Clarion University forced to cancel play over actors’ race
November 12, 2015 12:00 AM
Clarion University students rehearse a scene from “Jesus in India” before the production, originally scheduled to run Nov. 18-22, was canceled.
By Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Student actors and the stage crew at Clarion University arrived Tuesday evening for one of the final rehearsals before next week’s campus opening of “Jesus in India” only to learn the off-Broadway production they had spent months on had been canceled.
The reason they were given was race: theirs.
Three of the five characters in the production are Indian, but on the mostly white state university campus, two of those characters were to be played by white student actors and a third was being portrayed by a mixed-race student.
Lloyd Suh, the playwright, told the university through his literary agent Monday that he was uncomfortable with any notion that he supported Caucasians portraying Indian characters in his play, said Bob Levy, chairman of the visual and performing arts department at Clarion.
“He felt they should be of Asian descent,” Mr. Levy said Wednesday.
The Korean-American playwright wanted the parts recast, Mr. Levy said, and ultimately pulled the university’s right to stage the production after being told that finding Asian replacements was not practical given the play was to open next Wednesday on a campus in rural northwestern Pennsylvania where Asian or Pacific Islander students account for 0.7 of 1 percent of the university’s 5,368 students.
The mixed-race actor was not of Asian descent, Mr. Levy said. He said the Indian characters portrayed by the non-Indians are Gopal, Sushil and Mahari.
Clarion officials said Mr. Suh declined their offers to give him a page in the program to say why Asian actors should have been used and to have a university representative give a “stage speech” on why no such actors were in the cast.
The students had rehearsed their parts six days a week since early October, with each session running 2½ to 3 hours, Mr. Levy said. They and nearly two dozen other student crew members involved in the play were affected.
“They were stunned,” said Marilouise “Mel” Michel, a Clarion professor of theater and the play’s director, of the reaction when she informed the cast. She said one actress “burst into tears.”
Mr. Suh declined to comment Wednesday through his literary agent, Beth Blickers. She would only say: “There are several characters of color for which there were not available appropriate actors and so it was decided that the production should not proceed.”
The performances that were to be staged in the Marwick-Boyd Little Theatre were a musical version of Mr. Suh’s 2013 off-Broadway play. Clarion described it as a coming-of-age musical. Mr. Levy said decisions about race and ethnicity in casting depend on the importance and relevance to the production. Auditions are open to the entire campus, he said.
Ms. Michel said the playwright’s agent, on Mr. Suh’s behalf, inquired about the cast makeup last spring, but the agent did not specify an Asian preference and was told casting had not occurred. Mr. Suh subsequently was unavailable to discuss the production, she said. Ms. Michel and Mr. Levy said they were unaware of any need to be racially specific, and that Mr. Suh himself has spoken of the play’s “universality.”
But in an email from the playwright that Ms. Michel received Monday and shared with the Post-Gazette, Mr. Suh told her the roles were written for South Asian actors and said, “The play is called JESUS IN INDIA. India is not irrelevant.”
Below is the email:
■ ■ ■
Dear Ms. Michel,
I received your response to Beth Blickers’ query concerning the casting in your production of my play JESUS IN INDIA at Clarion. As you well know by now, I have severe objections to your use of Caucasian actors in roles clearly written for South Asian actors, and consider this an absolutely unacceptable distortion of the play.
I consider your assertion that the ethnicity of the characters are not “specified for purposes of the plot/story/theme” outrageous. The play is called JESUS IN INDIA. India is not irrelevant, and I take great issue with the insinuation that you (not the author) are entitled to decide whether the ethnicity of a character is worthy of consideration.
Your citing of “color blind casting” as an excuse for selecting white actors to portray non-white characters is a gross misunderstanding of the practice, and denies the savage inequities that exist in the field at large for non-white performers, both in professional and educational settings.
I have received your further message detailing the poor statistics at Clarion in matters of racial diversity. I contend that by producing this play in this way, you are contributing to an environment of hostility towards people of color, and therefore perpetuating the lack of diversity at Clarion now and in the future.
You may argue that because you are a university and not a professional theater, that you should not be held to the same standards of cultural responsibility as the rest of society. I strongly believe otherwise, and maintain that professional training programs have a duty to prepare students for actual theater practice. That practice includes the rigorous cultural conversation present in the field at large; to excuse your students from that work is to woefully underprepare them for the realities of the profession.
Perhaps you are somehow unaware of the ongoing conversation on these issues that have been occurring in the American theater for decades. In order to provide an introductory context, I will direct you here:
You should know that what you are doing is connected to a very painful history of egregious misrepresentation and invisibility, and is incredibly hurtful. Hurtful to a community for whom opportunity and visibility is critical, and also extremely hurtful to me personally as a flippant denial of Asian heritage as a relevant and valid component of one's humanity.
It hurts me to my core. I couldn’t stop myself from crying when I saw the photos and realized what was happening. It is embarrassing, humiliating, and demoralizing to be so casually disregarded.
I therefore insist that you immediately (1) recast the play with ethnically appropriate actors, or (2) shut down the production entirely.
It is incumbent upon me, professionally, personally and morally, to distance myself from this production, and condemn the way it has been cast. I hope you are able to adjust your plans accordingly so that I don’t have to make any public declarations against it and pursue other further action in order to make this right.
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