Last year, Asian-American student groups at the University of Michigan invited playwright David Henry Hwang to speak on campus. Hwang had won the Tony award for his hit, "M. Butterfly." But a few of the student activists thought he was not an ideal Asian-American writer, because they considered his work to be too commercial and too "white." Ironically, this year Hwang has led the campaign to bar the white British actor Jonathan Pryce from reprising his role as a Eurasian character in the play "Miss Saigon," a $10 million production, which until this controversy was set to open with the greatest advance sales ever for a Broadway show.
The protest against casting Pryce represents the progress of Asian Americans even as it reveals the prejudices that still stand against us. Yet just as Hwang was never too white, so Pryce also would not be too white, if indeed that phrase means anything at all.
No actor should have his chance to star taken away because of his race, but I doubt that many Asian-American actors have that opportunity to begin with. I also fear that many who are quick to criticize reverse discrimination are slow to notice regular discrimination. I have never heard, for example, any general concern about the fact that the only Asian-American figure in the popular culture, the detective Charlie Chan, always has been played by white actors. If we are not even allowed to be ourselves, who can we be?
Although Asian-American actors historically have been excluded from theater, movies and television, and cast in stereotypical roles on the rare occasions they are included, the possibility of racism is treated almost as if it were a frivolous complaint. Theater-goers just want the show to go on.
Still, while both Hwang and the student activists who disapproved of him have recognized the problems of race, their solutions would create more. It is puzzling that they, too, are attempting to reduce each of us to our respective race. For the student activists, minorities who fail to conform to the student activists' stereotype have betrayed their race or have become too "white."
Hwang is as unlikely a target as Pryce. Among Asian Americans, Hwang remains unique for having achieved mainstream success in an artistic endeavor. On that basis alone, he stands for Asian Americans and other Americans as a refutation of the stereotypes of Asian-Americans as college whiz kids and urban green grocers.
When Hwang spoke in Ann Arbor, he said that America seemed to be more divided than ever on racial issues, with skinheads appearing and the Ku Klux Klan reviving. He spoke, however, to an audience that was white and black, Asian and Hispanic.
The audience included theater buffs, aspiring actors and would-be playwrights. They listened to Hwang neither because of his race nor in spite of it. They listened to him because they believed he was a good playwright, with something important to say.
Likewise, Pryce is by all accounts very good in his role: he won the British Olivier Award, the equivalent of our Tony. He should be allowed to give his performance, regardless of his race. His race is not irrelevant, but neither is it his most important feature. When he takes the stage and long after he has made his exit, we should keep in mind the issues Hwang has raised. I hope and am confident that the day will come when Hwang's plays and Pryce's performance are staged down the street from Asian, black and Hispanic interpretations of Shakespeare -- or, ideally, a show and an audience composed of all races. The writer is a law student at the University of Michigan.