Overthinking so you don't have to.
imme a minute on this one. I’m chewing it over, so this post is going to be more exploratory with jumping around than a decisive statement with supporting information.
I just saw White Snake at the Berkeley Rep this weekend, and it was gorgeous. The story is fascinating. It’s an ancient Chinese tale twisted and turned by centuries of retellings and reinterpretations. Over time, spirits became demons became “good guys” became scapegoats became martyrs. It’s a complicated story to begin with, and its metamorphoses as a story is a tome in itself.
Playwright and director Mary Zimmerman scripted a truly vibrant production. There’s music, lots of color, puppetry, and clever costuming. It’s an enjoyable show. I felt it really captured the complexities of Chinese folklore. This isn’t the first time Zimmerman has taken on the story of another culture and applied it to the American stage. She, like William Golding and Memoirs of a Geisha and David Mitchell and Cloud Atlas, really impressed me with her ability to immerse herself in another culture’s story and time. You can’t just tell another world’s story and communicate its values like you’re playing a game of Telephone. You have to dive in like an anthropologist, historian, ethnographer. It’s such an admirable feat.
Except that I couldn’t get over all the White people playing a Chinese ensemble on stage.
The Facts: The White Snake ensemble comprises of nine cast members, a couple of which double up on more central roles. Of these nine, three are of Asian descent. (Worth noting that I’m not even expecting an all-Chinese cast for this adaptation of a Chinese story. Even I’m not that naive.)
Where the Asians at in this Asian story?
Before you accuse me of “reverse racism” (a term I frankly don’t buy – racism is racism and everyone’s a little bit racist), slow your roll. I get it. An ensemble is like a Greek chorus. It is a body of actors who move a story along. Some people describe them as everymen/women. They are a collective vehicle for story points, pace, and perspective. They aren’t central in the way the protagonists are; in fact, at any given moment, they should be able to fall into the background. So in an ethnic tale, some might say the ensembles’ ethnicities aren’t important.
But can’t they at least correctly pronounce the names, places, and things they’re talking about? Elements of the play – this Chinese story with Chinese characters and a Chinese setting – are Chinese. Both primary dialects of Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese) are tonal, meaning one pronunciation of “love” could easy be misspoken or misheard as “dust.” In White Snake, all of the ensemble’s efforts at tones went completely out the window. Every mention of the villainous monk Fa Hai sounded awkward. Like the Childish Gambino lyric, it “sound[s] weird like nigga with a hard R.”
I’m not even close to a native Mandarin speaker, super far from it, but I do have an ear for butchered accents. I think a lot of the general movie-watching public does. It’s like awkward writing. Even if the concept is true, the delivery is botched. Your attention goes toward the poor phrasing, not whatever higher message was intended. I had a hard time listening to a lot of the play. This was like Anne Hathaway’s British cat-scratching in One Day. And I love Anne Hathaway! How am I supposed to suspend disbelief with all these cats scratching at the scrim?
A huge cut of my beef with White Snake could very well be that these actors just don’t do languages well. I accept that. I still think it rocks that they’re working actors and doing live theater (which I think has to be one of the most emotionally demanding occupations ever), but can you delve into the character more? You’ve been chosen to portray a truly ancient character on stage, but it sounds like you heard this story for the first time last week. You have to walk with conviction, feel it in your body, and exude it with your voice. Show some respect for the old culture you are representing on stage, one of the oldest civilizations in existence.
Behind me, two target demo matinee attendees (White senior citizen women) were discussing the racial diversity of the cast. “And I really liked that, too! I’m glad they didn’t discriminate against us.”
Knowing nothing about these women, I knew it was unwarranted to cite the decades of Black/Yellow/Red-face in American drama, the years where people of color and Caucasians couldn’t even kiss each other on screen because it was illegal, or how a story about Asian American college kids was completely whitewashed for the 2008 production 21. These sweet old ladies were happy they weren’t discriminated against in the theater! I was floored. I said nothing. Had they no idea? Do they know what a slow and boring game it is to Spot the Asian on TV? (Better in recent years, yes, but that’s not saying much.)
Ironically, the last play on this stage was David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, which is all about fucked up Mandarin-English translations (among other things, of course). And here’s the White Snake ensemble wearing fake Fu Manchu moustaches and traditionally inspired embroidered silks. No yellow face paint. I found it offensive.
Color in “colored” roles.
I was just discussing this with friends a couple of weeks ago. One actress of color was tired of how ethnic minorities were being denied roles like those in My Fair Lady: mainstream, and – we’ll just call it what it is – White. In theory, I agree. It’s frustrating. Why can’t ethnic minority actors take on mainstream roles? Is not being White an automatic indication of inferior acting skills? Not to get all conspiracy theory on Broadway, but it’s the system. There aren’t that many roles that allow for non-Whites. My Fair Lady sounds as London White as White can be. To put an Asian actress in that cast (This was the exact situation we were discussing.) would not be believable. A person in my friend’s circle worried the Asian actress wouldn’t look “refined.”
So I thought back to an amazing production of Les Miserables earlier this year. There was one Black girl in the ensemble of factory workers. She could sing, she could act. But I had a hard time believing that in France in the 1800s, Fantine would have been the focus of all the French White workers’ cattiness when there was a French Black woman working alongside them.
But then I remembered a Japanese American boy playing the title role in Billy Elliot a couple of years ago on the same stage. He pulled it off – and he attempted the accent, which is more than I can say for the WS ensemble. (Someone was even overheard saying, “I can’t believe that’s an Asian kid on stage.”)
It’s anyone’s guess who really makes the casting decisions these days. Maybe it was Zimmerman’s vision that this folktale simply be presented first, and to purposefully not put a value (for fit or otherwise) on the cast’s ethnicities. Or maybe some producer specifically wanted to go Melting Pot and make the ensemble not all-Asian. Or maybe it’s like Disney’s defense of the blue-eyed Latina princess Sofia, who is of a fantasy version of pan-Latin cultures. I know, for sure, there’s a practical, butts-in-seats goal for any live production, and perhaps marketing a truly all-Asian cast is just suicide for ticket sales. Fine. Please. Take our stories even though we crafted them. Not like we had any inkling of what we were doing when we’ve kept them in our histories for years and years and years.
I know it’d be more politically correct to say, if all things equal, actors and actresses should be picked based on their talents and fit for the role. In practice, it’s as complicated an issue as affirmative action. If there’s one place where minority representation should be protected and preserved, it’s in the portrayal of their cultures’ values and stories. So what do we do when a highly talented “outsider” becomes fascinated by a different culture’s world and does a justice by presenting it to other outsiders?
I’m conflicted. It’s been four days since I saw White Snake, my thoughts haven’t settled, and I’m still questioning my stance.