“The show” in question is Avenue Q, the 2004 Tony Award winning send-up of Sesame Street. The speaker is Robert Lopez, the co-conceiver, co-composer and co-lyricist (with Jeff Marx) of the musical; Lopez is also an award recipient for his work on Broadway’s The Book of Mormon and Disney’s film Frozen. Lopez was responding to questions provoked by a recent article in the Cincinnati Enquirer by David Lyman, a freelance writer covering arts and culture for the paper, entitled “Yellowface: The New Blackface?” Lyman’s article was instigated by the casting of the role of Japanese immigrant Christmas Eve in the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater production of Avenue Q, which closed this past weekend.
In the piece, Lyman wrote, “It probably shouldn’t have surprised me when I saw the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater’s production of Avenue Q and found the character of Christmas Eve – “I am Japanese,” she declares at one point – played by an actress who looked white. (More on this later.) Showbiz Players did the same thing when it produced the show in 2012.” Lyman went on to write, “While casting an ethnically appropriate Asian actor may be more difficult in Greater Cincinnati than in Seattle, it is not impossible.”
Lyman was prompted to examine Avenue Q due to a Facebook colloquy begun by Cincinnati actress Elizabeth Molloy on February 7, ten days before the production began its run. It began:
How is it 2016, and I still have to explain to people that yellowface is wrong?
I mean, everyone knows that blackface is a no-no, right? (RIGHT?!). So why is it so difficult to extend that same logic to other races? Do I really have to point out that yellowface is just as terrible, just as insulting, just as disrespectful, and just as mean as blackface?
In an interview, Lyman said he did not know Molloy well, but saw her remarks because mutual friends shared them on Facebook. Lyman said that as a freelancer, he does not review every show in the area. “This [Avenue Q] was one I probably was not going to see,” he notes, but as a result of Molloy’s post, “I thought, ‘Well OK, I need to change my plans and I did.” Lyman notes that he paid for his seat.
In his article, Lyman wrote:
So is it essential that an actor look Asian? Or is it enough that a person’s heritage somehow reflect an Asian heritage? [The actress] doesn’t look particularly Asian. But according to Rodger Pille, director of communications and development for Cincinnati Landmark Productions, the Incline’s parent organization, [the actress] said that her great-great-great-grandmother was Ma’ohi, from the island of Tahiti.
“Once we knew that she did have some of that descent, we felt we could move forward with the casting,” says Pille. “That was enough for us. We didn’t want to be the arbiter of what percentage Asian she was.”
He has a point. Theaters shouldn’t have to check genetic code before they allow a person to audition for a particular role. But they should be sensitive and use common sense.
Please note that the name of the actor has been omitted above, and will not figure in this article. The responsibility for the casting lies with the theatre and production’s director. The goal here is to explore the ramifications of the casting in Cincinnati, not to in any way shame a performer who had a chance for paid work in what is surely a limited range of opportunities in the city. Warsaw Federal Incline Theater is a professional non-Equity company, described by several people as the top non-Equity theatre in the area, with sufficient influence that several individuals contacted for this article declined to be interviewed out of concern for alienating the leadership of the company.
As Lyman’s article spread nationally, it reached Erin Quill, a staunch advocate for authenticity in racial casting and, as it happens, the original understudy for the role of Christmas Eve in the Broadway company of Avenue Q. She has written her own commentary about the situation on her blog, “The Fairy Princess Diaries,” but also responded to questions resulting from Lyman’s article via e-mail. She wrote:
CE [Christmas Eve] is an immigrant from Japan. First generation. There is an obligation to showcase the character in such a way that honors the writers’ intentions. CE is Japanese. It is in the script.
I think it is fair to say that in this particular case, with a reviewer being so distracted by concerns of ‘whitewashing’ while he viewed the show in Cincinnati that he felt he had to write extensively about it – I think the Creative/Production Team did not do their job. They may be good people, but good people make bad decisions all the time.
Actors don’t cast themselves. As Ann Harada tweeted me the other day ‘Sometimes people need time for learning’ – and this is really what it is –learning where the line is drawn for an audience to buy into the show. According to that review –this casting is problematic. I for one, am glad that diversity is being discussed in Cincinnati theater, I hope it continues.
Quill went on to write,:
I believe that as we are now 15 years (gulp) down the road- you can always find a person to play the role that would be appropriate. You cannot sell me on the idea that ‘no one came in’ – and if that IS the rare instance – make a phone call and see who is out there that is available.
Saying ‘we could not find any’ is laziness.
Ann Harada, referred to by Quill, originated the role of Christmas Eve, in workshop, Off-Broadway at The Vineyard Theatre and on Broadway. Regarding the Warsaw Federal Incline production she wrote via e-mail:
I do understand the limitations of casting certain roles, but then, why do the play? I have a hard time believing they’d use a White Othello instead of just not doing Othello. That being said, I always wish I’d seen the international productions of Q like in Denmark, God knows who played Christmas Eve and Gary [Coleman] in that one.
I’ve met a few white Christmas Eves in my time, mostly adorable young girls who played her in high school. Whatever. Which is why we can’t get upset at the actress who was cast, it’s not her fault. It’s interesting and a little hurtful that her heritage was deemed “exotic” enough to pass for Japanese but ultimately it is a decision we have to lay at the feet of the producers and creative team.
In response to whether the character of Christmas Eve, with her heavily accented English, could be perceived as a stereotype, Harada wrote:
I was concerned that the role would be viewed as a stereotype but I felt it was integral to the points made in the show that the character have an accent. I know several people who expressed their dismay to me about the accent and my response was ” you don’t get it”. If I felt Christmas Eve was a stereotypical character (submissive, shy lotus blossom, good at math, that sort of thing) it might be one thing but she was so obviously tough, smart, educated and aggressive that I felt she was a fully rounded person. People do have accents. It doesn’t make them less smart or interesting or valid than people who don’t have accents.
Except for a few specific lines, the script of Avenue Q does not write in an accent or dialect for Christmas Eve. While it does drop articles and reverse pluralization of words, lines like “Ev’lyone’s a ritter bit lacist” are the exception in the text, rather than the rule. That was very intentional, said Lopez, though he warned of overdoing it. Lopez, incidentally, describes himself as “half Filipino, half a medley of Irish, English, Canadian, Latvian and other stuff.”
“I think that’s the way the performer would prefer to read the script, so that’s how we presented it,” Lopez explained. “I think there’s a description that says she speaks with a heavy accent and that’s not something that we’re trying to micromanage exactly. It’s on a performer by performer basis. I’ve seen it done even by professionals and it’s made me uncomfortable and I always give a note about it. Because there’s a line – and it’s not just a racial sensitivity thing, it’s a comedy sensitivity thing. If you play something cheap, if you play it for cheap laughs, instead of playing the truth behind it, it will always be offensive. Bad comedy always offends me in all forms. Avenue Q has that pitfall because it’s puppets. In many ways it’s cartoony, but on the other hand it’s also real, it’s also about real life. Unless the actors play the truth of the characters, the show is just a shadow of itself.”
It’s worth noting that among its various transgressive elements, which includes a gender switch in casting which calls for a actress to play the role of Gary Coleman, early workshop iterations, including its five performances at the O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, saw a white actress in that role. Lopez said that the original intent was meant to be merely another example of the show’s irreverence. He credits the show’s commercial producers with prompting Lopez, Whitty, Marx and director Jason Moore to cast a black actress when the show moved to full production. Lopez said he would not support a return to the casting of a white actress in that role. [In full disclosure, at the time of the 2002 workshop, I was executive director of The O’Neill Center, and while I found the casting choice very strange when I learned of it, I did not make any objection to it. In the same situation today, I would let my voice be heard speaking against the choice.]
This past Sunday, during a Democratic presidential debate, CNN moderator Don Lemon cited the Avenue Q song “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” which indicated that 13 years after its Broadway debut, the show’s messages remain current.
“Sometimes I wondered about that song and sometimes I think that people don’t get the spirit in which it’s meant,” said Lopez. “It’s certainly not intended for us to relax our standards as far as the way we treat other people. The only way we can move forward is if we acknowledge where we are. So the song in that sense is relevant.”
In the wake of his article about the Warsaw Federal Incline production, David Lyman said that while he was surprised to see few responses in the article’s comments section, he had gotten “dozens of communications” in its wake via e-mail and on social media.
Describing the response as “uniformly supportive,” Lyman characterized the messages as saying, “I’m glad you brought this up. It’s about time somebody wrote something like this. I’m impressed. I’m proud of the paper for doing that.” He contrasted this with the responses he received several years ago when he called out a University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music production for using the original script of the musical Peter Pan, complete with archaic representations of Native Americans and still featuring the song “Ugg-a-Wugg.” He said that in his review, he expressed the opinion, “’Well shame on them. They shouldn’t be doing that. This is the wrong century for that.’ That did not go down well. I got a fair amount of negative feedback on that one.”
Lyman also noted that he had not heard anything from the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre itself since his article came out. For this article, multiple attempts were made, via phone and e-mail, to contact executive and artistic director Tim Perrino as well as communications/development director Rodger Pille, of Cincinnati Landmark Productions, the parent organization behind Warsaw Federal Incline. Neither responded to any of the inquiries. That gives Lopez, Harada, Quill, Lyman and even Elizabeth Molloy, who began the conversation, the final words on the subject, namely that when casting roles where race is specified, the roles should be filled by actors of that race.
But Lopez, in considering the subject of the show’s continued relevance, struck a conciliatory note while making clear what the lessons should be from and for Cincinnati, as well as any future productions of Avenue Q.
“I think that the dialogue has widened,” observed Lopez. “I think people are more comfortable sharing their opinions. I think as the conversation widens to include to everybody’s point of view, we all benefit from learning what offends people and learning what in fact their point of view is. I think we all learn from that, but unless we all talk about it, you don’t learn. In some ways, unless you cast a white Christmas Eve, you don’t learn that that’s wrong, you don’t learn that that’s not OK with people.”
Even though Avenue Q is closed, David Lyman notes that the issue of authenticity in racial casting retains great currency, not only in Cincinnati, but at this particular theatre. “Warsaw Federal incline Theatre is doing Anything Goes in June,” notes Lyman. “What are we going to see there? We’ve got these two Chinese guys. Are they going to make any effort to find Asians? I don’t know. We’re going to find out.”
Howard Sherman is interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts.