Three of the five characters in the “coming-of-age musical” are Indian, the paper reported. Two of them were played by white actors, while a third actor was mixed-race but not of Asian descent. They were not using “brownface” makeup or speaking with accents, according to Reuters, but Suh objected to their casting.
In a letter to Marilouise Michel, a theater professor and director of the play, Suh wrote that the roles were “clearly written for South Asian actors” and said that having them be played by actors of other races was an “unacceptable distortion of the play.”
Clarion officials told the Post-Gazette that they offered to give Suh a page in the play’s program explaining why South Asian actors should have been cast, and to have a representative from the school give a “stage speech” on why that wasn’t done. Michel and visual and performing arts department chair Bob Levy both said they weren’t aware that the characters were “racially specific.”
“The play is called ‘Jesus in India,'” Suh wrote. “India is not irrelevant.”
Suh, who is Korean American, rejected the school’s offers for a compromise, demanding that the play be recast with South Asian actors or be cancelled. Michel explained that recasting would be all-but impossible — only 0.6 percent of the state school’s 4,900 undergrads are of Asian descent, she told Reuters. The initial auditions had been open to the entire student body and were “color blind.” No Asian American students even auditioned, according to Reuters.
“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,” Suh responded in his letter. “… You should know that what you are doing is connected to a very painful history of egregious misrepresentation and invisibility, and is incredibly hurtful.”
Suh added that he “couldn’t stop himself from crying” when he saw photos of white actors cast in Indian roles.
The student actors in the play had been practicing six days a week since early October, according to the Post-Gazette. Five actors and roughly two dozen crew members were involved in the production.
When Michel informed the cast that the show would be cancelled, “they were stunned,” she told the Post-Gazette. One actress “burst into tears.”
“Mostly we are dealing with this like a death in the family, that’s what it feels like,” Victoria Heckert, one of the actors, told CBS.
“This was one of the most exciting shows we could have ever done here, and it’s very sad we don’t get to perform it,” added another actor, Kiah Harrington-Wymer.
The cancellation of the Clarion University play comes just days after a production of the critically acclaimed play “The Mountaintop,” which depicts Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the night before his assassination, was cancelled at Kent State University due to casting. In that case, King was being played by a white actor.
“I just really feel as though it echoes this pervasive erasure of the black body and the silencing of a black community — theatrically and also, literally, in the world,” the playwright, Katori Hall, told the Guardian.
As debates about race rage on and off campuses around the country, the two incidents point to a new front in the conflict: How should race be addressed on stage?
Though Clarion officials said their casting choices were largely a matter of numbers, the Kent State casting was intentional. The play’s director, Michael Oatman said on opening night: “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.”
Increasingly, actors of color are being cast in roles traditionally played by white actors. “Hamilton,” the hip-hop history of the Founding Fathers that is currently the toast of Broadway, has an African American actor playing George Washington and a Latino man as Alexander Hamilton.
But white people acting as African American and Asian characters has a longer and much uglier legacy. “Blackface” makeup was long used to caricature and ridicule African Americans. In his letter to Michel, Suh referenced plays like “the Mikado,” an absurdly stereotype-strewn Gilbert and Sullivan comedy that often includes white actors in “yellowface.”
The day after Suh sent his e-mail, actor Aziz Ansari published an unrelated op-ed in the New York Times decrying the casting of white actors as Indian characters. He acknowledged that it can be difficult to find actors of particular races, but argued that it’s worth the effort. After all, when Ansari was a child, seeing an Indian actor cast as Benjamin Jarhvi in the movie “Short Circuit 2” “had a powerful effect on me,” he wrote.
The only problem, he later found out, was that the actor wasn’t Indian at all. He was a white man named Fisher Stevens.