The musical is presented as part of the playhouse’s new “Page to Stage” play development program, where playwrights and directors make constant changes to the play throughout its run in response to the audience’s reaction and feedback.
“We pick plays that are not finished in any way, shape or form — that are still discovering their story, discovering what the writing should be, what the design should be and very much what the casting should be,” said La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley.
The public response to the production was one of sharp criticism, primarily from members of the Asian-American acting community, who felt shafted by the casting decisions for “The Nightingale,” in which two out of the 12 actors in the company are Asian American and the lead role of the emperor is played by a white actor.
“To see this production with so few Asian-American faces reminds me how invisible we still are and how we are still often not invited to sit at the table. And to not be invited to sit at the table in a play that takes place in an Asian country is like a knife to the heart,” said panelist Christine Toy Johnson, Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) member. “Aside from the human aspect of why this matters to us, it’s that knowledge of the talent that is out there, and underused, that fuels a lot of the passion here.”
Another AAPAC member, Cindy Cheung, said her reaction to the casting decision was one of “dismay, disgust and confusion.”
“I’m still getting over the shock of having seen it and having so many people be okay with this. It was very disturbing,” she said. “We know it’s not a finished product. That’s why we’re here. We don’t want this to happen anymore. If this were a finished product, we’d be outside with pickets.”
Moises Kaufman, the play’s director, explained that casting decisions were based on the creative team’s intention to create a fabled story in a mythical land, rather than one set in a specific place and time in China.
“When you are working on a new play or a new musical, what the creative team is always trying to do is to try to find the place where the original story, the host text, resonates within you,” he said. “When the three of us were looking at this fairytale, we were excited by the mythical idea.”
He said the two fascinating aspects of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale that grabbed the creative team’s attention were the idea of the magical bird and the mythical fairytale land in which they intended to set the story.
“A big part of this conversation was that we wanted this to be a cast that has as many ethnicities and as many minorities as populate the American landscape. We were in search of a mythical space. We were never interested in setting it in a real China in a real moment in time,” Kaufman said. “Had we thought we were setting it in feudal China or China in 1817, our casting choices would have been very, very different.”
He said inspiration for the set design and costumes were based on a number of different cultures, ranging from the emperor’s Iranian-inspired robes, the townspeople’s Brazilian fishermen-influenced attire, and the use of a mixture of Chinese and Moroccan lanterns on set.
Despite the creative team’s intent, some critics questioned whether the majority of the audience would have the cultural context to understand that they were seeing a blend of cultures onstage, and not, in fact, China.
“Everything that we see as an audience and everything we see in the marketing materials that say, ‘Break out the chopsticks,’ tells us that you think it’s in Asia,” said Cheung. “You explaining the concept of you not thinking it’s in China is one thing, which I respect, but it doesn’t line up to what we are seeing.”
She also touched on modern-day race politics as a key factor in the plight of the Asian-American acting community.
“It’s very difficult when we read in the paper the explanations that have been given — that ‘we wanted to do a rainbow cast, we wanted to do multicultural casting’ — which sounds really good and well-meaning and altruistic, but it’s skipping over the reality that 1.5 percent of Broadway roles in the last five years went to Asian Americans,” she said. “Multi-cultural casting was intended to create opportunities for people in underrepresented groups. What I see here is that it created opportunities for five white men.”
Steven Sater, who authored the musical adaptation of “The Nightingale,” agreed there are longstanding inequities in the American theater system, but he maintained that his vision for the piece reflected the multi-cultural world in which he lives.
“As an artist of social consciousness, we need to be mindful of those issues and address them. I also feel that I have to address what’s in my heart and my artistic vision for the piece,” he said. “I was not writing for a company of actors, I was writing for a vision that was in my mind and that vision always was, and remains, to be multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. However imperfect its realization here may be, that’s the vision I continue to embrace for this piece.”
Although the creative team may have been unsuccessful at fully articulating their vision, they emphasized that the production is a work in progress.
“We are a developmental production,” said panelist Tara Rubin, casting director for the production. “What we are really sharing is the theater process, rather than what we intend to be a finished product. If our multi-cultural approach to this is not coming across, that’s a valuable part of the Page to Stage process to the creative team.”
Both Ashley and Kaufman issued statements of apology for any offense made to the Asian-American community.
“We didn’t intend to offend fellow artists or the Asian-American community and that we inadvertently did so, we are sorry,” said Ashley.
At the conclusion of the forum, Ashley highlighted the importance of the open discussion in the wider context of raising awareness to the greater theater community.
“This forum is part of a larger effort to build relationships and help to create new opportunities for inclusion. I also hope that the public forum will encourage other arts organizations to have similar types of public conversation about these issues. I think that the future of the American theater is dependent on conversations like this one — on mutual understanding that leads to progress,” he said. “If you have any thoughts or ideas about how to construct a real pipeline for opportunity in the theater at La Jolla Playhouse, that was the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it.”