“The students are victims,” writes playwright Lloyd Suh, regarding the events that led to his play Jesus in India being canceled a little more than a week before it was to be produced at Clarion University in Pennsylvania. Presumably, anyone learning of students who have been preparing a production for weeks, only to not be able to present it to audiences, would agree with that statement, no matter what they may think of the circumstance surrounding the cancelation, first reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It is truly unfortunate. But there are larger issues and perhaps greater lessons at stake.
As many others have reported, Suh wrote earlier this week to Marilouise Michel, professor of theatre in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Clarion, asking that either three roles written as Indian characters but cast at Clarion with two Caucasian students and one mixed race student, either be cast with students of color or the production canceled. The university theatre department opted for the latter.
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Regarding the casting of Caucasian students in specifically ethnic roles, Michel said, “I realized that the Jewish characters were from Palestine. In my mind, to truly cast them correctly they would have had to be Palestinian, I guess, and the Indian characters would have to be Indian. But I read Mr. Suh’s program notes from the production at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where he specifically states that the play is for anybody, the play is universal. Perhaps I misunderstood what he meant, but I thought I was taking him at his word, so I cast it without thinking what color people were at all. I would have cast a black Jesus if I had the right person for the role. I wasn’t thinking that this was a play about race. When I do plays about race, I try to be extraordinarily sensitive to those issues.”
In a statement, included below in its entirety, Suh speaks specifically to his comment, writing, “Much has been made of an interview I gave years ago in which I used the word ‘universal’ to describe the play. But universal does not and should not mean white, or the privilege of ignoring race. I wish it were not so difficult to accept that an actor of color, playing a character of color, could convey something universal. To understand that white actors should not be the default option for any role. To recognize that people of color are not simply replaceable.”
Regarding casting beyond the specifics of a script, Michel said, “It’s not unusual in college productions to change the gender of a character to offer opportunities to the students that are available.” Asked whether approval for such changes are sought from playwrights or their representatives, she said, “I don’t deal with the contracts. The department chair and the student association deal with the contracts. But should it seem like we’re doing something that’s against the contract, we would definitely address it. I always check with my superiors if I think that’s going to be an issue.” The superior she was referring to was department chair Bob Levy, who declined via e-mail to be interviewed for this piece.
She continued, “We’ve never done it in a play where we thought race was an important issue of the script, or the gender was an important issue of the script. Sometimes the director might address the issue in the program of why it was done. While I hesitate to connect myself to Michael Oatman [director of The Mountaintop at Kent State where a white actor was cast as Martin Luther King], it would be similar in that it’s an academic exercise of, ‘what if?’ which is what we do in acting.”
As for the issue of race in Jesus in India, Michel said, “I don’t feel like it was the focus of the play. I feel like the focus teenagers coming of age and maturing, and that’s what spoke to me about the script and led me to think this would be a wonderful opportunity for the students in my program.”
To Suh, authentic representation of race is essential. He wrote, “I could not allow the play to be performed with white actors in non-white roles before a public audience. This is not a unique position. It is not strange or radical. It is common industry practice that productions of copyrighted plays adhere to the requirements of the text. In addition, as a writer of color in a field where representation and visibility are ongoing struggles, I feel a responsibility to provide opportunities for artists of color to be seen, and to protect that work from distortion in the public eye. The practice of using white actors to portray non-white characters has deep roots in ugly racist traditions. It sends a message, intended or not, that is exclusionary at best, dehumanizing at worst.”
Michel noted that, in planning the production, “I was expecting controversy, but I wasn’t expecting this.” She explained, “In my little small, conservative community I had Jesus saying ‘fuck ‘ over and over. He’s smoking weed, he’s got a girl, he gets a girl pregnant, he screams ‘I pulled out’ at one point. He says ‘My god damn father.” All of which I’m cringing at, thinking, I have to be brave and represent this playwright’s work. We’re going to be pickets by the conservative Christians. I’m getting e-mails from conservative Christians saying their prayers have been answered, implying we got what we deserved. They’re so glad that this play is not going to be produced in our community, because it portrays Jesus as different from the Bible.”
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Clarion University is a small state university in Western Pennsylvania, with a student body of approximately 5,700 students in total, 4,900 being undergraduates, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The school body is 83% white, 7% black, 2% Latino or Hispanic, 2% multiracial and 1% Asian. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported the Asian student body as being below 1%, but in real numbers on a campus of 5,700, 1% translates to a total of 57 Asian students. How must they feel in the midst of all this? These numbers do contrast with the representation of diversity implied by the university home page (shown at right) in which the racial representation seems much more broadly spread.
In light of the protests at the University of Missouri and Yale University in recent weeks, the subject of racial representation on campuses is top of mind for many people, and it certainly should extend into performing arts programs. On the one hand, the decision of the theatre program to produce a show set in India with Indian characters is an admirable step towards addressing diversity, but the likely inability to cast roles without racial authenticity calls into question whether the choice would ultimately make students of color feel included.
After what has transpired this week, will Michel think differently when producing works in which there are characters of color? “Well of course,” she replied, “particularly with living playwrights.”
Clarion’s website outlines an array of programs to address gender, racial and disability diversity. But despite the public controversy surrounding Jesus in India, Michel says that she has not spoken with anyone in those programs about what has transpired. “No one has reached out to me at this point,” she said.
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It’s important to know that the planned production of Jesus in India at Clarion transformed the play, which had a few songs, into a full-blown musical. With permission from the playwright, Michel commissioned an original score which ran to 21 songs and underscoring. The playwright and his agent approved the composer, but for this one production, did not seek approval over the material itself. However, that did not extend to other approvals, for which the contract noted that the playwright’s approval was required.
Beth Blickers, Suh’s agent, commented that while she had inquired about the racial casting early on, and was told it was too early to know, but there was considerable communication about the new score.
“I think the music change is the key factor,” said Blickers. “That’s the thing they understood. The issue about ethnicity, they were reasonably oblivious to. They acknowledged that I asked and they belatedly said it wasn’t cast yet and then they forgot.”
Michel said that she had asked several times to confer with Suh, but was told he was unavailable. She said, “I believe that a dialogue early on, it would have come clear what his priorities were, that I wasn’t seeing things the way he was. I don’t disagree with his right to feel the way he does about his work. I just wish I had known, so that either we could have had a meeting of the minds or I wouldn’t have invested my time and my students in this venture.” Blickers said that Suh was wrapped up in other productions and family issues and didn’t have the time to visit Clarion or consult with them.
There has also been considerable discussion online over the timing of Suh’s letter, which he addresses in his statement. Michel says that it is her understanding that the contract was in force as soon as the university signed it and sent a $500 payment, and that since the check was cashed, all was in place. Blickers says that the contract was never received and that while the $500 check was cashed (and is now being returned), the contract was never signed by the playwright, and therefore the contract was not in force. Suh asserts that the first time he realized the play was going into production was via a posting of rehearsal photos on Facebook.
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I have advocated previously about the rights of artists, most often playwrights, to control their work, and on the heels of the controversy over Jesus in India and The Mountaintop, I feel it’s incumbent upon me to restate that university productions are not exempt from copyright law or licensing contracts. While academic exploration in a classroom of a scene from a play which allows an actor to explore a role written for someone of another race may prove valuable, once the work is presented in front of an audience, or in its entirety, whether only to a university-based audience or the general public, the playwright’s wishes must take precedence. I say that from both an ethical and legal standpoint.
As for the idea that race doesn’t always matter or isn’t central to a particular work, if the playwright has indicated characters of a certain ethnicity, that should be adhered to, permission should be sought to make a change, or another work should be chosen. While Jesus in India may be still in manuscript form, and therefore lacking in some of the details an officially published script may contain, the combination of the title and character names of “Gopal,” “Mahari/Mary,” and “Sushil” seem quite specific. To assume that this information isn’t central to the playwright’s vision and the actors chosen to portray them needn’t be specific seems a willful overlooking of the context of the work, even if the race is not explicitly stated in the script or licensing agreement. As I wrote about The Mountaintop, and Katori Hall has done and Suh will now do, this seems to require even more specificity from playwrights, to insure their wishes are followed. This is not an effort to be racially divisive, but rather to insure that roles for artists of color remain in their grasp, in part to address the ongoing inequities in racial roles and racial casting.
“The conversation is how far are we going to take this,” Michel said to me, “with truly understanding all points of view, to not be a part of diminishing anyone’s pain or experience. I don’t want to diminish that, I just want to know how to make it right and tell stories that aren’t just about white girls.”
Given the makeup of the student body at Clarion, I understand the challenge. But the discussion is not so granular as wondering whether only actors of Irish descent should play Irish roles, as Michel asked me rhetorically in reference to an upcoming Clarion production. Instead, it is about insuring that roles written for people of color are never diminished, or to use Katori Hall’s word, “erased.”
And despite the pictures on the school’s website, if the theatre department is to be able to do shows about more than just “white girls,” it seems the university must address broadly diversifying the student body, not just so more plays can be done authentically, but so people of color are indeed not minorities on the campus, but truly well-represented in the school community, thereby enhancing and informing every aspect of campus life.
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Earlier this morning, the official Clarion University Twitter feed contained the following message: “With the cancellation of ‘Jesus in India’ we hope to reflect upon how race and culture should relate to creative works such as these.”
As painful as this experience has been for all concerned, this seems a positive step. If indeed Clarion follows through, I hope they will avail themselves of resources in the theatrical community, who I have little doubt would be willing to travel to western Pennsylvania to participate in that process in a positive and supportive manner. And I’m willing to drive the van.
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FULL STATEMENT FROM LLOYD SUH
Regarding the cancellation of my play JESUS IN INDIA at Clarion University, I hope the following statement clarifies my entire position.
My first contact with Clarion was in January, when Marilouise Michel requested a copy of the play and invited me to work on it with her students. Due to other commitments, I was unable to participate, but I did express willingness to let them use the play for classroom purposes without me.
I didn’t hear anything again until late May, when I was informed they were experimenting with the piece as a musical. It is highly atypical to do such work without direct collaboration from the author, so I asked for more information. In particular, if their exploration was simply for private, in-class use, I was happy to let them do whatever they desired. Although I could not participate directly, I was certainly curious what they might discover. However, if their intention was a full production with a public audience, I asked specifically whether they would be able to honor the general ethnicity of the characters.
I did not hear anything else from anyone at Clarion again until October 30, well into the rehearsal process.
I was not informed that a production was taking place.
I was not informed about any casting activities.
I was not informed about any license agreement granting rights to perform the play. It has since been confirmed to me that while negotiations towards an agreement did occur through my agent, no agreement was ever executed, meaning Clarion’s right to perform the play was, in fact, never granted.
Instead, on October 30, I was asked whether I would be able to Skype with the actors. Usually my response would be of course. However, because I had no idea a production was even taking place, my reaction was What?
So I searched online to find out what was happening, and saw photos that seemed to show two of the Indian characters portrayed by Caucasian actors, in total disregard for my earlier query. My agent immediately wrote to Ms. Michel for clarification. Her response on November 2 acknowledged receipt of our previous question on casting, but in her words:
“When you asked, I hadn’t cast the show, and then I forgot.”
On November 9, after confirming that a fully executed license agreement did not exist, I sent an email to Ms. Michel insisting that she either recast, or cancel the production. I absolutely understand that this has caused anger, confusion and disappointment among the actors and crew that had been hard at work on the piece. I do not take that lightly. The students are victims, and the timing of this mess has raised many questions. But the timing was never in my control.
I could not allow the play to be performed with white actors in non-white roles before a public audience. This is not a unique position. It is not strange or radical. It is common industry practice that productions of copyrighted plays adhere to the requirements of the text. In addition, as a writer of color in a field where representation and visibility are ongoing struggles, I feel a responsibility to provide opportunities for artists of color to be seen, and to protect that work from distortion in the public eye. The practice of using white actors to portray non-white characters has deep roots in ugly racist traditions. It sends a message, intended or not, that is exclusionary at best, dehumanizing at worst.
This includes university theater programs, which are a crucial part of the way professional theater is born. We are witnessing a moment on multiple college campuses where racial tensions are undeniable and extremely dangerous. I cannot grant university programs an allowance on these matters that I would never grant a professional theater.
Much has been made of an interview I gave years ago in which I used the word “universal” to describe the play. But universal does not and should not mean white, or the privilege of ignoring race. I wish it were not so difficult to accept that an actor of color, playing a character of color, could convey something universal. To understand that white actors should not be the default option for any role. To recognize that people of color are not simply replaceable.
It was not my intention to debate this matter in public. I attempted to settle the issue privately, but Clarion’s insistence on involving the press and releasing my personal communication has made this statement imperative. I am now grateful for that opportunity, as I hope this clears the air on my intentions, and the circumstances under which this cancellation has taken place.
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Update, November 16 at 12 pm: I wrote more about the cancelation of Jesus in India at Clarion University, and the school’s public relations campaign against such. Read that post by clicking here.
Update, November 19 at 8 am: While it is only one issue in the discussion of Jesus in India at Clarion, and in my opinion notably subordinate to the central issues of artists’ rights and racial representation, I have continued to explore the topic of whether the play had been properly licensed. After conversations with both parties, as well as licensing companies that regularly contract for non-professional productions regarding common practices, I can say that there were some factors which could have led the theatre faculty at Clarion to believe they had licensed the play.
While the totality of the agreement prepared by Suh’s agency required signatures by both parties, a phrase early in the agreement (“when signed by you” as opposed to, say, “when signed by us both”) could suggest that only an official Clarion signature and a payment was required. Clarion maintains that they nonetheless returned a signed contract and made the required payment, which was accepted; the agency acknowledges receipt of the payment but not the signed contract, which is why a countersigned agreement was never returned to Clarion. Short of legal discovery to reveal all communications between the parties, the discrepancy over the sending and receipt of the agreement cannot be sorted definitively.
It is not uncommon for licensing companies – not authors’ agents – to send agreements to non-professional producers, a term which which encompasses academic productions, that do not require a signature and returned agreement at all. An e-mailed contract is considered the legal “offer” and receipt of payment is considered “acceptance” of all terms. However, that was not the case with this specific agreement, which was never fully executed and therefore not in force.
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Howard Sherman is interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts School of Drama.