How Racial Politics Hurt My Students

November 13, 2015

The theater program at my small, rural state university was producing a new and controversial play by an Asian playwright. In the playwright’s own words, the work was "universal" and "for everyone … about humanity."

Upon seeing a publicity tweet showing our non-Asian student actors playing the Indian roles, the playwright sent me a vitriolic email ordering me to shut down our production unless we immediately recast the roles with Asian actors. Our entire university is 0.6 percent Asian, mostly international students, with none enrolled in theater. So, despite months of student and faculty work, research, building, and creating, we shut down the production, one week before we were set to open.

A recent and well-publicized production done by Kent State University’s department of Pan-African studies of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop was vilified by that playwright for its "race revisionist" double-casting of the role of Martin Luther King Jr. A white man and a black man played the parts on alternating nights. The African-American director, Michael Oatman, stated on the production’s website that he "truly wanted to explore the issue of racial ownership and authenticity."

"I didn’t want this to be a stunt, but a true exploration of King’s wish that we all be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin," he continued. "I wanted to see how the words rang differently or indeed the same, coming from two different actors, with two different racial backgrounds."

What is our purpose in higher education if not to push boundaries and ask questions?
What is our purpose in higher education if not to push boundaries and ask questions? Isn’t it our job to teach our students to think, probe, and look at all issues from varying viewpoints — or dare I say every possible viewpoint? And then invent some more? While I might not consider casting a Caucasian or Asian actor in the role of Jim in the Huck Finn story, it is not at all unusual for university programs and other professional and nonprofessional theaters to use "color blind" or "nontraditional" casting as a way to open up opportunities for all students and performers regardless of race, ethnicity, and even gender.

Certainly a playwright has the right to place limitations on productions of his or her work. However, I purport that without those specific hindrances, theater artists can and should have as much artistic freedom as the playwrights themselves. Perhaps Shakespeare would wince at a Western-style production of The Taming of the Shrew, but he never told us we couldn’t. He never said Petruchio couldn’t be black, as he was in the 1990 Delacorte Theater production starring Morgan Freeman.

Neither Ms. Hall nor the Asian playwright with whom we worked mandated in the script or in the production contract that the productions be cast with ethnic specificity. When the show we were producing was done off-Broadway, there seemed to have been East Asians playing Indian roles, but somehow that is acceptable where Caucasian and African-American actors were not.

Those of you who teach can probably imagine the heartbreak of sitting down with a group of undergraduate actors, designers, and technicians who had put blood, sweat, and tears into the production for months, only to tell them that their work was unacceptable to the playwright because the actors were not Asian. While the playwright’s agent suggested that this should be a learning experience to educate the students in the erroneousness of casting non-Asians in "clearly Asian" roles — in a play that was neither centered on nor even hinted of racial issues — this lesson fell flat.

I have intentionally left out the name of the playwright and the piece that we were working on as I do not wish to provide him with publicity at the expense of the fine and viable work of our students. We will continue to strive, as most educational theater programs do, to provide as many and varied opportunities for our students as we can, and to judge our performers on the content of their character and skills, not on the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage.

Marilouise Michel is a professor of theater at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.