Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Response to the Nightingale Casting Controversy at the La Jolla Playhouse

First of all, to get this out of the way, I have been an employee of the La Jolla Playhouse, off and on, in one regard or another for almost 16 years. This is an organization that has its facilities on the campus of UCSD, an institution with over 44% of its enrollment representing Asians and Asian Americans, despite having no Asian American Studies department or major.  As a theatre major I took great inspiration from my classes in Chicano theatre, that I took in lieu of the lack of classes that analyzed Asian American theatre.

So, as a result, my career began very young as I took it upon myself at age 19 to establish San Diego's Asian American Repertory Theatre where I served as Artistic Director for 10 years, all the while, moonlighting at the La Jolla Playhouse.  By night, I was a simple stagehand making slightly better than minimum wage while during the day, I was heavily involved with San Diego's APA Community, receiving a Mayoral commendation, and recognition as one of the "top 30 most influential Asian Americans under the age of 30."  With all this in mind, my relationship with the Playhouse, my standing in the local APA Community,  I am a little shocked to find myself in this current position I find hurtful and disappointing.

I must express my frustration and disappointment regarding the controversy over the casting choices of the La Jolla Playhouse's workshop production of "the Nightingale." To many of my colleagues in the Asian American community and Asian American artists, this represents a continuing trend for Asians and Asian Americans. It is hurtful not only because it exemplifies the decrease of opportunities for Asian American Artists as portrayed in the Asian American Performers Action Committee's "Ethnic Representation Report" (, but because it is indicative of the continuing trend of appropriation of cultural representation as often reported by organizations such as 

This is all particularly disappointing in light of the fact that La Jolla Playhouse has held a legacy of featuring more Asian Pacific American work on San Diego stages than any other local producer other than San Diego's  Asian American Repertory Theater, having developed both "Dogeaters" and "Most Wanted" with Jessica Hagedorn, Chay Yew's "Wonderland", Diana Son's "Boy" and featured APIA actors such as Ching Valdez, Alec Mapa, Sandra Oh, Michi Barral, Sab Shimono, Zoe Chao and BD Wong. (Its not perfect, majority of this happened in the 90's.  And in the context of the long history of the theatre, these are small numbers, I realize, but in the grand scheme of things it shows a strong attempt, and the promise of growth.). In spite of this, the current cast of "the Nightingale" features a "Multi-Cultural Cast" with only 2 out of 12 roles going to Asian Americans in a story set in feudal China.  As any director knows, you can tell a story without words, or text.  That the composition of the stage pictures alone can convey a feeling, imply a theme, and in that vein, casting tells a story.  And in this current workshop of the Nightingale, that story is hurtful, and offensive.
In regards to this recent controversy the Playhouse has stated that this story is not Asian or Chinese as it was created by Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson.  However the story is not framed within the context of a fictional universe like Middle Earth or a Kingdom of Mer-People.  With the names of characters, costuming, and situations, the Nightingale establishes itself as representing China, at which point one might question the logic that the creators would not seek out additional oversight from the Asian or Asian American Community, rather than lessen it through casting "multi-cultural."  For that matter, wouldn't an Asian American artist, born and raised in a western culture, schooled and trained in western theatre traditions, but influenced by Asian cultural roots, be ideal for interpreting a story like this, a western interpretation of Asian themes and aesthetics? 
Earlier this week, I and a few other minority leaders in San Diego’s arts and culture scene reached out with compassion to La Jolla Playhouse as peers and friends to have a conversation about this. We met on Monday for two hours, and thought at the time that it was a productive meeting. We expressed that there was a real opportunity here for La Jolla Playhouse to be a leader, do something groundbreaking, and advance the conversation about diversity in theater into something productive. All they had to do was say “I’m sorry.” They didn’t intend to offend fellow artists, the Asian American community and everyone engaged in issues of diversity, but inadvertently they did. we expressed that if they say sorry, we will stand by them and support them.
Unfortunately, after listening to the interview on NPR last Wednesday, it does not look like this is the direction they are taking.
As storytellers and artists, we all bear a responsibility, in the tradition of the classic Greek Dramatists who forged the foundation for modern philosophy, social science and other forms of study that analyze and present the human condition.  What is disappointing is that so far LJP is showing no leadership in taking responsibility for their lack of oversight.  Statements from the Playhouse so far indicate they are sorry WE were offended, not sorry THEY offended US.  The problem of course being, that if we, as artists cannot take responsibility, cannot own up to the impact our choices have and cannot admit to any mistakes, it removes the opportunity for our community and society to learn from such mistakes.  It halts progress rather than advances it.  This is not representative of a culture of artistic exchange or cultivation of ideas and expression.  This is representative a corporatist culture, so obsessed with saving face, so constricted, mired and strangled by its "official verbiage" and jargon that it cant say the simple things we learned as children like "I'm Sorry."

Moving forward, I can only hope that LJP will choose to build upon their past legacy of contribution towards the growth and cultivation of voices, rather than dismiss such indiscretions claiming the support of "artistic choice" over social responsibility.  Both should be a priority.  More-so I wish that the impact of certain choices on some communities did not still need reminding in the year 2012. 

I would like to believe that internally and individually, my friends and colleagues at the Playhouse, an organization that has felt like home to me for many years, understand the indiscretions, and feel remorse for the position the institution seems to be taking, and I challenge them to speak to their personal convictions and not to their prescribed "obligations" to the company line.

I also call out to all artists, Asian Americans other people of color, and my many white and Caucasian friends who believe in a community's right to own our own representations of self; Please support us, and express your solidarity, so those in power can hear our voices and know that this issue will not simply blow over. 


Please plan on attending the panel discussion on this topic on
Sunday, July 22, 2012
3:45 PM
La Jolla Playhouse
Directions and Parking Information Here:

Some Context, A report about the decrease of roles that went to Asian Americans on Broadway Stages
the Blog Post that hit the internet and brought national visibility to the issue...
Wednesday's KPBS Interview with Actor Greg Watanabe and Christopher Ashley


  1. My only question to the LJP CD would be: how many AA actors actually auditioned per 12 roles? And then, how many were good? Level-set playing fields are important in this context.

    1. My understanding is that, at the level of the La Jolla Page to Stage program, actors don't choose whether or not to audition - they are invited. That being said, there are many "AA" actors of Broadway caliber, and indeed the Playhouse claims that they staged a reading with an all-Asian cast and it was not "appropriate" for the story set in feudal China. One wonders why a Rainbow cast doesn't ask for an alternate setting.

  2. Did you hear that none of the creatives will actually be on the Nightingale panel tomorrow at La Jolla Playhouse? So the people who actually made the casting decisions won't be there. They're the ones who need to hear from the public the most, yet it seems like they just can't be bothered.

    1. It is quite disconcerting. Not only would it be a slap in the face, but it would seem to rub against the grain of LJP's "Page to Stage" charter.

      I think we should all let the creative team know that.
      Here's Moises Kaufman's FB profile:
      Steven Sater's profile:
      And Duncan Sheik's FB page:

      I encourage you to be diplomatic, after all, who wants to walk into an angry mob... so I understand the apprehension... but to not show up shows an arrogance and ambivalence that is really unnecessary, and honestly, will make matters worse!

  3. i think audience members should bring marbles to opening night and let 'em roll at an appropriate moment. i'm with the person who wrote "moises kaufman can kiss my ass." racism in art is just back of the bus racism, not some ill-conceived artistic decision. treat racism with white gloves and the dirt doesn't show. t think kaufman and company deserve a little disruption - all undignified, real, and intrusive.