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.

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