As an Asian playwright, I have always been confronted by the following question: Must Asian playwrights write about Asian characters? When I first started my career, that question wasn’t hard for me. Everyone should write about everything, I thought. Shakespeare created Italian, Danish, Moorish and many other characters of diverse nationalities and origins. If he can do that, well, why can’t I? Also, I saw my fellow playwrights, many of whom were white, tackling plays set in Africa, Middle East, Asia, and other places, with characters of various ethnicities. So the bottom line seemed to be: just write what you care about.
As time passed, my view changed. I became sensitive to the relative lack of opportunity for artists of color. White actors are of course considered for white role, but they are often cast in non-white roles too. A recent example involved the use of white actors in La Jolla Playhouse’s The Nightingale, which was set in Ancient China. I felt the pain of minority actors who were passed over.
I realized I have a responsibility to write for these actors. If I want the people on stage to truly reflect the colors of the diverse communities we live in, then it starts with me. Diversity was no longer an abstract concept; it became an actionable thing. And I realized it wasn’t just about creating Asian characters, it was about creating characters that embrace the multi-cultural world we live in. My plays may or may not have an Asian element, but I always endeavor to engage with issues of under-served communities and interests.
But a new question arises. If an Asian playwright were to tackle non-Asian characters, how can he or she ensure these characters are truly authentic? I raise this only because I have been confronted by this question time and again. I am acutely aware that many white playwrights are not taken to task for writing characters that are distant from their cultural roots; and yet I am quickly challenged whenever I create Black, Latino and other characters. My view is: being Asian doesn’t automatically mean I am an expert in creating, say, Japanese characters (I am of Chinese descent); in the same way, I believe one’s ethnicity doesn’t give you a monopoly over creating characters of that ethnicity. Otherwise, no one would have the standing to create a truly multi-cultural play, if authenticity is the end-game. I would say the argument over authenticity misses a key point: the intent of the playwright, and the work put in in pursuit of that intent. Sadly, this is often glossed over in the name of political correctness.
Recently, one of my plays was selected for a reading in New York. It is a short play with four characters: three Asian and one African American. I had given the producer permission to use the play when I got the following message in an email: “I will not be able to cast three Asians and a black actor for this reading, unfortunately. I am using a group of six actors to do readings of all the plays, and none are Asian or black. Since it is a reading and not a full production, we feel that it’s OK if the casting is not literal.”
It is clearly not okay, and we quickly parted ways. My message to the producer was clear: This is not just about casting; this goes to the heart what I do. It felt good to take a stance, and it felt even better to see the message land.
There is a further responsibility on the part of the playwright, which is to ensure that directors and actors, who may or may not share the same background as the characters on the page, truly understand who these characters are. I have been in situations in which a director or actor completely missed the cultural nuances of one of my characters. This is nobody’s fault – no one can be expected to know everything. So I take it upon myself to clarify the cultural context. Ultimately, this is a part of the conversation every playwright should have with his or her director and/or actors anyway, and I have learned not to shy away from it. It can only result in a better production.
Sometimes, I think a reason why my plays are not staged more regularly is because casting is too difficult or “impossible.” Then there are times when I feel truly lucky to be doing what I am doing. I am not just telling stories; I am part of the change. After all, if I am not seeing diversity on stage, why am I doing this?