The Fairy Princess has been lax – and I admit it. I have not been blogging because there has been a new addition to the family. My Niece arrived on December 28, adding to the fun of my having a now, 8 month old, and my first niece who is nearing her second annum. So…blogging came a very distant second, third, fifth to the holidays and the naming days and actually all other days that could possibly have a name. I apologize, my wings were trying to beat quickly, but there was just SO MUCH happening I could not get a clear thought in my head.
Until I saw this.
Was ist das?
You may ask – and you may ask it in German, as I have just done. German would be the way to address this issue because, this issue cannot be addressed properly in English. It should have been able to be addressed in Sinhala or Tamil, but that would assume one has familiarity with the languages of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, and one cannot assume, as Felix Unger warned us so many years ago.
If you have not been flap ball changing around The Broadway, you may not know that there is currently a revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood playing at The Roundabout Theater. The premise of Drood, which was a novel that was never finished by Charles Dickens, is that we are watching a ‘show within a show’. Meaning we have been transported back in time to Victorian England to watch a show done by a Thespian troupe, who are giving us a show about a book that was never finished.
The musical has no ‘definitive’ ending. All we really have is the setup, and then after poor old Edwin has been ‘whacked’ every which way but Sunday, the audience gets to vote on who ‘did it’. Much merriment ensues. Technically you have to see the show several times to see all the different ways in which Old Edwin bites the dust. Therefore not only is it a show within in a show, it’s a moneymaker within a moneymaker. If you love it, you will go back to see it over and over until you are satisfied that you have exhausted every possible motive everyone could have possibly have had, and you will bask in the knowledge that you, good Sir, are a bona fide fan.
It is all very good to want to place things in Victorian England, I wouldn’t mind a place there myself – next to the Dowager Countess of Grantham if possible – but this is impossible because we live in 2013.
Yes, hard as it is to believe it, The Fairy Princess is beating her wings after the Mayan Calendar told us that life as we knew would end. (They did not predict the end of the world, the History Channel has been very clear on that matter, don’t get it twisted). And the Fairy Princess knew that two of the characters in the musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, are supposed to be from Ceylon. Which is now the country of Sri Lanka. But in 1870- something was Ceylon.
So when there was an announcement that Drood was coming back to Broadway, I was eager to see who would be cast as Helena and Neville Landless. All I knew was that they were both to have been from Ceylon. I have never been to Ceylon now Sri Lanka, guess where it is?
Oh. Sri Lanka borders Asia, The Middle East, and the Indian Ocean. If one were to own property in Sri Lanka, one could probably even see parts of Africa from their backyard. (Which would make Sarah Palin happy – she likes land masses viewable from backyards). The Fairy Princess loves research though, so she thought since she now knows WHERE Sri Lanka is, she would take a look at the people of Sri Lanka.
What do people of Sri Lanka look like? I thought I would take a look – Sri Lankan people in 1870…go!
If I were casting the character of Neville Landless in Drood, I imagine that I would look to people who have appeared in musicals, on Broadway or National Tour, who may have South Asian heritage. (Actually you could go a lot of different ways with this, given where Sri Lanka is, but let’s go with the supremely easy choice of South Asian).
It would be refreshing to have that Diversity in the Cast of a Broadway show. It would also fit with the storyline – in fact, it is WRITTEN IN the storyline, and…there are lots of people to bring in and sing for it. After all, since the Original Drood hit Broadway, we have had a whole crop of South Asian Broadway performers setting new standards. It is awesome! So…who would I call?
I might go with Aasif Mandvi, who played Ali Hakim in the last Broadway Revival of OKLAHOMA! (And yes, I had to sing it to spell it)
Or…I mean, you could go with Dev Janki,
Or certainly, without a doubt I would call the star of the only South Asian Broadway show, BOMBAY DREAMS, the one and only Manu Narayan Here’s a clip of him (pay no attention to Mike Meyers or Jessica Alba, you can DO it!)
Yep, any of the aforementioned Dudes would have done a great job of representing a Native of Ceylon, and they have the chops to sing it, dance it, and have been on Broadway stages previously. Easy peasy. I was able to cast that part in two minutes.
But let’s see who Director, Scott Ellis went with:
Now, Wikipedia tells us that it is not actually clear to what extent Helena and Neville Landless are Ceylonese, or Sri Lankan. Perhaps the choice was that Neville Landless is NOT a Native of Ceylon, perhaps he is a British Ex-Pat, who just lived there and got some sun….
I could have gone with that, till the NY Times pointed out, “silly imitation exoticism‘ and “...absurd burnt umber makeup‘. Which seems to imply that the Director, Scott Ellis, is actually meaning to have a Caucasian Man put on “Brownface’ and dance around in an imitation of what is South Asian traditional dance.
Who would DO that?
Ok, perhaps the part of Neville has been cast with what the NY Times calls ‘absurd burnt umber’ leanings, but let’s turn to the part of Helena. After all, brothers and sisters don’t always look alike.
I mean, in my Family, which is Eurasian, we all look completely different. I decided I would try again – given that Neville has been painted in shades of Umber, I guess that the Director was going for a “Native” look – so I took a Google walk, and here is what a Native Girl from Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka) looked like in the 1870’s.
And here is how Director, Scott Ellis saw the role:
This is as bad as a white guy playing the King of Siam…oh wait…yeah, see – that rarely happens anymore. This is as bad as the Engineer being played by Jonathan Pryce!
The issue is not whether or not Helena and Neville are technically Ex-Pats of England brought up in Ceylon, or that this is a show within a show and they are portraying actors from Victorian England who would have portrayed natives of Ceylon in burnt umber makeup – the issue is – why?
Why would you, in the year 2013, find it a strong directorial choice to have two Caucasian actors put on makeup and ‘exoticism’?
If they are English ex-Pats, wouldn’t they be as Caucasian as they both are, but just wear the Native dress and perhaps have an accent? OR…here is a thought – if you are to make the determination that the characters are Native Ceylonese, maybe cast some Actors who look like they could be from that area?
I mean, why Cast this way in the year 2013?
This just does not make any sense!
This is like telling me that Julie Taymor and Bono hang out and go for long walks together! This is like saying that Porgy & Bess should have had an All Asian American Cast! This is like saying that The M*therf*cker with the Hat should be cast with all White Peo…oh wait, didn’t they do that in Connecticut? Nevermind. It’s Connecticut. The point is – all those thing are ridiculous!
I mean, if Neville and Helena were from Africa – which, as you can tell on the map, is just right across the sea from Sri Lanka, and NOT implausible, would you allow Caucasian actors to put on Blackface? They damn well wouldn’t. And THAT is actually Equality – if you would not do it to one Minority, you do not to it to the Others. Even Steven in this case, works just fine.
But wait, they will probably say that they looked, but could not find any South Asian Actors. Yes, yes, we hear this all the time – no Asian actors to be found, thus we were FORCED to use Caucasians in the role.
Really? Couldn’t find any South Asian Actors and Actresses….I see….what? They were all off working for the Wachowskis on their next Sci Fi movie because Tom Hanks is now going to do Broadway and there was an Opening? Right. Nice try.
I mean, is the whole cast of the Bombay Dreams busy?
The Fairy Princess is astounded. Here is a show which is written to include South Asian characters, and they were erased in favor of a what? In favor of a Mikado-esque depiction of the Natives of Ceylon now Sri Lanka!
(Before we get too crazy, please note: Actors are hired, directed, and give the performances that the Creative Team wishes them to give. So no hating on Andy Karl and Jessie Mueller - they are both very talented Broadway performers. All my Caucasian friends who have seen the show have raved about it. As for the rest, the Fairy Princess is reasonably assured you would understand their feelings.)
Most would ask why, Fairy Princess? Why does this tilt your tiara? It is a limited run, and who is this really going to hurt? I mean really?
What effect can one show have on an under represented group?
Well, l received a Casting Breakdown from a new show that the Acorn Theater is presenting, it’s called BUNTY BERMAN PRESENTS -It is a show about Bollywood. It is written for an entire Indian Cast by a writer from England named Ayub Khan Din.
Here is the first line of the Breakdown:
NOTE: We are open to seeing Actors who are Non Indian, but who can believably play Indian Characters.
I mean, if South Asian people don’t get to play South Asian on Broadway – why should they get to play themselves Regionally? Why, when it is so FUN for Caucasians to put on thick makeup and accents and have a rip roaring, R and L dropping, Sari wearing heck of a time?
The Fairy Princess has no answer for this. The Fairy Princess finds this very sad.
So five smacks of the wand to The Roundabout Theater and Director Scott Ellis – you had a chance to be a leader, and embrace Diversity in a show where it is part of the plot, and you chose not to. And if you still do not see what effect the casting of a Broadway show can have, what the trickle down is, then please go and re-read that line from the Bunty Berman Presents Breakdown.
And you know what?
KISS MY FAN TAN FANNIE!
A Statement just released by AAPAC:
Visit our website: http://www.AAPACnyc.org
AAPAC Opposes Brownface in Roundabout Broadway Production
After seeing The Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and receiving numerous complaints about the use of brownface in the production, AAPAC feels it is necessary to release the following public statement:
We were deeply disappointed to see white actors impersonating characters of South Asian descent complete with brown grease paint, appropriation of costumes and dance movements and relying on stereotypes in place of characterization. The obvious talents of the actors notwithstanding, the use of brownface had the effect of being extremely surreal and alienating, as if a joke was being told that was not intended for the Asian American community to hear.
We understand that the racism inherent in this musical is a reflection of the social mores within 19th century British panto and Music Hall traditions. Director Scott Ellis was being true to tradition, historical precedent, and to the story itself.
However, we would assert that if these characters came from the British colonies of Jamaica or Cameroon, and not the British colony of Ceylon (now present day Sri Lanka), blackface would never have been utilized in the same casual way. Today, you would never see a white actor in blackface playing the title role in “Othello” with the excuse of, “oh, well, that’s what was done in Shakespeare’s day.” We wonder why minstrelsy is acceptable when it comes to Asians?
The Roundabout production seems to show little awareness of the long history of Asian impersonation we are trying to put behind us or how racial politics and demographics have changed even in the 28 years since this show first premiered. There were a myriad of ways Mr. Ellis could have handled this issue with more sensitivity. For one, he could have hired actors of actual South Asian descent. Or, if he wanted to preserve white actors in these roles, the use of brownface would have been more ironic or satirical had the entire ensemble been cast multi-culturally. This would have been particularly effective since Hispanic-American star Chita Rivera was already in the cast. However, we have heard from quite a few members of the Asian acting community, including those with major Broadway credits, that requests from their representatives to secure an audition were denied.
The Roundabout Theatre Company does not have a good record when it comes to inclusive casting. Last year, we released a report looking at the percentages of actors of color hired at 16 of the top not-for-profit theatre companies in New York City over a five year span. The Roundabout made our list of the five theatre companies least likely to hire actors of color. In fact, they ranked second to lowest.
We are reaching out to the Roundabout to engage in closed-door discussions about these issues and are hopeful that they will accept our invitation. We are certain that their record does not reflect a conscious policy of exclusion and we hope that by bringing these issues to a more conscious level, the Roundabout can become an ally in an industry-wide commitment to more inclusive casting.
In the meantime, if you feel as strongly as we do, it would be very helpful if you take two minutes to send Artistic Director Todd Haimes a short missive via their FB page:
Until there is conscious attention given to these issues throughout the industry, opportunities for American actors of Asian descent–and all actors of color– will never be truly equal.
Yours in Solidarity,
The AAPAC Steering Committee
Pun Bandhu, Cindy Cheung, Kimiye Corwin, Angel Desai, Siho Ellsmore, Christine Toy Johnson, Peter Kim, Julienne Hanzelka Kim, Nancy Kim Parsons, Kenneth Lee, Allan Mangaser, Eileen Rivera
UPDATE FROM THE ROUNDABOUT THEATER COMPANY PAGE:
Thank you for your post. Listening to our audiences is at the core of Roundabout’s values, so we appreciate all feedback and take it very seriously.
Roundabout’s leadership team is planning to meet with Asian American Performers Action Coalition to discuss their concerns. In the meantime, we will refrain from further comment here on Facebook, and look forward to a constructive meeting.