East West Players (EWP) led a candid discussion on race politics in the American theatre on Monday, October 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm PDT/5:00 pm EDT at East West Players David Henry Hwang Theater in Little Tokyo Los Angeles.

(L-R) Moderator Linda Oku; Artistic Directors Christopher Ashley/La Jolla Playhouse, Michael Ritchie/Center Theatre Group, Tim Dang/East West Players, Marc Masterson/South Coast Repertory, Sheldon Epps/Pasadena Playhouse discuss Asian American opportunities in theatre at East West Players, October 22, 2012.
Photo credit: Michael Palma

The panel consisted of the artistic directors of four of the leading theaters in Southern California: Christopher Ashley of La Jolla Playhouse (LJP), Sheldon Epps of Pasadena Playhouse, Marc Masterson of South Coast Repertory, and Michael Ritchie of Center Theatre Group. Moderated by Linda Oku, the forum was an interactive experience, in which attendees received a pre-event survey, participated in an exercise to identify who was in the room, and expressed their comments and questions via Twitter, open mic, and written note cards. The event was also streamed live online, and an archive recording of the program is available on the East West Players and LA Stage Alliance websites.

EWP’s Producing Artistic Director, Tim Dang, opened the forum, acknowledging the need to move forward from the Nightingale casting controversy and strategize toward solutions, as not enough has been done. “The American stage needs to reflect the changing face of America. We must acknowledge the increased presence of Asian Americans in all walks of life in the US.”

Actor Tamlyn Tomita addresses the panel and audience of the “Asian American Opportunities in American Theatre: Why Not Asian? Why Asian?” forum on October 22, 2012 at East West Players.
Photo credit: Mike Palma

Actor Tamlyn Tomita’s empassioned remarks acknowledged the “headache and heartache” that the LJP casting of “the Nightingale” brought to Asian Americans, and stressed the role of the theatre, to “tell stories so that we can learn from each other… theatre cannot right every wrong in society but it can cast a light on disparities in
society.” Tomita also acknowledged that the unjust practices continue, such as the casting by the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company of “The Orphan of Zhao,” in which a cast of 17 has only three of Asian descent.

The purpose of the forum was to find ways for theaters to provide more opportunities for Asian Americans. Amongst various suggestions for solutions:

  • The LA Stage Alliance via CEO Terence McFarland offered to convene a larger regional initiative on developing more diverse Boards of Directors, to which Ritchie and Ashley stated were both open;
  • Epps offered a Pasadena Playhouse collaboration with East West Players;
  • Director Jon Lawrence Rivera suggested specifically articulating ethnicities in casting notices that the roles are open to diverse talent;
  • Actor Jodi Long advised fellow actors to have their agents to submit them because they bring something more to a particular role but they have to be ready; and to the artistic directors, to push the bounds of creativity that diversity can bring.

Grey’s Anatomy actor Sandra Oh shares thoughts at the “Asian American Opportunities in American Theatre: Why Not Asian? Why Asian?” forum on October 22, 2012 at East West Players.
Photo credit: Mike Palma

Actor Sandra Oh, in her remarks, offered to the artistic directors, “…to you in power, to see this not as a burden, but to open and examine the limited thinking we have right now, and grow past it….I understand the reactiveness to [protect] the purity of artistic freedom, but there is room [for diversity]. We are asking the artistic directors to be our advocates, because you are in the room [making decisions].”

Wrapping up the discussion, Tim Dang summed up the importance of this discussion, and that it must continue so change can be brought about. “I hope that the idea of a diverse theatre can be a reality by the end of our lifetime… We [Asian Americans] are used to getting lip service about [change] and I hope that we can get past the lip service. We need to lean heavily on everybody to cast Asian Pacifics.” He also urged the theaters to use East West Players as a resource. “We have worked with over 4,000 Asian American actors since 1965, so we know where everyone is. Call us if you need submissions from Asian American actors and writers.”

This past July, the La Jolla Playhouse (LJP) set off a firestorm when it presented a workshop production of a play entitled “The Nightingale” – set in a mythical China with several Chinese characters including the Emperor – the mixed cast consisted of several white males, no Asian American males and only two Asian Americans in a cast of twelve.

To continue the conversation, an online follow-up on Google Hangout will take place in coming weeks. For more information, please check http://www.eastwestplayers.org or “LIKE” us on Facebook for updates.

The forum discussion is also available to view online at http://www.livestream.com/lastagealliance/video?clipId=pla_1413e662-bb24-4496-b0b9-66e03078e0ce.