Friday, July 27, 2012

In response to allegations of racism in The Nightingale

Coming from a critic, the phrase "opinions for opinions' sake" may be something strange and foreign. As someone who watches tons of entertainment, good and bad, the idea of brushing aside a critical perspective makes me cringe. I believe it's the public opinion that keeps the arts in check, preventing it from being too cerebral and far-reaching or too dumb and low-brow, and allows the world of theater, film, television, visual art and (arguably) music to keep progressing through different eras and societal spheres.

Then I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about the public's reaction to a musical I saw just a few weeks ago titled The Nightingale with music and lyrics by the duo that brought us the incredible musical 2007 Tony Award winning Best Musical Spring Awakening.

Let me preface by saying I have the utmost respect for the Los Angeles Times, its Calendar section, its writers and its editorial staff. I was also very pleased with the La Jolla Playhouse where The Nightingale is currently being performed. And being a member of the Japanese American community, I have as much concern as any other Asian American for the proper representation of our race and the still prevalent battle against racism that still exists, however hidden from the public eye out of political correctness.

But what I learned in this article disturbed me.

Without forcing anyone to take a look at the full story, I will simply explain that the show The Nightingale has received backlash from the Asian American community because the musical, which is set in Imperial China, consists of a multicultural cast including Caucasians and African Americans, with only a small number of actual Asians portraying purportedly Asian characters.

While I can understand from a personal perspective that there is a constant battle facing people of color and exotic backgrounds, in which they must combat stereotypes and a sense of supremacy of an Anglo-Saxon image, in my opinion this argument has gone too far considering the context.

Particularly the line in the article that reads "The show has 'created the perception that the world is ruled by white men,' said one attendee."

When I sat down to watch The Nightingale, I had already looked up the cast so that I might be prepared for the production. I'd read a brief plot synopsis and listened to some songs in advance too. So I guess I'd prepared myself for something unusual and unorthodox. In other words, I knew that I would be going into a show that didn't claim to be representing a sense of reality.

Since The Nightingale is based on a fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen, it is conducted in a fanciful manner on the stage. The set pieces are very minimalistic, with a set of bars representing a giant bird cage and a table on wheels subbing in for a boat. Much is left to the imagination in this play, and I think that is to its credit. It is the kind of performance that draws you into the characters' psyches rather than their image or the superficiality of the storyline.

Like a great independent film, The Nightingale is rife with implications and personal interpretations. It is not meant to make a political statement, nor is it meant to adequately represent any sort of honest depiction of China. Just as I'm sure Andersen's original fairy tale was only a loose perspective on Chinese culture, considering he was a Danish man who (as far as I know) had not traveled to Asia nor researched Asian culture in serious depth to make his story culturally accurate, this play was a work of fiction and not meant to be taken within the context of an ethnically or even literally accurate interpretation.

Where I could see some merit to the argument against a mixed race cast for what is a show based in China would be if there was some sort of offensive "Asian-face" incident or effort to bastardize the culture in some way. But after seeing the show, I had no reason to believe that the creative team behind The Nightingale had any intention of insulting the Chinese through their casting choices. It was merely their decision to bring some excellent performers on board, regardless of race.

I could also understand if the cast was entirely Caucasian, why that might be of concern or even warrant the overzealous commentary that was mentioned in the Los Angeles Times article. But the fact of the matter is, the casting seemed quite ethnically blind.

It reminded me a bit of watching Made for TV Cinderella featuring Brandy in the title role that came out in 1997. While I was too young to have explored the idea of controversy surrounding that movie, I've never encountered any anger from my acquaintances over the casting of an Asian man (Paolo Montalban) as Prince Charming, with Whoopi Goldberg (an African American woman, as well all know) and Victor Garber (who is Caucasian) as his mother and father respectively.

This is simply because as a whole, Cinderella worked. The ethnically-blind casting made it so the film succeeded based on the talent of its performers, not their demographics.

So why can't we open our eyes and see the same merit in The Nightingale?

I think part of the issue here is that Cinderella is seen as a classic fairytale, and perhaps even detached from its suggested location in France (Cinderella, her stepmother and her stepsisters live in a Chateau before she becomes Prince Charming's bride), while The Nightingale is not as well-known or accepted of a text. But as easy as it is to forget that Cinderella is supposedly taking place in France, it is equally easy to forget that The Nightingale is taking place in China. Aside from the ethnically-specific names, there is nothing inherently Chinese about this story. It is a typical fairytale, including princes and princesses, lowly servants, high fortress-like walls and animals with mystical powers.

If it were not this way - if it were actually dependent on a connection to the Chinese culture - there might be some merit to the argument of preserving the cultural identification. But there really is not much to back-up this opinion.

There is also the issue of Asian cultures perhaps being more mindful of discrimination and mistreatment as opposed to their European counterparts.

This is for good reason, I'll admit. I am the first person to defend the right of the Asian American community to remind their white American counterparts that around 70 years ago, xenophobia was the reason behind Japanese Americans being forced into internment camps during World War II. There were injustices paid to my people and I have no reason to believe that anyone should be silenced for reminding the world of that fact.

But is this casting decision really an injustice to the Asian American community?

If you ask me, certainly not.

Perhaps when looking at this issue from an outsider's perspective, it could seem insensitive and racially charged. If we don't understand the goings-on of the theater, we might believe there was some internal reasoning by the creative staff at the La Jolla Playhouse, allowing them to make racist casting choices that favored Caucasians over Asians even though they were casting a musical set in China.

The problem with this explanation is that it forgets the most important thing about casting in the theater: artistic license. It would be unfair to say that casting directors for The Nightingale purposely chose to leave out Asian American cast members, because we don't have the insights to know how their decisions were made. What we have to accept is that what was done in the theater in this instance was toward creating a quality musical, not a decision out of spite for the whole of Asia or its people.

Sometimes i worry that the race debate becomes all too heated under the most ridiculous of circumstances. We scoff at racial slurs and common stereotypes (How many times have I heard that Asians are bad drivers? Or complaints from underachievers about how Asians supposedly do so much better in school than their Caucasian counterparts?), but when it comes to an issue that is not actually racially charged, but artistically motivated, we pounce and attack at will.

This is the kind of opinion that is simply for opinions' sake. It is not an adequate critique because it does not take into account the merit of the work or the reasoning behind it. It simply draws a dogmatic conclusion based off of unsubstantiated and emotional arguments. And it fails to recognize the true issue at hand here.

What we need from the Asian American community is a stand against real issues of racism and support for instituting cultural pride in the community as well. Destroying a musical that truly does nothing to insult China or its people does little to foster fundamental discussions.

Realistically, this musical might have functioned just as well with an all-Asian cast as it does with a mixed race class. But that doesn't excuse us to start pointing fingers and yelling "racist" in a crowded theater at a show that had no visible motives of the sort.

I only wish that those who are of this opinion give the show a second chance to prove that any ethnic misrepresentations were not conducted with cruel intentions, but with the right toward artistic interpretation. As an Asian American, I watched the show fully aware that it was taking liberties with casting, but I chose to accept it as a piece of unique artwork rather than a political statement. And I think that's why I loved it. Connecting with the music, the story, the characters, the performances had nothing to do with race.

If you really look at The Nightingale, there is no race at all. Just a beautiful story. And isn't that all we really want from theater in the first place? Speaking for myself alone, the answer is yes.

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