Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: An “Exploration” of Race

Marissa Skudlarek asks fifteen questions. We’d like to know if she enjoyed the play. Is that question sixteen?

Last week, I settled comfortably in my seat at Manhattan Theater Club and prepared for an amusing evening of light entertainment. I was seeing a preview of a new play called The Explorers Club, by Nell Benjamin, a comedy about a Victorian-era society for gentlemen explorers, whose president proposes granting membership to a talented lady explorer. I admired the detailed set, by Donyale Werle, full of polished mahogany, old maps, animal skins, exotic artifacts. I perused the thick, full-color Playbill.

And then the show began, and I realized that I had unwittingly bought tickets to one of the more controversial plays in New York City. For, in the role of “Luigi,” a native of the remote tribe discovered by the lady explorer, was an actor named Carson Elrod.

A few weeks earlier, a blog called “Why I’m Tired of Being an (Asian) Actor” (whitetribalchief.wordpress.com), had made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. In it, the Filipino-American actor Alexis Camins describes auditioning for a role as a “tribal chief” in a new comedy at a New York City theater. He made it through several rounds of auditions and hoped that this role might be his big break… and then was dismayed to learn that the theater had cast a white man in the role instead.

“Why I’m Tired of Being an (Asian) Actor” is a great blog, both thoughtful and outraged. It ends with a series of 16 questions, as Camins struggles with his feelings about the matter and aims to deepen our discussion of race in the theater.

Camins doesn’t name the theater, the play, or the actor who eventually won the role, but the context makes clear that he’s talking about The Explorers Club. Somehow, though, when a New York friend suggested that it might be fun for us to see The Explorers Club, I didn’t make the connection between the play I was buying tickets for, and the play that Camins described. It was only after the show started that I realized what I’d done and got a very uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.

So, I guess, here’s my series of questions, prompted by my experience as an audience member at The Explorers Club:

1. Why didn’t I recognize that this was the play mentioned in Camins’ post? Could I have done any kind of “due diligence” before buying my tickets?

2. Should Camins have explicitly named the play that he’s talking about, or was it better for him just to let us figure it out by the clues he drops? As an out-of-town ticket buyer who can’t keep track of everything that’s playing in New York, I would’ve found it helpful if he named the play.

3. One of the reasons I bought tickets to The Explorers Club is that it was by a female playwright, and I like to support female writers whenever possible. Do I get any credit for that?

4. However, though it’s written by a woman, The Explorers Club has a cast consisting of eight men and one woman. Is this really progress? Nell Benjamin, why didn’t you write more good roles for your fellow ladies?

5. But isn’t the mostly-male cast there to make a point about the forces of (white, male) oppression that the lady explorer must struggle against?

6. Can I get off of this feminist tangent, and back onto the subject of race? (Yes.)

7. In the promotional photos for the show, available online, Carson Elrod has his chest and face painted white with blue stripes. As such, it is pretty easy to tell that he is a white guy. When I saw the show, Elrod was painted entirely blue – which helps to disguise his race, although his facial features still read as Caucasian rather than “ethnic.” Was this the producers’ response to Camins’ blog? When was this decision made?

8. Would there be some twist in the play that would justify the casting of a white guy? All though the second act, I kept hoping that the lady explorer would be revealed as a fraud and “Luigi” would prove to be a white man painted blue. (The play is farcical enough that this could actually work – although this twist would then undermine the play’s feminist message.) Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

9. Would I have been so outraged by the casting of a white man as the tribal chief if I hadn’t read Camins’ post? If not, what does that say about me and my racial sensitivity?

10. What should I have done, when I realized that I’d paid money to see a play where a white actor was cast in a role that should’ve gone to an actor of color? Should I have complained? Walked out?

11. Maybe I should’ve asked for a refund. Yeah, that would have been the gutsy thing to do – ask for a refund. That would’ve shown ‘em. Right?

12. But isn’t it annoying when white people suddenly get up on a high horse about racism? If I’d asked for a refund, wouldn’t it have made a scene? Was I prepared to argue the point with theater staff? How far was I prepared to go?

13. Why was I so outraged by this instance of casting a white man in a non-white role? It’s certainly not the first time I have ever encountered this.

14. So, should I also have asked for a refund when I went to Berkeley Rep last winter, and a mixed-race cast performed the Chinese tale of The White Snake? Should I have asked for a refund when I saw Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them at Custom Made Theatre, and the actor who played suspected terrorist “Zamir” was not Middle Eastern?

15. Raising awareness, and participating in conversations about race and theater, are great — but what are the concrete actions that I can take to make things better?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Her personal blog, marissabidilla.blogspot.com, describes her as “a girl with a question for most things.” No duh.

7 comments on “Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: An “Exploration” of Race

  1. To answer your question about whether I enjoyed the play: well, if I had loved it, I think that the racial issue would have bothered me less, and I wouldn’t have considered asking for a refund! But because it didn’t really grip me, I had plenty of time during the course of the show to ask myself questions about the ethics of a white guy playing a tribal chief, etc.

    It’s an unabashed farce, with a lot of gags/twists that you can see coming from a mile away. Despite Nell Benjamin’s talk about how this play is a big feminist statement (see http://theater.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/theater/nell-benjamin-and-jennifer-westfeldt-on-the-explorers-club.html) it really feels like it could have been written at any time in the last 40 years. OK, it’s feminist, but not in a radical or controversial way. I feel like it will probably be popular with community theaters and others who gravitate toward this kind of old-fashioned stage comedy.

    The cast is quite talented. Veteran actor John McMartin has an interesting take on his role as an elderly conservative who doesn’t want to allow a woman in the club — he underplays it, in an off-beat fashion. David Furr is very funny as a pompous, swaggering explorer who thinks he has discovered the “East Pole.” Lorenzo Pisoni, an SF native who will be familiar to Bay Area audiences from his one-man show “Humor Abuse” at ACT, does his best Hugh Grant impression as a nerdy-but-cute botanist. The best part of the show is a gag that involves Elrod sliding drinks off the bar and Pisoni catching them effortlessly. I wish the script had given him more chances to do physical comedy!

    I saw another show when I was in New York, “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” which is better on both an artistic level and on a political correctness level. The writer/composer is male, the director is female, the large cast seems to have gender parity, and there’s also some color-blind casting. (Philippa Soo, who appears to be of Asian heritage, plays the leading role of a young Russian countess.) The design and staging are complex and fluid; the concluding scene is simple and beautifully emotional. Definitely recommend this one!

  2. alexiscamins says:

    Thank you for continuing the conversation. I’m glad to hear from someone who has actually seen the show, and if I may, I’d like to respond to a few of your thoughtful questions:

    2. I was torn about whether or not to explicitly name the theater or production in my original post. Part of me wanted to do just what you had mentioned: say the name of the play and the theater and tell people to boycott the production. But another part of me felt that this issue was bigger than just this ONE casting decision, made at this ONE theater for this ONE production.

    I felt that if I came across as mounting a boycott, it would seem that I was angry and bitter towards this production, when really, I’m angry and bitter towards how race is represented in theater EVERYWHERE.

    Also, I didn’t want to give the show free press! Having said that, I was glad when colleagues named the production and theater for me, as you have done.

    7. I highly doubt that the theater read my post and the character now being ALL blue is somehow a response to that. If it was an attempt to somehow hide the actor’s ethnicity, that solution seems pretty, ahem, skin deep.

    I doubt the theater has even read my post. In fact, that is a big piece of the conversation that’s missing: hearing a response from the theater itself.

    But there’s a big reason why my post wasn’t a letter sent to the BNYT (aka Manhattan Theatre Club): they’ve already said their piece. By casting a white actor in this role, they are saying: “Race doesn’t matter when casting. We don’t believe that casting a white actor for a non-white role is wrong. We don’t believe our audiences will notice or care that a tribal chief is being played by a white actor.”

    9 and 13. If you hadn’t been aware of it, would the color of the actor playing the role in any way affect how you watched the show? How did it feel seeing a white actor portray this character? Were you offended or did you just think that you should be offended? I assume you didn’t see the show alone; how did your friends feel?

    10 and 11. It’s hard to walk out of a show you paid X amount of dollars for. I rarely walk out of anything, if just to give a show its full opportunity to express itself. I don’t think you can beat yourself up about not getting up and leaving. Asking for a refund, while being a grand gesture, wouldn’t really affect their box office in a way that they would notice.

    I wonder if contacting the theater in some way and expressing dissatisfaction at what you’ve just seen may be a course of action. If they get enough letters, maybe they’ll respond. Maybe.

    But then again, unless a majority of their subscribers express dismay and storm out in droves, I don’t think the theater will even realize there is a controversy.

    11. I believe there’s plenty to do to be part of the solution and part of the change.

    Being fully aware that our artistic decisions reverberate in our culture, beyond just our theater culture, is the beginning. I always try to imagine a young person seeing the show; how is that young person’s view of the world, others and him or herself being shaped by what they see on stage?

    I think that’s a responsibility we often overlook. But as a kid, it was only when I saw a face that looked like mine onstage did I imagine that a life in theater was possible for me. That’s powerful stuff.

    As hard as it is, we also need to listen when people suggest ways we can change. Playwright Michael Lew provides a handy guide about How to Cast Actors of Color (http://www.mikelew.com/3/post/2013/06/how-to-cast-actors-of-color.html).

    And finally, yes, continuing this conversation and getting the word out is concrete action. It forces other theater artists to question their own artistic decisions. It may seem like a small act, but according to the Butterfly Effect Theory, a butterfly’s flutter can cause tsunamis.

    So spread your wings and do some damage.

    • Hi Alexis, thank you so much for reading my blog post and commenting! I understand your decision not to name the theater — you’re right that the problem is systemic, not the fault of one theater company or casting director alone. But I’m also glad that you didn’t mind my naming the production — or using your own name, for that matter.

      Since seeing “The Explorers Club,” I’ve had conversations about this issue with my friend L. (who saw the show with me in New York) and my boyfriend C. (who did not see the show, but read this post). Both of them seemed to imply that I was overthinking things a bit. I agree with you that when compared to something like the war in Syria, the casting of a white actor in an ethnic role is not “a big deal,” and I admit that yes, I probably would be a happier person if I did not spend so much of my time brooding about racism and sexism and other forms of injustice.

      I also think that the extreme silliness of the role in question and the broadness of the play’s comedy contributes to people not feeling offended when they see that a white man is playing this character. (L. said that it didn’t really bother her.) Whereas, if the play were a serious drama about Victorian imperialism, I do think there’d be more of an outcry. But it seems to me that ethnic actors don’t often get cast in roles that require broad, silly, slapstick comedy — so it really must feel like a slap in the face that a white actor got cast here. (No pun intended, even though the character of Luigi does go around slapping people.)

      And maybe that’s what bothers me the most about this whole business. Being cast in a Manhattan Theatre Club play is a great opportunity for an actor. So if a white man gets cast in this role, he can further beef up his resume and credentials (and keep winning good roles in future), while women and minorities struggle even to gain a foothold. Did you hear about how, in Lincoln Center Theatre’s upcoming production of “Macbeth,” the casting notice suggests that the witches may be cast as men, because the director wants them to be “androgynous”? (See http://www.playbill.com/jobs/find/job_detail/53185.html). As if there weren’t already enough roles for men in “Macbeth”!

      C. also disliked the idea of calling for a boycott — he thinks that we should see art and critique it to our heart’s content, but a boycott is “financial strangulation,” and art (which is a Good Thing) should not be strangled and censored thus. I’m not sure I agree with this. I DO think a boycott can be an effective tactic, particularly when other tactics have failed and people are getting frustrated. And I AM frustrated, and I’m starting to wonder whether I shouldn’t be more careful about voting with my dollars.

      At the same time, if you point out racism or sexism repeatedly, people start to tell you that you’re needlessly bellyaching, or overthinking things, or that you sound like a broken record. Good lord, wouldn’t it be nice to get to a place where casting directors behaved with sensitivity and common sense, and we didn’t have to constantly point out injustices like the ones related to “The Explorers Club” or “Macbeth”?

      Thanks again for your reply, and best wishes to you.

  3. D Galella says:

    Thank you for such thoughtful blog posts.

    After reading about the White Tribal Chief, my friends and I went to the play because we’re PhD students interested in race, power, and representation. We also thought #8, felt uncomfortable, and tried to unpack the meanings of the casting as well as the rather Orientalist portrayal of the monks. But mostly, I wanted to let you know that at an after-party for Choir Boy, I spoke with someone in MTC’s marketing department, and she was well aware of what she called “the controversy” and said no more about it.

    • Thanks for commenting! I agree with your observation about the Orientalist portrayal of the monks, too — the playwright & director seem to think that we will find it inherently hilarious to see a white man dressed up in saffron robes and doing kung fu moves. Good for you for trying to raise this issue with an MTC staffer when you had the chance to speak to her, though it’s understandable that they are trying to keep this hushed up.

  4. grunin says:

    I saw the play at MTC last year and similar questions came to mind. I had not read about it in advance and wondered at the casting. I hoped that there was a twist coming to explain it, and was disappointed when it became clear that there wasn’t.

    On the other hand, the part of Luigi isn’t really a parody of the “noble savage” character, it’s really just Chico Marx in face paint; perhaps casting a person of color might have made the thing feel like actual racism, rather than a parody of it?

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