By Deen, member of the 2009 Emerging Writers Group
On February 13th, roundtable discussion about Asian Americans at the casting door was led by playwright David Henry Hwang. “Over the past five theater seasons Asian-American actors were cast in 2 percent of the roles in Broadway and major Off Broadway productions, while 80 percent of the roles went to white performers,” writes Patrick Healy of the New York Times, “Asian-Americans were found to be the only minority group whose share of New York acting roles declined slightly, and they were also the least likely to be chosen for characters that would traditionally be played by white actors.”
The Asian American Performers Action Coalition went so far as to name those theater companies that cast the fewest numbers of Asian actors (Atlantic Theater Company, Manhattan Theater Club, Playwrights Horizons and Roundabout Theater Company), while our own Oskar Eustis advocated for Asian Americans to raise their voices, picket the theaters if need be! This suggestion was apparently met with applause from the 400-strong audience at Fordham University.
I say “apparently” because I wasn’t there and couldn’t witness it firsthand. I was at Ugly Rhino’s Valentine’s Day-themed short play festival bemoaning the fact that my play had been pulled at the last minute because we had been unable to find any South Asian actors to play the roles. The festival is a monthly event that Ugly Rhino puts on -- a fun and fast collaboration, as these things usually are -- complete with talented artists and drinking games. February’s incarnation saw work by a number of Public Theater Emerging Writers Group alumni. My play, Gaurav, is about the death of Gaurav Gopalan, a gay South Asian engineer and theater director who was murdered in DC. In it, two parents try to come to terms with their son’s sudden death as a result of a hate crime which has yet to be solved. Heavy fare for a festival that encourages drinking, but meaty roles for the actors.
If we had found any actors, that is. We contacted about a dozen people. One very talented one (and my friend) was going to be at the David Henry Hwang panel. One was in Colorado working. A few were busy. A few never responded to any of our emails or Facebook messages. Two weeks turned into one week. The festival’s casting department tried to help. One week turned into a weekend. My director and I had an emergency rehearsal to figure out if I could play one of the roles, if he could play one of the roles with a sign around his head that said “I know I’m not South Asian, but I play one on stage,” if we could begin the show with an announcement that said: “We would have liked to have cast this play appropriately, but all the South Asian actors are at David Henry Hwang’s panel discussion at Fordham.”
I won’t lie. I was a little bitter and in my head I was taking it out on David Henry Hwang. I fully understood the point of the panel and I think it’s a very important conversation to be having. But the irony that it was happening on the same night as this festival and that my director and I couldn’t find any actors to play the parts of Gaurav’s grieving mother and father was just too much for me. My laughter every time I mentioned it had a decidedly sharp edge.
It’s true what the panel said about Asian Americans being unfairly undercast. It’s true that Asian American audiences need to “vote with their feet” as David Henry Hwang said (and Healy reported). But it is also true that every time I have written roles for South Asian actors, it has been a nightmare trying to cast them. As a South Asian writer and performer, I feel an obligation to write more South Asian roles: It’s important for South Asian audiences to not only see their own stories reflected, but to see stories about queer people who break the mold of South Asian conservatism; it’s important for non-South Asian audiences to see South Asian stories, to see more diversity in general; and it’s important for South Asian actors to have those roles.
But every single time I have had to cast anything outside of a South Asian girl in her 20s, I have been moved to desperation by the end of the process, and I’ve been trying to do this for about six years in NYC. I am sometimes tempted to say, “Fuck this I’m writing for white actors from now on.” Not because I don’t love my South Asian peeps, but because my hair is thinning and pretty soon I’ll have nothing left to pull out.
I don’t know what the answer is. I can see how it’s possible that many South Asian actors don’t stay in the field because the prospects are so slim, and those that do might opt to do more film or TV, perhaps? Certainly, South Asian families do not generally look kindly upon their children attempting a career in the arts. But the fact remains that every single time I have tried to cast South Asian actors, it has been a difficult experience. I often end up with actors at vastly different ability levels, with vastly different amounts of experience. If I can find actors at all, that is.
So what to do? I don’t have an answer. I’m not advocating for anything contrary to what David Henry Hwang and others advocated for at Fordham when they talked about Asian Americans at the casting door. But I think it needs to said -- when I do write roles specifically for South Asians, more often than not I’ve been driven to exasperation by the casting process, more often than not I’ve had to be grateful for any actor I could find versus finding the right actor for the role, and more often than not I’ve wondered why the hell is this process so damn hard?
Where are you, South Asian actors?
Draw the Circle will have its World Premiere at InterAct Theatre (Philadelphia) April 4-8th, 2012. To find out more or to buy tickets, click HERE.
For more information about Deen, please visit: deentheplaywright.weebly.com.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.