Controversy over theaters that don't cast actors to match characters' ethnicities

Christopher Zara, International Business Times, 7/14/12

La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego set off a social-media firestorm over the casting of its upcoming production of The Nightingale. Although the Hans Christian Andersen tale is set in Feudal China, the cast contains few Asian actors. La Jolla's artistic director, Christopher Ashley, [defended] the casting choices: "Hans Christian Andersen was writing a satire of the West, and setting it in China. It's not about Asia. What's really important to the piece is to have completely colorblind casting." But some members of the local theater community were not convinced, igniting the blogosphere with ire. "If you didn't want any Asian people in your show, you should have set it somewhere else," wrote one angry blogger. "Nobody would have cared if you decided to set it in Generic White City, because that's what we've come to expect in our entertainment." "This is a professional theater with a budget and access to any and every Asian-American actor in the country," ranted another. "It boasts a director of international fame and a writing team that has won Tony Awards -- all they had to do was say, "Hey, this show is set in China. Let's cast some Asians up in here." Such impassioned responses have touched upon an ongoing debate in the casting world over the often-blurry line between artistic license and offensive stereotype. While few would argue for a return to the days of Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," some worry that the rights of directors to be able to interpret a show in their own way are being toppled in the wake of political correctness run amok. At the same time, it's difficult to dismiss the missed opportunities for minority actors when important roles reflecting their own heritage are given to actors of a different race. Last year, when Hartford's TheaterWorks produced Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherf**ker With the Hat, it cast two white actors in roles written for Latinos. The decision provoked criticism from the playwright himself, prompting the theater's artistic director, Steve Campo, to write a letter to The New York Times defending his decision.


Lucy Liu on racial controversy over her casting in a new Sherlock TV series, 7/15/12

Over the last several months, many people in the Sherlock Holmes fandom have been very upset that Lucy Liu is playing (Joan) Watson in the CBS modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, "Elementary". Understand that this is a modern adaptation that cannot fully resemble the current Sherlock Holmes films nor the current BBC TV series due to certain legal issues. Essentially, the fandom is upset because Watson is Asian and a woman - especially the Asian part. At Comic Con, Lucy Liu responded to the racial controversy: "I mean the thing is, when you go into anything everyone has an opinion. And when we did 'Charlie's Angels,' everyone was like 'This is going to be a huge flop, this is a disaster, this is a mistake.' And all I could think about was, 'Wow this is amazing,' because they've cast an Asian person as one of the Angels, and when I was growing up it was the idea that it was all Caucasian. So that was, for me, like, 'who cares about anything else'? And for me this time it's about that Watson is a female. And a lot of people who are of ethnic background have come up to me and said, It's so great that you're playing Watson and you're representing a big, you know, minority section of actors and people in the world."


Commentary: Multi-racial Streetcar revival stirs controversy on the Great White Way

Olympia Duhart, Professor of Law at Nova Southeastern University, Huffington Post, 6/19/12

At its core, A Streetcar Named Desire is a story about culture clash and self-deception. In the play's recent revival on Broadway, cultural differences and self-deception have also emerged among some critics who have expressed resentment about the multiracial cast members who offer their own portrayal of the dysfunctional New Orleans family depicted in the play. "I am astounded that we are even having this conversation now," said Blair Underwood, who is the first African-American man to star in a Broadway production of Streetcar. "This play has been done with a black cast since the 1950s. This is the first time we are doing it on Broadway. As an artist I want to be able to do it all." The New Yorker's drama critic John Lahr set the tone last December when he called for "no more infernal all-black productions of Tennessee Williams plays unless we can have their equal in folly: all-white productions of August Wilson." Talk about culture clash and self-deception. "As we embark upon this conversation in the African-American artistic world, I think it is important to stress that this is not necessarily the majority of the white audience," Underwood said. "This is just a faction. We have made tremendous strides in this country. While we have a lot of support for A Streetcar Named Desire, unfortunately, there is a small, vocal group concerned about the casting." Lahr and other critics of the talented multiracial Streetcar cast demonstrate the clash between cultures remains -- even in our so-called "post-racial" world. It also evinces that self-deception -- particularly the persistent mythology of white exceptionalism -- is as relevant today as it ever was.


Spike Lee on the dearth of roles for black actors in mainstream films

Excerpt of an interview from New York Magazine's Vulture blog, 7/8/12

It does seem like you feud with other filmmakers a lot. You criticized Clint Eastwood for not having more black soldiers in his World War II films.
SPIKE LEE: I was not saying it for myself, though. I had been in dialogue with black Marines who were there. Clint Eastwood was not the first to whitewash war, either. People of color have a constant frustration of not being represented, or being misrepresented, and these images go around the world. There are exceptions, like Laurence Fishburne in Apocalypse Now, Forest Whitaker in Platoon. The first person who died for this country in the American Revolution was a black man. From the Civil War, you can probably put Glory in there.

Though, of course, that was told through the eyes of a white character.
SPIKE LEE: Yeah, that's a whole other thing, but we'll let that go for now. But there has been a total omission of the contribution of African-Americans in the defense of this country for democracy. It's crazy. George Lucas had been trying to make Red Tails for twenty years, and no studio would make it, so he goes off and says, "I am going to finance this one myself." What did they tell him? "We do not know how to market this." I am not making it up. People would not even show up to the screening. That is where the frustration comes.

[Do you think] black cinema is worse than it was twenty years ago?
SPIKE LEE: There was more variety of subject matter back then. I think it showed more depth to the African-American experience. Hollywood can make a certain type of film when it comes to black folks. Like, Think Like a Man. That film made a ton of money, so I know that they are probably writing the sequel at this moment.

Kind of the Tyler Perry syndrome.
SPIKE LEE: I would not call it a syndrome. Thing is, those box-office numbers prove there is an audience for those films. Yet, at the same time, I think there is an audience that would like to see something else. At this moment, those other films have to be made outside the Hollywood studio system. This comes down to the gatekeepers, and I do not think there is going to be any substantial movement until people of color get into those gatekeeper positions of people who have a green-light vote. That is what it comes down to. We do not have a vote, and we are not at that table when it is decided what gets made and what does not get made. Whether it is Hollywood films, network or cable television, we are not there. When I first started making films and I would have Hollywood meetings -- and I know this for a fact -- they would bring black people out of the mailroom to be in the meeting.

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