Where Are The Asians In La Jolla Playhouse’s The Nightingale?

Within the Asian American theater and entertainment community, a huge uproar is in the air after the announcement was made on who the cast members were for La Jolla Playhouse‘s The Nightingale, a musical set in feudal China. This came to light for many APA folks in the community after actress Erin Quill released her biting article aptly titled “Moises Kaufman can kiss my ass and here’s why,” in where she is bewildered by the majority of the cast members being non-Asians and where the emperor of China is played by a white dude.

In defense of the casting for the Hans Christian Andersen fable, Christopher Ashley, the playhouse’s artistic director, said in a statement:

“It was our intention from the onset to create a multicultural cast in a reinterpretation of this Hans Christian Andersen classic fable, blending East and West, past and present”

Duncan Sheik, one of the writers for the show, responded by arguing that The Nightingale isn’t really about the Asian culture, and then went on to explain that Andersen’s purpose was “writing a satire of the West, and setting it in China.”

There are plenty of articles about this with all similar POV’s that the casting of non-Asians in an otherwise Asian setting (even if it is mythical) is completely absurd and I can’t say it any more eloquently than what Diep Tran said in his article or in Erin’s article previously mentioned earlier. As an Asian American actor, I believe it is important to be aware of the lack of roles for Asians, and if there are, it is only for the co-star bits, the small supporting roles that studios deem safe to give out to. But when it comes to leading roles, the question of monetary return in terms of whether or not audience members want to see Asians in those positions looms in the uncertain air. It becomes that much more frustrating then, that when there are material that require Asian people, even if it’s mythical or not, are pushing away Asian/Asian American actors.

But for the sake of trying something different, I want to see it from, lack of better words, the white people’s point of view. Mind you, I do not agree with it whatsoever, but for the sake of being the devil’s advocate, let’s try something here. The director, writers, and the playhouse artistic director all argue in the same manner that because it is a tale that was written by a man who never even set foot in China and thus it being a mythical place with no basis on reality, then it is safe to cast actors who are not Asians. By actually casting Asians in the play, it reinforces that these fantastical perceptions of Chinese folks are that much more tied to that of reality. Within that argument, I can start to see why it makes more sense to not cast Asians (even though there are two Asian American actors in the cast, one of them being a Filipina.)

But I am curious to know if the folks behind the show intentionally excluded Asians from even being considered in the leading roles or if there were a lack of (good) Asian actors that showed up or a myriad of reasons that we may never know. Although this will soon change as the playhouse will be holding a panel discussion on July 22nd in San Diego and any questions of the casting process will soon be put to rest, if all goes well.

To conclude this article, I must admit that I have never seen nor read The Nightingale so I am uncertain whether Andersen’s depictions of Asians are even remotely true or if it even matters. I leave it up to you and see what you guys think. Have any of you read or seen the musical? In the world of theater, should people have the artistic liberty to do whatever they want? What do you think about the casting controversy?

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About Edward

Edward Hong is an actor and spoken poet. Passion to make a change in this world through the performing arts and activism defines his ongoing life and it is the struggle against all things unjust that gives him this passion to be one heck of a talkative, stubborn man. It, however, does not mean he strives to be a champion or role model of any community but to be the man who will be honest and say the things nobody will have the balls to say. He is the jester who is outspoken in what he believes in most passionately and therefore cannot be pinpointed that he will do what you expect him to do.
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