David Henry Hwang (1992)
I think one of the big problems, ultimately, in the efforts towards cultural diversity in the theater is whether the white establishment is willing to give up control. There have been a lot of well-meaning people, a lot of people trying to do things, but if you look at the administrative staffs of theaters, the decision-makers there, nothing much has changed with them. As a result, tokenism remains far too prevalent.
Further, when you look at these theaters from the point-of-view of the changing demographics of our country — with the Caucasian population becoming part of a plurality and no longer the majority — it is clear we are facing an artistic apartheid situation, in which a minority effectively controls the cultural expression of all the other groups. Now, I don’t expect change to happen overnight. I appreciate that it takes time. But, I wonder, if there were more people of color in administrative positions, decision-making positions, what weight these efforts at diversity would be given.
In this context, I think the notion of “blind-casting” has often been misconstrued, even misused. When whites say they are all for actors of color playing any role, so long as they can be cast in August Wilson plays, that is missing the crux of the issue. It’s like Patrick Buchanan saying that he is for a non-racist society, but wanting to do away with affirmative action before its effects have been fully felt. I understand that for some it is confusing to see people of all different cultures in a family in a play, but that’s something we can get used to — like seeing Warner Olin as Charlie Chan and Key Luke as Number One Son, which for Asians was very confusing. Theater is a metaphor, after all. Or is supposed to be.
Eventually, we should reach a point where Jonathan Pryce can play Asian without causing a protest, but only if James Earl Jones can play Italian and B. D. Wong can play a Jew. Before that can happen, actors, really all of us, must become more culturally sensitive. If I am a white person “playing black,” what does that mean?
This is what I am interested in as a writer, which I guess has come somewhat from the Miss Saigon fracas. When we try to play race, what does that mean? What are the racial mythologies that influence us?
For instance, in my new one-act play, Bondage, which has just been staged at Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, I have one actress playing Asian, Caucasian, and Black — but she’s head-to-toe in leather, so we don’t know what her race actually is. How is she treated differently in the different characters? How do others respond differently to her? Face Value, my new Broadway play, is a farce based on mistaken racial identity, in the way that farces traditionally have been based on mistaken gender identities.
In short, what is the ultimate meaning of race and how do we represent that on stage? Or, in other words, what is the value of one’s face? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m intrigued by the questions.
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