A new workshop production of "The Nightingale" by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater at the historic La Jolla Playhouse in California is striking nerves in the Asian American community.
The show, which was adapted from a short story by Hans Christian Anderson and is set in ancient China, has amassed critics vocal about the lack of actual Asian actors present on stage. The lead role of a Chinese monarch is being played by a white actor, and the rest of the cast is multiethnic.
Most of the grievances have been aired on the theater company's Facebook page. "Would you cast non African American people in the roles of 'The Color Purple' or an August Wilson play or 'Topdog/Underdog'???" wrote one commenter. "I am eagerly anticipating your multiracial, non-traditionally cast production of Glengarry Glen Ross! Should be outstanding!" wrote another.
After receiving enough complaints to warrant a discussion, the theater's artistic director, Christopher Ashley, has scheduled a panel discussion -- set for July 22 -- to discuss the issues at stake, which will feature members of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) and a New York-based casting director, among others.
Though Ashley expressed an understanding of the criticisms, he also defended the show's use of a multi-ethnic cast, telling the Los Angeles Times that the show is meant to combine "elements of Eastern and Western cultures," and this version of the cast is by no means final. He said he is open to a version of the show with all Asian actors.
In a statement posted on the company's Facebook page, Ashley said he welcomed the feedback, since the show is a part of the playhouse's developmental workshop series, Page to Stage.
"We are still in the process of discovering this piece in the Page To Stage environment and fully acknowledge that some of our choices may change as the project develops," he said. "We truly value this feedback and look forward to continued discussions."
This is certainly not the first instance where Asian American actors felt underrepresented by the theater community at large. In the past year AAPAC has made themselves much more visible, with a high-profile panel discussion at Fordham University in February and other scheduled appearances.
In the most recent AAPAC report, "Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages," AAPAC stated that Asian-Americans received only 3 percent of all available roles in the non-profit sector overall, and only 1.5 percent of all available roles on Broadway in the past five years.
Christine Toy Johnson, an actor and member of AAPAC who will appear at the July 22 La Jolla panel, told the Huffington Post in February that she struggled to be perceived as simply an "American" actor.
"It's a bit shocking, but every [Asian-American person] I know has had to deal with some sort of perception based on image," she said.
And now, it seems, they even struggle to play characters with their own ethnic background.
Click through our slideshow of other instances of "race-lifting" in Hollywood films:
The 2008 sleeper hit recast the ethnicities of nearly all the Asian-American MIT students who inspired it, starring Jim Sturgess as a character based on Chinese-American pro gambler Jeff Ma. Ma hit back at claims that he was a "race traitor" for not strong-arming the studio, telling <em>USA Today</em>: "<a href="http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/news/2008-03-25-jeff-ma-21_N.htm" target="_hplink">I would have been a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me</a>."
In Arthur C. Clarke's "Space Odyssey" series, the scientist who takes care of the Hal 9000 is an Indian man named Dr. Sivasubramanian Chandrasegarampillai. In the eighties movie "2010," the character inexplicably retains a version of the Indian name (Dr. R. Chandra), and is played by Bob Balaban.
In "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns," Israeli actor Oded Fehr plays a member of the medjai, an ancient Egyptian term for the people of Northern Sudan, who were Nubian, and therefore black. In the "Mummy" movies however, they are vaguely Middle Eastern, and according to this video use the same line of ancient Egyptian over and over again no matter what they're trying to say.
Morgan Freeman is one of the few black actors to have been cast in explicitly non-black roles. The characters he played in "The Shawshank Redemption," "Gone Baby Gone," and "Dreamcatcher" were all originally meant to be Irish.
"Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince"
Up until the sixth Harry Potter movie, the character of Lavender Brown - whose ethnicity is unspecified in the books - was played by Jennifer Smith, an actress who happens to be black. The <a href="http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1574221/harry-potter-cast-finds-its-lavender-brown.jhtml" target="_hplink">part was recast with Jessie Cave for "Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince,"</a> the first movie in the series where Lavender actually talks.
"Pay It Forward"
In Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel "Pay It Forward," Reuben St. Clair is a black teacher who bears scars of great metaphoric weight. When Denzel Washington turned the role down and Kevin Spacey took it instead, the character became Eugene Simonet, a white teacher who also bears scars of great metaphoric weight.
"A Beautiful Mind"
In reality, mathematician John Nash married Alicia Lopez-Harrison de Lardé, a physics student from El Salvador. In the movie based on his life, he married Alicia Larde, a patrician beauty played by Jennifer Connelly.
"The Hunger Games"
Katniss Everdeen, the main character in "The Hunger Games" YA series, is never identified by her ethnicity, though she's described as olive-skinned and dark-haired. The casting call for the part however (which eventually went to Jennifer Lawrence) <a href="http://http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703529004576160782323146532.html" target="_hplink">demanded the actress be Caucasian</a>.
"The Last Airbender"
Director M. Night Shyamalan took a lot of heat for casting white actors like Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone in "The Last Airbender," which is based on a popular Nickelodeon anime series featuring Asian and Inuit characters. In response, Shyamalan said: "<a href="http://io9.com/5504967/shyamalan-addresses-airbenders-race-controversy-and-answers-your-questions" target="_hplink"> The great thing about anime is that it's ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features</a>."