to the extras. What kills me is that character and the description, and really the point of and the meaning behind the whole play in general specifically called for an Asian actor and they… just.. couldn’t even do THAT.

    • Thanks for your thoughts.

      To your point about the nature of the beast, the industry, yes. I did an interview for a Filipino news channel yesterday, and the interviewer asked me if there as some body out there that I could reach out to, and fight this decision. File some sort of ‘wrongfully not cast’ suit.

      Of course, such a thing doesn’t exist, and I told him, it wouldn’t be right is such a body existed. Once we start having power over the decisions that a producer or writer or director makes, we restrict artistic freedom, and that’s a slippery slope.

      This is isn’t about telling the BNYT what they should have done. This isn’t even about me lobbying for the role. This is about telling them, and everyone, that casting decisions MATTER; that people DO notice; that they may unknowingly be part of the problem, and not the solution; that they need to take a closer look at their goals as artists and theater makers.

  23. Hey there,

    Hope I don’t get mental eggs thrown at me here. I loved this post, and sincerely sorry you didn’t get the part. I loved how you gave the material the benefit of the doubt, went in there and gave it your best each time.

    Those two actions I sincerely believe karmically will bring you some strong parts.

    I’m understanding something very special from your post, and therefore want to thank-you for writing it. I’m understanding that some of the people that audition for a part may have a very deep and soulful connection to the material and that in the audition process it is important to stay attuned to that. Reason being, I believe a film or play attracts those who are meant to move something forward by being a part of it. This is too difficult to be some universal accident where you are simply casting people that occur.

    So for me, it’s a lesson in paying attention and taking in people’s reasons if they’re there besides auditioning for the next role from whatever breakdowns?
    Not that simply auditioning for the next part and your project being that is bad, happy accidents can be wonderful. Only that there is something else available.

    But you know, we’re all learning. Whether you’re a director or producer that has been doing this for 20 years, or two. And when you’re putting together any project there are so many voices that need to be empowered and considered that sometimes, pure talent gets buried. Best wishes for finding more of these stories in which you believe and where the actor isn’t bound to get buried under say ticket sales or producer suggestion etc, etc.,

    • Thanks for your thoughts and words of encouragement.

      As an actor who has been at this racket longer than I have said to me:

      “Nothing was taken from you. You will get the roles that you are meant to get.”

  24. I thought acting was being something you’re NOT. AND if this guy was a “name” then it was probably a business decision. Stop whining. You’re a pretty good writer. Write a play for your specific racial group and write in a role for yourself. That’ll show ’em. As for an earlier comment about casting an able bodied person to play a paraplegic in glee, well, see my first comment. Should theatres get an actor who is deaf, blind, and mute to play Helen Keller?

    • Pansy, There is a simple answer to your question, “Should theatres get an actor who is deaf, blind, and mute to play Helen Keller?”

      The answer is yes.

      While you may not realize this, there is an extremely talented pool of Deaf, DeafBlind, and hard of hearing actors who would *jump* at the opportunity to play a role created in the likeness of their community. Not only that, they’d do a damn fine job of playing said role, too. Who can better relate with what it’s like to learn everything through touch? Who could better understand how to accurately use and manipulate, for theatrical purposes, American Sign Language? How could someone who grew up relating to the world through their eyes and ears unlearn an entire childhood and adolescence worth of conditioning and experiences? Who could better captivate the audience with the brutal, raw truth of the interdependent relationships with caretakers, friends, family, interpreters, and support service providers?

      If you, or anyone reading this, thinks that you, in your infinite acting proweress and capacity, could do a better job at authentically portraying the role of a DeafBlind woman, shame on you. Shame on your selfishness and abuse of hearing-sighted privilege.

      Being a part of an organization and of a profession, and a member of humanity, our plight for excellence has to be about more than just us. When hearing and sighted people don’t audition for the role of Helen Keller, guess what happens? Talented DeafBlind actors get the chance to show the world what they’re made of, and to burst the bubble of every well-meaning patron who thought that DeafBlind people were a burden, or unable to be excellent, or less-than-them.

      There is such great potential in inaction. Every white, hearing, sighted, and able-bodied person should try it once in awhile.

    • Acting IS about transformation.

      Just for the record, I am NOT a native tribal chief. The only tribe I belong to includes my wife and daughter, and they can tell you, I am NOT the chief. I, unlike the role, speak a little more than a few words of English, don’t have any tattoos and have lived in America since 1986. So, I’d have to do a bit of transforming myself if I had gotten this role.

      But you’re saying, why can’t the white actor play a tribal chief? The truth is, he can. In fact, he may play one very well. But there are a few problems with that:

      1) That’d be fine, if I’m allowed to play white characters. If I ever play anyone named Billy O’Neill, I’ll let you know.

      2) The track record of white actors playing colored characters isn’t great. White actors seem to only MAKE FUN of the race they are playing, when they play another race. Google: blackface, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. They often fall into stereotype, and once their performance is viewed, the stereotype is further supported.

      Stereotypes affect all races. If we always see an alcoholic Irish cop on TV, eventually we’re going to think all cops are Irish, or all Irish people are alcoholics, or all cops are alcoholic.

      Acting is about transformation, but isn’t also about EXPRESSION? When actors get to play something in closer proximity to themselves, there is a greater chance for naunce, for variation, and hopefully, for dignity.

      The tradition of white actors playing characters of color have been disappointing at best, and downright disgusting at its very worst.

      3) There are SO FEW roles available to actors of color as it is. Should those very few roles also be available to white actors, who have infinitely more roles available to THEM? As I said before, we already have a very small piece of the pie. And when it’s our piece, we want it.

      And to your last question: Should theaters get an actor who is deaf, blind and mute to play Hellen Keller? Abso-freaking-lutely! Can you IMAGINE that production? Can you imagine the depths of emotion that actor would be able to bring to the stage? Hellen Keller was able to read and write. I have no doubt in my mind there is deaf-mute actor out there DYING to play Hellen Keller. And one day, she will. Until then, there are growing numbers of theaters by and for the disabled that are showing us that they deserve a piece of the pie too.

  25. “Am I just being too sensitive again? Am I just being the bitter actor who didn’t get the part?” I hate to say it, but yes. WHICH IS TOTALLY FINE. First of all: no one deserves a part in theatre/film anymore. You know that. That’s a thought we leave in high school. Second: You have to keep on trucking. Who cares that someone got a role you didn’t? That means now you get a whole slew of new opportunity to work with! Who knows what doors that freedom of not being in that show opens up. Third: Stop worrying about the racial problems that are practically uncontrollable. If you want to stand up to this, write plays that include “diverse” (whatever that word means) people and cast them. Make an artistic uprising that will leak into the mainstream thought. Theatre can be anywhere. AKA Found spaces. FOURTH AND MOST IMPORTANT: If you really want to act, if it’s your passion, you gotta just push through the hard times and not hang on the bitterness of one experience. That DESTROYS an actor’s carrier. No matter what the race. Focus on your craft and it will pull through, but just like ANYONE, you might have to go through five hundred auditions before you get to one. We go through slow times sometimes. It’s okay. The fact that you’re following this path at all is just already amazing. Keep going, bud. Don’t let one missed opportunity blind you from seeing every new opportunity in front of you.

    • No he’s not being too sensitive. At all. This isn’t about not getting any role. As the OP has said, he’s experienced this plenty of times, as all actors do. This is about the warped view that this particular producer has of how to cast a role where race is not incidental. Each time a white person is cast in a non-white role, an opportunity to create a level playing field for ALL actors is diminished. We should kick up a fuss, that is how things change. Burying your head in the sand changes NOTHING. In the short term, it may be better to keep quiet and toe the line, but really your doing yourself, nor your colleagues (including white colleagues) no favours. I read that you’re a supportive person, and want the OP to do well. But there’s a point where ignoring the REAL problem errodes your self esteem and it needs to be addressed, and need to place the blame where it belongs.

      • Speaking of heads in the sand, the website for this production has a picture of an OSTRICH with a top hat on. I can’t make this stuff up.

        I guess it’s supposed to point to the ignorance of 19th century explorers, but whose head is REALLY in the sand here?

    • What if Rosa Parks had been told, just endure a little longer, just go sit in the back. She raised her ‘ voice,’ and it had a ripple effect that brought change. To say the writer is being “to sensitive” is ridiculous, it’s because he is sensitive to the injustice, that he is writing, and bringing awareness,by speaking up, by being true to his voice. To be silent, and ‘take it’ is to just move to the back of the bus.Now that is ridiculous!, To pat him on the back and tell him to ‘take it a little longer buddy’,one day your ship will come in. Sounds like the condescending “Skipper”, But Gilligan is dead. And it’s about time to get off this Island, and if our voices carry we will.

  26. Q: Speaking of movies, would this casting choice be made in a movie?
    A: Johnny Depp as Tonto.
    So, yeah, probably. Don’t get me wrong, I love Johnny Depp. But Tonto? Why? I’m pretty sure they could have found a Native American actor if they’d tried even a little.

    • Gail–Johnny Depp has self-identified as Native American (Cherokee via his great-grandmother) for many years and was recently officially adopted by the tribe. Hence, Tonto–I believe he lobbied for the role. And yes, I’ve noticed similar dodgy casting choices being made in the films. I mean, just Google the discussion on The Last Airbender and “race-bending” or the film 21 about a group of mostly Asian MIT students (the film version only had 2 Asians).

  27. I’m a Filipina-American director/playwright. I laughed through your blog, then I cried because I don’t have any straight answers for you–just return questions like “Why is the director of Here Lies Love not Filipino/a?” or “When will we see the production of Here Lies Love directed by a Filipino/a and if we do, how will it be received?” My answer tends to be–come on over to Vegas and let’s find a show we can do together. Meahwhile, may I please tweet a link to this blog? Thanks!

  28. I haven’t read everyone’s comments here.

    This eternal problem is eternally old. Don’t give up acting goals, just have another passion-gift-job on the side too. You’re more than just the actor.

  29. I really enjoyed your piece, nicely written and I think a very valid topic… It’s deeply frustrating, I agree, and I suspect the reasons are based mainly on greed (ticket sales) and perhaps as has been mentioned kinda already – maybe they were worried the audience might feel embarrassed by your presence, uncomfortable, and a white guy would be less provocative. Which is stupid because that undermines the intelligence of the audience and detracts from the strong message the play was supposed to convey, right? Who knows, I’m just sorry for you and the public, really … (Who wants to see a white guy playing a tribal chief?)
    2013 – the world still full of doubt and fear… sad really.
    I wish you luck – hope you get a great role soon based entirely NOT on the colour of your skin 🙂

  30. Pingback: Check This Out | Asian Talent Online

  31. Pingback: https://whitetribalchief.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/the-story/ | Asian Talent Online

  32. All good questions! Especially #s 7 and 14. Sorry you didn’t get the part. Boooooooooooooooooooooooooo….. It’s like that time I didn’t make the cheer squad back in the eighties, when I thought I had the captain spot in the bag. So dumb, who cares, but I didn’t even make the squad. Some girls who were, uh, not as, uh, cheerleadery as I was made it, though. I later found out that one of the tryout judges was from an opposing team. OOOOH! Maybe there is some behind the scenes sabotage going on? You weren’t chosen BECAUSE you were so good for the part, and someone out there in power wants the play to fail! Or, maybe you weren’t chosen because you are supposed to be a writer – not an actor. 😉

  33. Great post. Re whether anyone would cast a white guy as an African tribesman in a comedy toying satirically with race and colonialism, that needn’t be a hypothetical question. As I recall, the white guys were played by whites and the Africans played by blacks in Book of Mormon. And I think it would have been a bit odd otherwise.

  34. The only thing I have really come to know in this life is that it’s best not to ask “why” as it’s simply better to know that everything happens for a reason. I have a feeling that you were destined for bigger things than this part…Just my opinion of course but when we ask why, we waste precious time looking for answers that we may never find or actually want to know. Better just to keep moving in the forward direction and know that the best is yet to come 😉

  35. you need to separate two distinct issues, which you’ve lumped together:

    1) ethnic appearance or even gender matter not when casting a play or film. a variety of people can do the same job equally well, despite being completely different from the character they are supposed to portray. that’s what an actor does.

    2) it does seem that you have been treated unfairly by your profession. because as an actor, you could be playing “white” characters. and you should be offered a chance to audition for those roles, no less than “white” actors.

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