Theatre scholar Lisa Silberman Brenner began the Public Theater’s June 8th panel discussion Playing Jewish at the National Asian American Theatre Company with the following provocations:
- According to an Asian American Performers Action Coalition analysis, from 2006 onwards the percentage of Asian American actors performing in Broadway or major non-profit off-Broadway productions has ranged from 1% to 4% (an all time high, never repeated).
- Of all ethnic minorities, actors of Asian descent are least likely to play roles not defined by race
- Twenty percent of approximately 6 million Jewish Americans are non-Caucasian.
These statistics informed a lively discussion about issues of ethnicity and representation in the theatre as they intersect with and inform the National Asian American Theatre Company’s upcoming all Asian-American production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!, a play about a three-generation Jewish American family set during the Great Depression. Discussion panel members included Mia Katigbak, co-founder and producing director of the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), Stephen Brown-Fried, director of NAATCO’s Awake and Sing!, and composer/lyricist William Finn, whose award-winning musical Falsettoland, which is set during a family’s preparations for a Bar Mitzvah, was staged by NAATCO in 1998 and in 2007.
NAATCO’s website states that the company’s mission is to “to assert the presence and significance of Asian American theatre in the United States, demonstrating its vital contributions to the fabric of American culture.” Their repertory consists of “European and American classics as written with all Asian American casts; adaptations of these classics by Asian American playwrights; and new plays – preferably world premieres – written by non-Asian Americans, not for or about Asian Americans, but realized by an all Asian American cast.” For their 25th season, the company will be in residence at the Public Theater. Awake and Sing!, running from July 6th to August 1st, will be a remounting of NAATCO’s 2013 production that previously played at Soho Rep’s Walkerspace.
In the hour-long discussion, panelists wrestled with central tensions in contemporary American theatre. In an art form dependent on the audience’s willingness to suspend their disbelief in every way the minute they enter the theatre space, why isn’t casting always color-blind? How is the ideal of color-blind casting tempered by the reality of socio-political and historical inequalities, both inside and outside of the theatre, and that audience members don’t come in as blank slates? Is there inherently political meaning when you deliberately cast against expected type?
Panel members discussed a wish for audience members to “release into the play” regardless of the cast that is tempered by the knowledge that the all Asian-American casting adds resonance to certain “racially charged” lines in the play that reflect the prejudices of time. Brown-Fried noted that when Awake and Sing! lines like “I don’t like Japs, they’re sneaky,” are said by an all-Asian cast, an added layer is added to the audience-actor transaction. “You are in a room where that lines is charged with different resonances,” he explained. Both Brown-Fried and Mia Katigbak discussed the fact that the NAATCO casting serves to speak to the universality of the themes of the play, and at the same time, the specificity of the immigrant experience in New York.
Silberman Brenner acknowledged that there are times when casting against ethnicity can be problematic. “We worry about things like minstrelsy. There starts to become a history that’s called into question, a power dynamic.” In response to an audience query on whether a play like A Raisin in the Sun should always be played by African American actors, Brown-Fried expressed the belief that there is a difference between casting Awake and Sing! with Asian American actors and casting A Raisin in the Sun with white actors. “One has to consider the communities that have historically been marginalized. White actors have not been marginalized by theater,” he said. Panel members also questioned whether critiques of the all Asian-American casting of Odets’ play were really about ethnicity or about physicality and people’s assumptions about what it “looks like” to be Jewish. Silberman Brenner said that some reviews of NAATCO’s 2013 production of In Awake and Sing! discussed whether it was “believable” that the Asian American cast members were Jewish. In contrast, she noted, no published reviewer questioned the believability of the 2006 Broadway cast of Awake and Sing! Only one cast member of that Broadway production was Jewish, she noted, but all were white. Silberman Brenner argues that productions like NAATCO’s are “challenging what it means to be Asian and what it means to be Jewish.”
For readers of Arts in Color, the dialogue around race, ethnicity, and casting is more than academic. Assumptions and decisions, both deliberate and unconscious, about who should and should not play certain roles impacts actors of color ability to work on a daily basis. At the same time, actors of color are often hyperaware of the larger social impact of being complicit in minstrelsy or ethnic stereotyping. One NAATCO Awake and Sing! actor wryly replied when asked about the potential awkwardness of playing a Jewish character from the Ukraine, “I’m from the Midwest. It is awkward in the same way as when I have to play a Chinese character with a Chinese accent.”
For those interested in joining the conversation, NAATCO’s Awake and Sing! plays July 6th to August 1st at the Public Theater at 435 Lafayette St. in Manhattan. Thursday performances on July 16th, 23rd and 30th will feature post-performance talkbacks.