“What will you learn?” asks the home page of the website of Clarion University in Pennsylvania. In the wake of the school’s handling of the casting of white students in Asian roles in Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India, and the playwright’s withdrawal of production rights upon learning this fact, it’s unclear at best, disturbing at worst, to consider what Clarion wants students to learn about race and about the arts.
Based on what is appearing in the press, they are learning to blame artists for wanting to see their work represented accurately. They are learning to attack artists when the artists defend their work. They are learning that a desire to see race portrayed with authenticity is irrelevant in an academic setting. They are learning that Clarion seems unaware of the issues that have fueled racial unrest on campuses around the country, most recently with flashpoints at the University of Missouri and Yale University. They are learning that when a community is overwhelmingly white, concerns about race aren’t perceived as valid.
In an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Friday, Marilouise Michel, professor of theatre and director of the canceled production, wrote, “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.” What’s peculiar about that statement is that until 1:30 pm that day, when he released a statement, the playwright hadn’t sought for this issue to be public in any way. It was Clarion that had contacted the press, Clarion which had released his correspondence with Michel, and Clarion which used a professional public relations firm to issue a statement about the situation from the university and its president. It reads, in part:
The university claims their intent from the start was to honor the integrity of the playwright’s work, and the contract for performance rights did not specify ethnically appropriate casting. Despite the university’s attempt to give Suh a page in the program to explain his casting objections and a stage speech given by a university representative on the cast’s race, Suh rejected any solutions other then removing the non-Asian actors or canceling the production.
“We have no further desire to engage with Mr. Suh, the playwright, as he made his position on race to our theater students crystal clear,” says Dr. Karen Whitney, Clarion University President. “I personally prefer to invest my energy into explaining to the student actors, stage crew and production team members why the hundreds of hours they committed to bringing ‘Jesus in India’ to our stage and community has been denied since they are the wrong skin color
This insidious inversion of racial justice is profoundly troubling. The play, set in India, has three characters named “Gopal,” “Mahari/Mary,” and “Sushil,” a strong indication of their race. Suh maintains that the university was asked about their plans to cast those roles, and his agent Beth Blickers says no answer was ever given. But when the playwright finally drew a line over racial representation, he was the one who was supposedly denying skin color, when it was Michael’s personal interpretation of the play, against clear evidence and requests, which was ignoring race in the play. So now, one must wonder whether Dr. Whitney will be spending time explaining to the students of color on campus why she is vigorously defending the practice of “brownface” on campus (white actors portraying Indian characters, regardless of whether color makeup is actually employed) and attacking a playwright of color for decrying the practice.
To be clear, there is undoubtedly great disappointment and pain among the students and crew who had been working on the production. Anyone in the arts will surely sympathize with them for having invested time and effort towards a production that they surely undertook with the best of intentions. But they were, most likely unwittingly, made complicit in the act of denying race and denying an artist’s wishes.
In the university’s press release, the extremely small Asian population of the school is noted (at 0.6% of the student body), as it has been previously in many reports. That no Asian students auditioned should not have been surprising, nor should it have been license to substitute actors of others races as a result. Any director who is part of an academic theatre program has a very good idea of what talent may be available, and often productions are chosen accordingly. So it is not the failure of Asian students to audition to blame for the inaccurate racial casting. More correctly it was the decision to produce a play which clearly called for Asian characters and the assessment that race didn’t matter that created this situation – not Lloyd Suh or any student.
In the Chronicle, Harvey Young, chair of the theatre department at Northwestern University, admittedly a more urban school, says the following regarding racial casting on campus:
“That is the magic of the university — to introduce people to a variety of perspectives and points of view.”
But at Northwestern, Mr. Young said, the department uses a variety of strategies to avoid what could be racially problematic casting. The department has hired outside actors to play some roles and serve as mentors to students, reached out to minority groups to let them know about acting opportunities, and staged readings at which only voices are represented.
“The goal is to devise strategies that allow you to engage the work while being aware of whatever limits exist,” Mr. Young said.
In her essay for the Chronicle, Michel wrote, “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.” This is a specious and rather ridiculous argument, since Shakespeare’s work is not under copyright and can be cast or altered in any way one wishes. While there are certainly examples of actors of color taking on roles written for or traditionally played by white actors – NAATCO’s recent Awake and Sing with an all-Asian cast playing Clifford Odets’s Jewish family, the Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with a black cast playing Tennessee Williams’s wealthy southern family – they were done with the express approval of the rights holders. That these productions were in New York as opposed to Clarion, Pennsylvania makes no difference as to the author’s rights. What we have not seen is an all-white Raisin in the Sun, either because no one has been foolish enough to attempt it or because the Lorraine Hansberry estate hasn’t allowed it.
Clarion’s press efforts have certainly paid off in the local community, with three news/feature stories in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (here, here and here) as well as an editorial, along with two features (here and here) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in addition to the aforementioned essay. That the Post-Gazette’s editorial sides entirely with Clarion is no surprise, since the university was driving the story; that it fails to take into account any reporting which runs counter to Clarion’s narrative, and indeed repeats them, is shameful, a disservice to the Pittsburgh community. That the Chronicle of Higher Education ran Professor Michel’s essay, another one-sided account of the situation, is problematic, but the headline (whether it is theirs or Michel’s), “How Racial Politics Hurt My Students,” is a clarion call for paranoia about race. It ignores the fact that the problems arose from a failure to respect the work and the playwright, that the issue is based not in politics, but in art, and that the author saw his work being defaced and stood up for it. There have been countless other reports on the situation. That this has engendered vile racist outpourings online, especially in comments sections and on Facebook, and in some press accounts is the result of the university’s irresponsible spin.
Universities are in no way exempted from professional standards when it comes to licensing and producing shows; to claim otherwise is to suggest that campuses are bubbles in which the rules of the real world do not apply. While classrooms are absolutely places for exploration and discovery, theatre productions of complete works for audiences are not just educational exercises. Students need to be taught creative and legal responsibility towards plays (and musicals) and their authors, not encouraged to take scripts as mere suggestions to be molded in any way a director wishes. When it comes to race, this incident and the recent Kent State production of The Mountaintop will now insure that every playwright who cares about the race of their characters will be extremely explicit in their directions, but that doesn’t excuse directors who look for loopholes to justify willfully ignoring indications in existing texts.
It’s my understanding that there has been new contact between Michel and Suh, though I am not party to its nature or content. It’s worth noting that in the third Post-Gazette story, it is reported that “Ms. Michel took to Facebook Saturday to ask “that any negative or mean-spirited posts or contact towards Mr. Suh be ceased. We are both artists trying to serve a specific community and attacking him helps no one.” That’s a responsible position to take, but it should be expanded to include negative posts or contact about the accurate portrayal of race in theatre, since they are flourishing in the wake of this incident.
It is also now time for the university to explain the truth about why the production was shut down, namely a failure to respect the artistic directive of the playwright; insure that this incident and the rhetoric surrounding it hasn’t been a license for anyone to marginalize their students of color; and begin truly addressing equity and diversity on their campus. Regardless of the racial makeup of their community or student body, they need to be setting an example and creating a better environment for all students, not feeding into narratives of racial divisiveness.
Update, November 18, 7 pm: Earlier today, the Dramatists Guild of America released a statement regarding the organization’s position on casting and copyright, signed by Guild president Doug Wright. It reads, in part:
One may agree or disagree with the views of a particular writer, but not with his or her autonomy over the play. Nor should writers be vilified or demonized for exercising it. This is entirely within well-established theatrical tradition; what’s more, it is what the law requires and basic professional courtesy demands.
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.