Last week, Clarion University canceled its theatre production of Jesus in India after the playwright voiced concerns over white actors being cast in roles written for actors of South Asian descent. Yuuuuup.
Cancellation of College Production of ‘Jesus in India’ Over Casting of White Actors Prompts Debate
The play, Jesus in India by Lloyd Suh, is described as "a contemporary reimagining of a wild stretch in the lost years of Jesus Christ." Three of the five characters in the play are Indian, but in Clarion's production, two were to be played by white student actors and a third by a non-Asian mixed-race student.
Suh told the university that he was not supportive of white actors portraying Indian characters in his play, and wanted the parts recast. After being told that finding Asian replacements would not be possible, he ultimately pulled the university right to stage the production -- a week before the play's scheduled opening.
I can seen why casting the production might have been a challenge. Asian or Pacific Islander students account for 0.7 of 1 percent of the Clarion University's 5,368 students. That's when you need to put a way that play and look for something else to perform. But Clarion's theatre department went ahead with it, because clearly, no one in charge has ever had a conversation about diversity in theater and maybe-this-shit-is-not-okay.
Here is the email Suh sent to director Marilouise "Mel" Michel, a professor of theatre at Clarion:
Dear Ms. Michel,
I received your response to Beth Blickers' query concerning the casting in your production of my play Jesus in India at Clarion. As you well know by now, I have severe objections to your use of Caucasian actors in roles clearly written for South Asian actors, and consider this an absolutely unacceptable distortion of the play.
I consider your assertion that the ethnicity of the characters are not "specified for purposes of the plot/story/theme" outrageous. The play is called Jesus in India. India is not irrelevant, and I take great issue with the insinuation that you (not the author) are entitled to decide whether the ethnicity of a character is worthy of consideration.
Your citing of "color blind casting" as an excuse for selecting white actors to portray non-white characters is a gross misunderstanding of the practice, and denies the savage inequities that exist in the field at large for non-white performers, both in professional and educational settings.
I have received your further message detailing the poor statistics at Clarion in matters of racial diversity. 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.
You may argue that because you are a university and not a professional theater, that you should not be held to the same standards of cultural responsibility as the rest of society. I strongly believe otherwise, and maintain that professional training programs have a duty to prepare students for actual theater practice. That practice includes the rigorous cultural conversation present in the field at large; to excuse your students from that work is to woefully underprepare them for the realities of the profession.
Perhaps you are somehow unaware of the ongoing conversation on these issues that have been occurring in the American theater for decades. In order to provide an introductory context, I will direct you here:
You should know that what you are doing is connected to a very painful history of egregious misrepresentation and invisibility, and is incredibly hurtful. Hurtful to a community for whom opportunity and visibility is critical, and also extremely hurtful to me personally as a flippant denial of Asian heritage as a relevant and valid component of one's humanity.
It hurts me to my core. I couldn't stop myself from crying when I saw the photos and realized what was happening. It is embarrassing, humiliating, and demoralizing to be so casually disregarded.
I therefore insist that you immediately (1) recast the play with ethnically appropriate actors, or (2) shut down the production entirely.
It is incumbent upon me, professionally, personally and morally, to distance myself from this production, and condemn the way it has been cast. I hope you are able to adjust your plans accordingly so that I don't have to make any public declarations against it and pursue other further action in order to make this right.
Suh further explained his side of what happened in a Facebook post, expressing that his decision to pull the plug on the production was not made lightly. "The students are victims," he writes. But he also stands firm in his position on casting, saying he 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."
Here's the full post:
Clarion took it there with their white tears, and Suh responded. At this point, I'm actually bewildered over how many times these debacles have to happen before people start to realize that this kind of casting bullshit is outdated and unacceptable. Or perhaps it takes individual asskickings, one theater production at a time.
Because really, Clarion just got its ass kicked. At the very least, somebody up top over there ought to start thinking about investing a little more the university's office of diversity/inclusion... if they even have one.
More here: University Cancels Production of Jesus in India After Playwright Voices Concern Over Casting of White Actors