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Asian Americans protest casting of new musical

A production number from a new musical ‘Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise.’

Views from the Edge

The practice of whitewashing and yellowface isn’t just a problem in Hollywood. Asian American actors have a similar problem getting parts on Broadway.

A recent production of the musical Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise drew protests from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition along with other Asian American community groups when it cast an Asian character with a non-Asian actor. 

Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise tells the story of a secret sect in Flushing, Queens, that possesses the magical power to extend human life, and the twin brother and sister caught in the struggle to control it. The pop artist Sia wrote the music.

A recent report conducted by AAPAC looked at casting on Broadway over the last five years. African American performers filled 13% of all available roles, Latinos/Hispanic American actors were represented at 4%, and Asian American actors were 2%.  Not surprisingly, White actors, who secured 80% of the roles, were the only ethnicity to over-represent compared to their relative population size.

Asian Americans were the only minority group to see their numbers decline over the 5-year period. 

The AAPAC along with several theatre companies and Asian American advocacy groups recently  released an open letter to the artistic leadership of The Shed, the new multi-million dollar cultural center in Hudson Yards, Manhattan.

Below is their letter in its entirety.

“We are a coalition of theatre artists and Asian American advocacy organizations around the nation. We have heard several complaints from our members who saw your production of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise at The Shed. Your production appropriates Chinese culture, mixing it with western pop influences, relying on the most reductive tropes of the kung fu genre while providing no cultural context. It makes little effort to humanize or add nuance to the Chinese American characters, but instead, relies on stereotypes for characterization. In a multi-million dollar production which made use of public funds, you chose to employ a predominantly Caucasian writing, music and producing team who deemed it appropriate to give a Caucasian actor the principal role of the Grandmaster, “Lone Peak.” As the archetypal wise elder who is the keeper of ancient Chinese secrets and the father of “Little Lotus,” it is clear that he is intended to be an Asian character–or should be. The decision to use yellow face casting is offensive and unacceptable to us and we demand a public explanation.

“No doubt, the leadership of The Shed thought that entrusting Chen Shi-Zeng, a Chinese-born director, fulfilled any obligations they might have had in bringing true authenticity to the production. It didn’t matter that Mr. Chen has a history of implementing yellow face casting: his production of The Orphan of Zhao at Lincoln Center in 2003 was cast entirely with Caucasian performers playing Asian roles. 

His director’s note in the program for Dragon Spring states: ‘My intention was to cast actors regardless of their ethnicity because I believe human experience is not exclusive but rather transcendental in nature. Our ‘Chinese story’ is acted by performers of many backgrounds. Like America at its best, Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise is about shared cultural values and experiences.’ 

This sounds to us like another way of saying, “we don’t see race” and conveniently sidesteps the long history of misrepresentation, exploitation and erasure that Asians have experienced in this country. Erasing our culture, our humanity and our bodies from our own story is a form of racism at its most insidious. The fact that Mr. Chen grew up overseas does not excuse him from being ignorant of the long history racism against Asians in America. He has been in this country since the 90s.

“We agree that human experience is transcendental-we are forced to see ourselves in Caucasian protagonists all the time. This is an issue of representation. Mr. Chen’s lofty goal of “rainbow casting” may be apt if the playing field were level, but it is not. Asian stories are rarely produced, and opportunities for Asian American actors remain unequal. It is perhaps even more disappointing, if that were possible, that, when there are Asian performers in this production, they never rise above the level of being stereotypes: the dutiful Asian kids; the Asian woman who has no defining characteristics except to be a wife and mother, etc., all of which speaks to the apparent disregard the creators have for accurate representation in storytelling. The fact that this orientalism went unchallenged betrays an extreme lack of leadership on the part of The Shed across all levels.

“It begs the questions: Who is this production for, really? What does this production add to the story of Asian immigrants in America when it treats the culture it aims to honor so superficially? Doesn’t this actually diminish the culture? What does this production do for Asian and Asian American voices in the theater when its own voice is more reflective of the history of American appropriation of East Asian culture? Can we expect this concept of “rainbow” casting in upcoming projects at The Shed for all racially-specific stories? If not, why was this story treated differently? It’s one thing if The Shed fails to live up to its stated mission of “shared cultural values”, but it’s another when its product negatively affects our community and how we are perceived. We must speak out against it.

“We hope you will address these questions with us in a public forum at a mutually beneficial time in the future, one that will allow multiple perspectives to be expressed. We hope you can be in the room with us to listen to the experience of those who have been hurt by your production and to publicly address what you intend to do differently (if anything) moving forward. We look forward to your response to our invitation. You may contact us at [email protected].

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