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Changing Faces: Recasting National Identity in All-Asian(-)American Dramas

Pao, Angela Chia-yi.

Theatre Journal, Volume 53, Number 3, October 2001, pp. 389-409 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/tj.2001.0080

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Changing Faces: Recasting National Identity in All-Asian(-)American Dramas

Angela C. Pao
I hate that term non-traditional casting. I believe that the kind of casting we are talking about is traditional casting. Casting that comes out of the great traditions of this country. I would propose a change of terms. I would prefer to isolate what 90 percent of our theatres are doing as non-traditional casting since it does not represent what America isthe American people.1 Anna Deavere Smith

Over the past few decades, there has been a sustained and productive convergence of concepts and concerns in the areas of theatre and performance studies, American ethnic studies, and national, transnational, and diasporic studies. One cluster of issues resulting from this convergence involves investigations into the nature and forms of racial, ethnic, and national identity and difference. In theory, the trend has been to investigate avenues that lead away from traditional conceptual and geographical boundaries. In practice, the most prominent arenas for the exploration and deconstruction of conventional notions of identity that have been challenged, even discredited, by historical and social developments have been postcolonial drama, intercultural performance, and drama and performance art created by artists from internal racial or ethnic minority groups. The last category of drama and performance arts, in particular, has taken advantage of the properties of embodiment unique to live performance to revise concepts of human identity. One strategy for reforming visions of identity, however, remains highly controversial in practice but relatively lightly explored from a theoretical perspective. This strategy, or more accurately, these strategies are the array of non-traditional casting practices that have burgeoned in the

Angela Pao is currently Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. She was awarded a 20002001 NEH Fellowship to support research for a book on nontraditional casting practices and theories of cultural identity. Her rst book was The Orient of the Boulevards: Exoticism, Empire and 19th-Century French Theater (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998). Her articles on race, ethnicity, and theatre have appeared in Theatre Survey, Text and Performance Quarterly, and Amerasia Journal.

I would like to thank Rebecca Montero of the Center for United States-China Arts Exchange for all her help in obtaining Asian and American newspaper articles and photographs of the Beijing production of Death of a Salesman, and Pao-yung Pao for coming out of retirement to translate the Chinese material. 1 Clinton Turner Davis and Harry Newman, ed., Beyond Tradition: Transcripts of the First Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting (New York: Non-Traditional Casting Project, 1988), 28. Theatre Journal 53 (2001) 389409 2001 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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United States since the 1960s. Unlike forms of performance that rely on the creation of new cultural institutions and new works to engage with attitudes and ideas regarding race and ethnicity that originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the nontraditional casting practices developed during the second half of the twentieth century issue their challenge to eurocentric conceptions of American society and culture from inside the very institutions dedicated wholly or primarily to preserving a EuropeanAmerican dramatic heritage. This interior positioning is the source of both the potency of casting against tradition in various ways and the controversies that have surrounded these practices. The most inammatory aspects of these controversies were brought to the attention of the general public by the exchanges between August Wilson and Robert Brustein that began with the former s keynote address at the 1996 National Conference of the Theatre Communications Group. In essence the debate positioned Wilsons opposition to colorblind casting and call for support for black theatres and plays against Brusteins denunciation of institutional separatism along racial lines and the politicization of arts funding. Wilson saw racially mixed theatres in general and colorblind casting in particular as new instances of assimilationism, while Brustein considered these signs of progress. The debate was carried out on the pages of American Theatre magazine through the fall of that year and concluded in January 1997 with a face-to-face confrontation on the stage of the Town Hall in New York City. In the meantime, the battle had been joined by theatre practitioners, critics, and scholars, whose views appeared in articles, editorials, and letters in major newspapers and trade publications including The New York Times, Village Voice, Variety, and Back Stage. While the Town Hall event brought national media attention to the issues raised by Wilson and Brustein, neither their positions nor their views were new. In her introduction to a series of interviews undertaken by the editors of Theater to go beyond the WilsonBrustein debate, Erika Munk points out that Wilson was expanding on points he had made in an October 1990 article in Spin and Brustein had been criticizing the balkanization of theatre since the late 1970s.2 Specic points and arguments raised on both sides had been explored in a single forum over the course of the Non-Traditional Casting Projects rst national symposium, held at the Schubert Theatre in New York City on November 17 and 18, 1986. The processes the organization was created to monitor and promote had been set in motion as early as the 1940s and 1950s, with landmark steps in the integration of major theatre companies being made in the 1960s. Going back even further, ultimately the issues at the heart of the Wilson-Brustein debate could be said to have rst been raised as early as the 1820s, when the rst black American theatre company began performing European classical drama. While the passage of decades has made the debates and discussions more complex and more sophisticated in many respects, in large part because so many more voices can be heard than was the case fty or one-hundred-and-eighty years ago, the core issues have not changed substantially. As Errol Hills account demonstrates, the rise and fall of the African Company (182124) can only be fully understood in terms of the convergence of social, artistic, economic, and specically racial factors: the company grew out of the need for black residents of New York to form their own sites for cultural diversion, satised the desire of black actors and musicians to have opportu2

Erika Munk, Up Front, Theater 27.23 (1997): 5.


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nities to perform in public in both the standard repertory of American theatres and in new works, and was nally forced to close when discomfort over reverse racial segregation in the theatre (the section for white audience members was at the back of the theatre) developed into full-blown animosity after the black troupe moved right next door to the Park Theatre, which was considered to be New Yorks leading theatre at the time.3 The interlocking interests, concerns, and desires of the producers, performers, and consumers of theatrical productions, all operating in the context of the institutional structures and the racial formations of their time, were strongly in evidence then, and they have continued to work with and against one another to conserve or alter those structures and formations to the present. While the complex factors at work at the intersections of theatre and racial history in the United States remain constant, what has undergone signicant change is the discourse of race and theatre. Over the 1980s and 1990s, there has been a muting of race as a term and a category: race now shares center stage with or is frequently replaced by ethnicity, diversity, or multiculturalism when theatre organizations and activities are being discussed. The Non-Traditional Casting Project (NTCP), for example, denes non-traditional casting as the casting of ethnic, female or disabled actors in roles where race, ethnicity, gender or physical capability are not necessary to the characters or plays development.4 In an open letter to the Members of the American Theater community, Clinton Turner Davis addressed the failure of theatre companies to invite and employ black and ethnic artists, asking:
Why is it certain theater companies can only identify one or two ethnic directors and designers to work in their theaters? . . . Why does the hiring of one ethnic director often preclude the hiring of others? Why is s/he hired to direct or design only the ethnically specic work? Is it a question of willful ignorance of the talent pool, or of nding ones level of comfort with an ethnic artist? Is it a belief that ethnic artists are not capable of creating beyond their own ethnicity? Is the black artist, the ethnic artist, still perceived monolithicallyunder the assumption that the one who is hired can speak of and for the entire race? Or are we being blacklisted because we continue to ask difcult, uncomfortable questions, to name names?5

The exibility of the terminology in the above examples is typical of the language used to talk about casting practices and the inclusion of artists, administrators, and audiences who cannot be identied as white. At times race and ethnicity are used interchangeably; at times race designates a black-white distinction with ethnicity reserved for Asians and Latinos, and sometimes ethnicity is seen as a sub-category of race. If the actual practices involved in non-traditional casting are examined, it becomes clear that there are two distinct functional categories involved. This shifting terminology is a problem I have addressed elsewhere in the process of analyzing the issues foregrounded by the Wilson-Brustein debate and the most widely practiced forms of non-traditional casting (colorblind, cross-cultural, conceptual, and
3 Errol Hill, Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), 1115. Hill cites this contemporary comment by George C. D. Odell on seating reserved for white spectators: This partition, erected by a race so long segregated in the negro gallery of playhouses, strikes me as pathetic and ominous (12). 4 Davis and Newman, Beyond Tradition, unnumbered opening page. 5 Clinton Turner Davis, To Whom It May Concern in Beyond the Wilson-Brustein Debate, Theater 27.23 (1997): 31.

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societal)6 in the context of the dominant paradigms of twentieth-century American racial theory as they have been identied by sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant.7 Tracing the marked trend for race as a category to be subsumed under other models such as ethnicity and nationality, Omi and Winant maintained that race is and always has been a fundamental structuring and representational element of American society that cannot and must not be understood in terms of the dynamics of other categories or concepts of collective identity such as ethnicity or nationality. They propose that instead of viewing race as a problem that needs to be eliminated, it should be recognized as an element of social structure rather than as an irregularity within it . . . as a dimension of human representation rather than an illusion.8 As far as non-traditional casting is concerned, experience has demonstrated that the functional category is very much race rather than ethnicity or nationality, although the constructed nature of racial and ethnic classications quickly becomes evident. Harry Newman, one of the co-founders and former executive director of the NTCP, has described how the guiding principles of the Non-Traditional Casting Project were put into practice with the original arrangement of the organizations Artist Files. Initially, the actors resumes and photographs were placed in two parallel les. One was organized according to the four categories currently used to classify ethnic minorities: African American, Asian/Pacic Islander, Latino, and Native American. The second was organized by character type (e.g. leading man or woman, older character actor, etc.) with actors of all races and ethnic origins mixed together. This le remained unused and was eventually discontinued.9 This state of affairs has been corroborated by the testimony of many actors who found themselves rejected for parts for looking too Asian or Black or Hispanic, for instance, or not Asian, Black or Hispanic enough.10 Rarely, if ever, has an actor been rejected by regional or commercial theatres for looking or not looking (much less being) Chinese, Japanese or Korean, or Mexican, Chilean or Puerto Rican. It becomes clear that in the vast majority of cases, what is involved and being reinforced are visually identiable characteristics associated with broad racial categories rather than more specic ethnic identities. If questions of

6 These were the original categories dened by Harold Scott for the Non-Traditional Casting Project. Societal casting casts ethnic, female, or disabled actors in roles they perform in society as a whole; cross-cultural casting translates the entire world of a play to a different cultural setting; conceptual casting casts an ethnic, female, or disabled actor in a role to give a play greater resonance; and blind casting casts actors without regard to their race, ethnicity, gender, or physical capability. These denitions appear in the opening pages of Beyond Tradition. As Harry Newman, then executive director of the Non-Traditional Casting Project notes in the volumes introductory essay Beyond Limitations, it is important to keep in mind that the concepts and denitions of non-traditional casting described in these pages are in no way meant to become new formulas to replace existing ones. These denitions and ideas are presented solely to stimulate creative decision-makers to begin thinking in the broadest terms (6). 7 Angela C. Pao, Recasting Race: Casting Practices and Racial Formations, Theatre Survey 41.2 (2000): 121. 8 Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 55. 9 Harry Newman, Holding Back: The Theatres Resistance to Non-Traditional Casting, The Drama Review 33.3 (1989): 2627. 10 These interviews, as well as others with playwrights, directors, theatre administrators and funding organization executives, which rst appeared in the Non-Traditional Casting Projects newsletter New Traditions, can be found on the NTCP website: http://www.ntcp.org.


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ethnicity do come into play, it is likely to be in culturally specic theatres. At the NTCPs rst national symposium, an audience member who identied himself as an unemployed Puerto Rican actor observed:
We have a lot of so-called ethnic companies that do not hire too dark Hispanic [actors] or too light Hispanics or too dark blacks or too light blacks within our own realm. I nd it hypocritical, because I hear all the time from my Japanese actor friends and my Chinese friends that they couldnt get the part because they were not Japanese, in an Asian play, or because they were Japanese and the part called for a Chinese, even though there was not a Chinese actor to ll the part.11

As this statement already suggests and as an examination of the cast lists of productions staged by African American, Asian American, Latino American, or Native American companies conrms, however, consideration of ethnic, or in the last case, tribal origin is the exception rather than the rule. These companies are predominantly pan-ethnic both by necessity and by choice. In order to form a company or cast of the most talented and experienced performers, artistic and production directors normally prefer to sacrice ethnic distinctions. More signicantly, the pan-ethnic nature of a company or a cast for a particular production reects the larger social and political situation in the United States, where national origin and ethnic descent eventually are replaced by or used in conjunction with identication according to racial categories. The practices of both major regional and culturally specic companies further reveal the simultaneous resilience and arbitrariness of ethnic and racial categories. When a company requires a particular racial background, very often the criterion returns to a genetic denition. One of the most vivid examples of this was offered by the National Asian American Theatre Companys all-Asian-American production of Othello. In appearance, the actor playing Othello was white, while all the other actors were visibly of East Asian descent; the production, thereby, preserved the critical factor of Othellos difference in relation to the other characters. The actor s website describes him as being of British, Filipino, Spanish, Russian and Turkish descent.12 The Filipino fraction, although neither a noticeable factor in his physical appearance or a formative element in his lived cultural experience, enabled the National Asian American Theatre Company to remain faithful to its mission to promote and support Asian American actors, directors, designers, and technicians.13 When I or those I have quoted have used the terms Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Spanish, etc., the issue has never been an individuals nationalityhis or her citizenship. The process of immigration to the United States, supported by academic and ofcial discourses and common usage over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has effected the transformation of national identity into ethnic identity. In the discourses and practices associated with non-traditional casting, while the concepts of race and ethnicity have received considerable attention, the terms nation, nationality, or nationalism, although often implicit, rarely surface. When they have been used, it has most often been to describe culturally specic theatres as insitutions promoting cultural nationalism, usually black nationalism. As the opening quotation

11 12

Jose Febus poses a question from the audience in Davis and Newman, Beyond Tradition, 99. Joshua Spafford Biography, 13 NAATCOs Mission Statement, http://www.naatco.org/about.html.

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by Anna Deavere Smith reminds us, however, national identity is at the very heart of the debates over non-traditional casting. It is consequently from the perspective of concepts and theories of nation and national identity that I am interested in examining the practices and controversies associated with non-traditional casting in this essay. In some ways, this may seem to be a retrogressive exercise given the dominant currents in cultural theory, which have shifted the focus from the nation to transnationalism, globalization, and interculturalism. The continued relevance of the nation-state, however, is difcult to denya point very succinctly made by Janelle Reinelt:
Why emphasize or foreground the notion of nation in a time of mass migration, increasingly uid national boundaries, and transnational, global capital, markets, and communications? Because while notions of nation and nationalism may be undergoing a profound transformation, they are still powerful cultural signiers with material entailments.14

As I hope to demonstrate, the denition and investigation of non-traditional casting practices and controversies as national projects not only shed light on the practices themselves but offer new afrmations of the continuing symbolic and material power of the nation as a bordered entity. The route I propose to take begins with a review of reactions to experimental casting in different dramatic genres and an assessment of the particular theatrical properties that account for those reactions. I then proceed to a comparison of productions of American classics performed by an all-Asian-American company in one case and an Asian, specically Chinese, company in the other: the previously mentioned National Asian American Theatre Companys stagings of two plays by Eugene ONeill and the Beijing Peoples Art Theatres 1983 production of Death of a Salesman. These choices were prompted by a longstanding research interest in Asian-American drama and performance, and the unusually well-documented nature of the Beijing production of Arthur Miller s play in both English and Chinese sources that were readily accessible. As I hope will become apparent, it would have been possible to contrast an allAfrican-American production with a performance by a black African company, particularly if the play were translated into an African language, to make the same key points. Although there would have been many variations given the very different histories of national development in Africa and in Asia and of Africans and Asians in the United States, the essential argument would not have substantially changed.

Familiar Families: Non-traditional Casting and Domestic Drama

When objections to non-traditional casting are closely examined, certain factors consistently emerge as the basis for resistance on the part of many critics, directors, playwrights, actors, and audience members. For many, the plays genre and the period during which it was written are the determining factors in deciding which plays can sustain or even benet from being cast non-traditionally. While the various forms of non-traditional casting have come to be widely accepted in European classical

14 Janelle Reinelt, Staging the Nation on Nation Stages, in Of Borders and Thresholds: Theatre History, Practice, and Theory, ed. Michal Kobialka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 126.


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tragedies and comedies, there continues to be greater resistance to racial mixing or cultural transposition in modern or contemporary domestic drama. Writing in the mid-1980s, Village Voice critic Robert Massa noted, Theaters now seem willing, at least theoretically, to mix-cast classical plays, but they draw the line at contemporary family drama.15 Casting director Barry Moss reiterates the frequently made observation that the decision-makers who draw this line feel they must accommodate their audiences:
In the classics, yes, you can do anything that you want and it is accepted by an audience. . . . On the other hand, if you are doing a contemporary play about a specic issue, casting an Oriental, black or Hispanic would change something that would confuse the audience. It would take 10 to 15 minutes for the audience to adjust. There are producers who are not willing to take that risk.16

Other formulations offer more precise indications as to what exactly it is about modern or contemporary domestic drama that makes it seem more resistant to experimental casting along racial lines. Maria Irene Fornes identies the representational mode of modern and contemporary as a signicant factor when she observes, We can easily do the classics in whatever racial conguration that may occur. The question is of importance when we are doing plays that are realistic plays.17 The New York Daily Newss theatre reporter Don Nelson stresses temporal distance when he writes, people seem to accept ethnic actors more easily in a work of the past. There is a sense the cultures depicted were different from ours anyway.18 Many who do not entirely preclude the non-traditional casting of realistic domestic dramas call for case-by-case evaluations. This is the position taken by director John Houseman as he recalls how a production he directed of The Three Sisters was received on the West Coast:
At no point did any audience question that Frank Silvera was a black actor playing the part created by Stanislavski. Now, if this had not been Chekhov laid in Russia, if this had been a play laid in the deep South, would the same harmony, the same enormously successful meld have taken place? One doesnt know. These are problems one has to study for each case. The artistic needs of the production make their own demands.19

Housemans assessment also emphasizes the importance of proximity, in this case geographical as well as historical. Margo Jefferson outlines the complex interaction of generic and historical factors that gure into linking a directorial concept with casting choices:
Its so obvious that these things depend on the kind of work, the style of staging. Take opera, since black people were allowed on the stages of major houses in the early 60s. Opera, even the most realistic opera, is non-naturalistic and can get away with it. So can Shakespeare, though there have been plenty of ugly little debates about that. I grant you, Tennessee Williams is not a strictly realist playwright, but some years ago they were thinking of doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with James Earl Jones as Big Daddy and Kathleen Turner as the daughter. This one would have been very hard to pull off, because as I recall there are a lot of specic references to the political power of Big Daddy in the state of
Robert Massa, The Great White Way, Village Voice, 2 December 1986, 126. Barry Moss was a panelist for the Realizing the Play, or Playing with Reality session of the First National Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting. Davis and Newman, Beyond Tradition, 45. 17 Maria Irene Fornes was a panelist for the Realizing the Play, or Playing with Reality session of the First National Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting. Davis and Newman, Beyond Tradition, 47. 18 Don Nelsen, Not the Type, New York Daily News, 22 November 1987, City Lights section, p. 5. 19 John Houseman, On Non-Traditional Casting, in Davis and Newman, Beyond Tradition, 15.
16 15

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Mississippi. Could I see an all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ? Sure. There were powerful, very segregated black leaders. I see why Ellen Holly wanted to play Blanche Dubois years ago. It makes perfect sense to me, it even makes sense in the tradition of the very light-skinned Creole of color.20

Implicit in Jeffersons statement is a continuing regard for the historical situation where realistic or naturalistic drama is concerned. Colorblind casting is posited as a possibility in opera and classical tragedy, but societal, conceptual, or cross-cultural casting are seen as the only viable options in American domestic drama. Summing up the state of affairs in the mid-1990s, Simi Horwitz reveals the persistence of all of the above attitudes but also indicates that some progress had been made:
Most advocates contend that the major classics are universal, belong to everyone, and therefore lend themselves to colorblind castingfamilies, dynasties, and serfs can be racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse without any voiced explanation in the text . . . . As for realistic plays, the advocates are a little more cautious, suggesting each work should be viewed individually and casting decisions made on a play by play basis. Still, theres an amazing degree of latitude, in terms of toleratingindeed endorsingracially mixed families on stage, even when its not accounted for in the dialogue or action.21

For some observers, however, realism is more a question of genetic than generic factors. Where familial relations are concerned, it is not just modern and contemporary domestic dramas that are subject to the standards of having the stage picture, voices, and speech match the model of the world, to paraphrase actress Michele Shay.22 An exemplary controversy on this topic was instigated by Joanne Akalaitiss 1989 production of Shakespeares Cymbeline, in which she cast a white actor as the Queen and a black actor as her son Cloten. John Simon found that
Watching Akalaitis staging of Cymbeline, you wondered whether the production was suggesting that the queen had a black son as the result of an adulterous affair. Eventually you gured out it was just nontraditional casting . . . but why should the mind be sent off by ways that are counterproductive for the understanding and enjoyment of the play rather than be allowed to concentrate on the issues at hand?23

Similarly, The New York Timess Frank Rich felt that if Cloten were black, his mother the Queen ought to be black as well. He offered an even more scathing denunciation of the casting choices:
The casting is bizarre. . . . While one can applaud Ms. Akalaitis for casting a black actor as Cloten, doesnt credibility (and coherence for a hard-pressed audience) demand that his mother also be black? . . . We are also supposed to believe . . . that Imogen would mistake

20 Margo Jefferson, War of the Worlds in Beyond the Wilson-Brustein Debate, Theater 27.23 (1997): 18. 21 Simi Horwitz, Ever Since Saigon: A Non-traditional Casting Update, TheaterWeek, 1319 February 1995, 2223. 22 Michele Shay was a panelist for the Next Tradition session of the First National Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting. Her exact words were: What seems to separate us is either the picture doesnt match the model of the world, the sound of the voice or the speech doesnt match the model of the world. Theres something you go through that allows you to say yes to it. Clinton and Newman, Beyond Tradition, 96. 23 John Simon, A Clash of Cymbelines, New York Magazine, 12 June 1989, 86, quoted in Allan Wallach, Casting Aside Color, Newsday, 1 July 1990, sec. 2, p. 5.


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Clotens decapitated torso for her husbands, yet the scene and Imogen are rendered ridiculous here by the conicting races of the confused corpses. Its productions like this, which practice arbitrary tokenism rather than complete and consistent integration, that mock the dignied demands of the nontraditional casting movement.24

While supporting rather than opposing the mixed casting, Richard Hornby also applied genetic logic, but ironically:
Yet white women can have black children. She is his mother by a marriage previous to her current one with King Cymbeline; we do not know who Clotens father was, nor anything about the Queens own ancestry. In the same vein, Arviragus brother Guiderius was played by a white actor, Jesse Borrego, but we do not know what race the characters mother was, nor anything about the ancestry of their father Belarius. If this seems like a tedious lesson in genetics, it was meant to be.25

He then goes on, however, to discount the legitimacy of the genetic argument by pointing out that the sight of a blond-haired couple with a brown-haired child on stage causes no objection, even though this is genetically impossible, whereas the sight of a light-skinned parent with a dark-skinned child would seem to excite controversy, even though this is a biological possibility. He concludes:
It is not realism that causes us to concentrate on the racial mixture, but rather the cultural codes by which we live, which condition our way of perceiving and thinking. Of course the distinction is there, on the stage, but we read that distinction as something important, in the same way that we read what is on this page as words rather than just black markings, because of what we have learned and then internalized.26

All the above statements point to the complex factors involved in reactions to nontraditional casting. The common objections to non-traditional casting in any form of drama are invariably framed in terms of respect for theatrical tradition, historical authenticity, and biological laws. Opposition to non-traditional casting is grounded in the assumption that characters who are white should be played by actors who are white, and that the physical appearance of parents and siblings should not defy genetic possibilities. But if one looks at the common factor underlying all objections, they are ultimately about distance and difference, both theatrical and social, and maintaining a comfortable distance from difference. The theatrical distance in question has been succinctly described by Michal Kobialka in his discussion of borders as they relate to theatre:
[T]heatre history and practice have a very specic reading of borders and border crossings. The separation between life and the imitation of life on stage, between the real and the illusionary conditions of the stage, between the way one functions in everyday life and the way one acts on stage, or between the words one hears and the text one reads, has always been at the very center of any discussion concerning one of the most fundamental questions in theatre studieswhat it means to represent.27

24 Frank Rich, Fantasy Cymbeline Set Long After Shakespeare, The New York Times, 1 June 1989, sec. C, p. 15. 25 Richard Hornby, Interracial Casting, The Hudson Review 42.3 (1989): 462. 26 Ibid., 46263. 27 Michal Kobialka, introduction to Of Borders and Thresholds: Theatre History, Practice and Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 4.

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More than any other dramatic genre, late nineteenth- and twentieth-century modern realistic and naturalistic drama operates by establishing minimal distance between the represented and representing worlds. Plays and productions strive to create an iconic or imitative representation of reality at all levels. Not only do the language, acting style, costumes, and dcor aim at reproducing the details of contemporary everyday speech, gestures, and material conditions, but social institutions, economic structures, and familial relationships must also correspond to actuality. Long before nontraditional casting (as opposed to integration of American theatres) was a signicant issue, Arthur Miller had provided a concise practical characterization of the realistic on stage:
What are the main characteristics of this form? We know it by heart, of course, since most of the plays we see are realistic plays. It is written in prose; it makes believe it is taking place independently of an audience which views it through a fourth wall, the grand objective being to make everything seem true to life in lifes most evident and apparent sense. In contrast, think of any play by Aeschylus. You are never under an illusion in his plays that you are watching life; you are watching a play, an art work.28

For mid- to late-twentieth-century audiences, modern realistic plays, no longer far removed in setting, situation, and language (as are classical or neo-classical tragedies and comedies), normally make relatively light demands on their competencies as theatre-goers and cultural readers. The more-or-less familiar social structures and institutions, naturalistic speech, and realistic style of performance place spectators in a mode of reception that allows theatrical competencies to coincide with social competencies as much as possible. No special knowledge of theatrical conventions or glossed editions of texts are needed to facilitate comprehension. As far as acting is concerned, as Richard Hornby has pointed out in his essay Interracial Casting, the naturalistic theory of drama requires the following set of assumptions:
Basically actors play themselves. From the directors point of view, the ideal is to cast someone as close to the character being portrayed as possible. From the actors point of view, the ideal is to replicate your real-life emotions on stage, honestly playing yourself rather than hiding behind the character. From the audiences (and thus from the critics) point of view, you are supposed to reality test the performances against our experience of everyday life. Thus, if a white man on stage purports to have a daughter who is in fact a black woman, lights ash in your head.29

This practice-oriented account of realistic theatre receives strong reinforcement from Stanton B. Garner, Jr.s characterization of realistic theatre in terms of its phenomenological properties. His conception offers some of the most profound insights into understanding what it is about non-traditional casting that triggers ashing lights, which may signal either unrelenting resistance to socially motivated innovations in theatre practices or new revelations regarding the social construction of racial formations. By stressing the interrelations between spatiality and corporeality as they were redened over the course of the nineteenth century, Garner readmits the body as a site of political operation even without Brechtian anti-realism30:
28 Arthur Miller, The Family in Modern Drama, in The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, ed. Robert A. Martin (New York: Viking Press, 1978), 70. Originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly 197 (1956): 3541. 29 Hornby, Interracial Casting, 459. 30 Stanton B. Garner, Jr., Bodied Spaces: Phenomenology and Performance in Contemporary Drama (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 101.


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realism offers an unprecedented disclosure of the theatrical body as it physically inhabits its material and spatial elds. Precisely because verisimilitude and illusionism work at cross-purposes, the latter wavering as the former seeks to perfect itself, realism is characterized by a structural instability that allows the body to assert its radical actuality and thereby resist its subjugation within the conventions of stage illusion.31

As Garner points out, there is a radical dimension to the realist aesthetic, and it is this radical dimension that non-traditional casting explores and exploits. Accompanying the renements to the realistic mode of representation has been the culmination of a two-hundred-year-old shift to the concerns and perspectives of the middle-class family. The emphasis on psychological conicts arising from nuclear family structures encourages and requires the spectator s ready identication of and identication with characters if the play is to be effective. The sense of distance between the spectator and the action and characters of the play must be minimized and, ideally, erased entirely. For theatre practitioners interested in altering perceptions of racial difference and expanding audience members capacity to identify with other human beings across racial lines, domestic drama therefore provides unique opportunities to effect social change through theatrical practice. In order to do so, directors who use colorblind or cross-cultural casting take advantage of the unique nature of theatrical communication. As Tori Haring-Smith has observed:
Theatre makes meaning by combining similarity and difference. The experience we see on stage must be familiar enough to be recognizable, but not so familiar that it is boring. It must show us what we know and teach us something new. The directors job is to negotiate these similarities and differences, offering the audience a recognizably truthful and yet interestingly new world.32

The point of contention, as far as casting is concerned, is at what point spectators are no longer able to recognize truth in the world being portrayed. For many members of the theatre communitypractitioners, audience members, and critics alikethe repositioning required by non-traditional casting in modern domestic drama represents an irreparable semiotic disruption. The expectation that a realistic play will mirror the social, natural, and historical worlds as they exist or once existed in actual liferegardless of whether these preconceptions are based on personal experience or prior representationsmakes experimental casting untenable.

All-Asian Americas: Translation vs. Diversication

In the case of American drama, the issue is particularly loaded because the plays of writers like Eugene ONeill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller are considered the core of the American dramatic canon and key sites for dening a uniquely American national and cultural identity. The close interconnection between familial relationships and national identity in works by these and other playwrights is highlighted in Zelda Fichandlers description of Death of a Salesman:
Death of a Salesman is a play about children and parents and the parents of those parents. Its a family play and contains profound information about primal relationships (mother and son, father and son, mother and father, sibling rivalry) as do all family playsOedipus or King Lear or Raisin in the Sun. It is also very specic. It centers on a family in a particular

31 32

Ibid., 102. Tori Haring-Smith, A Directors Response, Theatre Topics 3.1 (1993): 90.

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culture and the roles that different members of that family play. In its furthest extension, Salesman speaks about the American value systemabout selling and about selling ones self, about America as a nation of consumers who are losing touch with the land, and about lyingto other people in order to make money and to ones self in order to go on pleasing mother and father and the rest of the world.33

This characterization emphasizes the simultaneous presence and the constant interplay of themes that are culturally specic and therefore enclosed by geographical and temporal borders, and themes that are not conned to a particular time and place and thereby cross such borders. New productions of a play must constantly negotiate between respecting and traversing boundaries between historical and contemporary perspectives, as is obviously the case whenever a play is updated and adapted for a different audience. Casting in a manner other than that originally intended can be seen as one of the newest means of shifting both theatrical and social boundaries. The complexity of such shifts and the stakes involved as far as the denition of national identity is concerned become evident when we compare two situations in which plays considered to be modern American classics were performed by allAsian casts: the 1983 Beijing Peoples Theatre production of Death of a Salesman and the National Asian American Theatre Companys 1997 stagings of two plays by Eugene ONeill. On the face of things, if the expression is taken literally, the two productions look very much alike at rst glance (see Figs. 1 and 2). Since, for the reasons outlined in the opening section of this article, non-traditional casting in American theatre is dened by the display of visible racial characteristics, I was intrigued by the fact that there was an entire category of production where the insertion of visible racial difference into a plays performance, far from inciting controversy or resistance, was uniformly welcomed. I am speaking of productions of plays that are translated into different languages and performed outside their country and culture of origin. By juxtaposing these two situations where actors with the same racial features perform plays of the same genre and canonical status, I hope to shed light from new directions on some of the less obvious, or less readily acknowledged, sources of semiotic disruption that accompany decisions to cast non-traditionally. The Beijing production of Death of a Salesman was organized by the Center for U.S. China Arts Exchange (Fig. 1). Privately funded, the Center was established in 1978 to promote mutual interest in and understanding of the arts of the United States and China and to promote creativity in both countries.34 The company used a Chinese translation of the play by Ying Ruocheng, who also played the part of Willy Loman and acted as chief interpreter for the Chinese cast, designers, and crew throughout the rehearsal process.35 In addition to being covered by the Peoples Daily and over a dozen other Chinese newspapers, the event received widespread coverage in the American media. It was featured and reviewed in major daily and trade newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor,

Zelda Fichandler, Casting for a Different Truth, American Theatre 5.2 (May 1988): 23. The Center for U.S.-China Exchange, Purpose and Organization, http://www.columbia.edu /cu/china/ 35 The idea for this collaboration grew out of discussions between Arthur Miller; the director of the Center for United States-China Arts Exchange, Chou Wen-chung; Ying Ruocheng; and Chinese playwright, Cao Yu, when Ying and Cao were visiting New York as guests of the Center in 1980.



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Figure 1. Arthur Millers Death of a Salesman with Ying Ruocheng, Zhu Lin, Mi Tiezeng, and Li Shilong. Courtesy of the Center for United States-China Arts Exchange.

and Variety and in national news magazines like Time and Newsweek. It was also covered by major US and Canadian television networks,36 and the nal rehearsals and the premiere were lmed by a CBS television news team for a half-hour special hosted by Bill Moyers. The production also received attention in international Englishlanguage papers including The International Herald Tribune, the China Daily and The Japan Times. Opening night was attended by Zhou Erfu, Vice President of the Chinese Peoples Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, and Cao Yu, Chairman of the Chinese Dramatists Association. In conjunction with the opening, the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange organized a special two-week tour of China for prominent artists, writers, fashion designers, and patrons of the arts.37 This unusual degree of attention was largely due to the fact that not only was Arthur Miller himself directing the production but it also was the rst time he had been fully involved in the staging of his most highly acclaimed work.38

36 Miller describes various frictions that arose in connection with television coverage in the April 30 and May 1 entries of his daily journal, which has been published under the title Salesman in Beijing (New York: Viking Press, 1984). 37 Among the distinguished members of the delegation were Alex North, the composer of incidental music for Death of a Salesman; novelist Louis Auchincloss; British fashion designer Jean Muir; and Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel, Inc. and a member of the National Council on the Arts. 38 Prior to this, Miller had worked with the directors of two productions on specic problems but had never been fully involved in directing Salesman in any language.

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By all accounts, including Miller s, the production was a great success, with Miller and Ying Ruocheng receiving a rare ve-minute standing ovation at the end. In his journal, Miller recorded his memories of opening night: the audience is passionate. At the end they would never stop applauding. Nobody left . . . .The gamble had paid off, the Chinese audience had understood Salesman and was showing its pride in the company.39 According to Liu Hou-sheng, writing for the Peoples Daily, This is a play where the various departments of theatre arts showed their individual best and, at the same time, closely coordinated their efforts to attain a high degree of artistic integrity.40 He went on to praise the play itself, the acting, and the set design. The Chicago Tribune United Press International story reported, At the conclusion, when Willy commits suicide in a pathetic hope that the insurance payment would make his life amount to something, nearly everyone in the audience leaned forward, and several people wiped tears from their eyes.41 The Beijing production of Death of a Salesman followed protocols of cultural transposition that have been used in the European theatrical tradition since Greek tragedies and comedies were presented for Roman audiences: a play written by an author in one culture is translated into another language and performed by actors and for audiences in this second culture. Interestingly, the movement of a dramatic text across geographical boundaries often seems to authorize reinterpretation to a greater extent than movement over time within the borders of the plays country of origin; productions of a translated play are expected to involve adaptation or recoding. It is accepted that there will be gaps between the text in its original language and cultural context and its reincarnation in another language and target culture. As Hanna Scolnikov reminds us in her introduction to The Play Out of Context: Transferring Plays from Culture to Culture, The problem of the transference of plays from culture to culture is . . . not just . . . a question of translating the text, but of conveying its meaning and adapting it to its new cultural environment so as to create new meanings.42 The protocols of viewing associated with translated plays are in fact so readily accepted that they provide an ironic contrast when objections to colorblind casting are made on the grounds of lack of realism. Richard Hornbys account of reactions to the casting of James Earl Jones in the role of Judge Brack in Ibsens Ghosts seizes this irony:
The critics reaction was predictable: while some bent over backwards to be nice to Jones, they couldnt help pointing out that there were, in case you didnt know it, no blacks in nineteenth-century Norway. Casting Jones was a big mistake! At the same time, no critic took issue with the fact that the cast were speaking English, though I think nineteenthcentury Norwegians actually spoke Norwegian. Speaking English was simply a convention, a neutral means for American actors to convey the play to an American audience, something that quickly slipped into the background if you thought about it at all.43

Miller, Salesman in Beijing, 25152. Liu Hou-sheng, Death of a Salesmana Profound and Bitter Play, trans. Pao-yung Pao, Ren Ming Ri Bao (Peoples Daily), 28 June 1983. 41 Play Leaps Cultural BarriersDeath of a Salesman Tear-Jerker in China Too, Chicago Tribune, 8 May 1983, sec. 1, p. 6. 42 Hanna Scolnicov, introduction to The Play Out of Context: Transferring Plays from Culture to Culture, ed. Scolnicov and Peter Holland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 1. 43 Hornby, Interracial Casting, 460.



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Operating along the same lines, in working with the Chinese actors, Miller sought to preserve the element of neutrality by refusing to allow them to adopt concrete bodily signifers (what could be called whiteface make-up with rounded eyes and reddish wigs).44 The ethnic origins and appearance of the actors were to be, like the Chinese language they were speaking, a neutral means for conveying the play to Chinese audiences. The underscoring of the element of neutrality, so benign when discussing a play that is being produced abroad, takes on a contentious edge when inserted into discussions of non-traditional casting at home. This is a point Alan Nadel brings out in his contribution to moving the debates over casting practices beyond the WilsonBrustein debate:
America accepts its whiteness with neutrality. So when Wilson calls our attention to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote and perpetuate white culture, he is attacking the idea that the neutral space is implicitly white and that white culture, all things being equal, does not depend on being perpetuated, only on being protected from delement, assault, and dilution.45

The National Asian American Companys productions of Long Days Journey Into Night and Ah! Wilderness, like all its productions, reect the mission of the company itself (Fig. 2). The original impetus for forming the company was a very pragmatic one: in their careers as actors, the founding directors Mia Katigbak and Richard Eng had become acutely aware of the lack of opportunity they and other Asian Americans had to practice fully their craft. As they saw it: At a time when diversity was being celebrated, we found ourselves severely limited, forced to conform to ethnic stereotypes in dramatic representation. . . . We had to contend with the fact that the very fundamental and basic theatrical repertory, the classics of the western canon, was not available to us, unless we followed the standard prescription of Asianizing our presentations.46 They therefore formed the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) in 1989 to present European and American classics with all-Asian American casts.47 In a departure from the usual practice of other Asian-American theatre companies, NAATCO intended to present these works without any transposition of the action to an Asian or Asian-American context to accommodate or rationalize the race and ethnicity of the actors; nor is there any attempt to incorporate elements from Asian performance traditions.48 In short, they are not interested in producing Shogun Macbeths or Kabuki King Lears, or transposing A Dolls House to an upper-middle-class Asian-American household on Long Island, as the Pan Asian Repertory did in their 19921993 season. In an interview, Katigbak recalled:
When I was rst thinking about forming the company, we had an informal reading of The Glass Menagerie, and no cultural transformation was necessary. Thats why we do these plays as written, rather than assuming that people will only understand them if we reset

Miller, Salesman in Beijing, 5. Alan Nadel, August Wilson and the (Color-Blind) Whiteness of Public Space, in Beyond the Wilson-Brustein Debate, Theater 27.23 (1997): 39. 46 Mia Katigbak, The National Asian American Theatre Co., Inc. Positioning Statement, August 1996, 2. 47 Ibid., 1. 48 Although other companies like the East West Players have on occasion performed European and Euro-American plays without any cultural transposition to an Asian or Asian-American setting, NAATCO is the rst company to have this practice as a part of their founding philosophy.


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Figure 2. Eugene ONeills Long Days Journey Into Night with Ernest Abuba, Paul Nakauchi, Andrew Pang. Courtesy of the National Asian American Theatre Company.

them in Chinatown. I think that would be a step backward; it just perpetuates racism to make the setting that specic.49

The companys repertory to date has included works by Chekhov, Strindberg, Shakespeare, Albee, Wilder, Molire, Shaw, Yeats, Lady Gregory, Brecht, and ONeill. Eugene ONeills Long Days Journey Into Night and its sunny counterpart Ah! Wilderness were presented by NAATCO in their Fall 1997 season. The plays were performed at the Mint Theatre, an Off-Off Broadway venue and reviewed in publications like Back Stage and In Theater, and on the internets CurtainUp. Both plays were well received, but judging by critical reactions, the company had mixed success in accomplishing its mission of having audiences both notice and not notice that the actors were all Asian American. Irene Backalenick felt, Watching Asian performers recreate this quintessential American play is a bit of a jolt, especially when they resort to Irish brogue. Nonetheless the complex family relationships come across stunningly in the hands of these capable actors. At the same time, however, she saw the play as having been translate[d] into Asian terms, despite the companys explicit rejection of such translations or transpositions.50 An In Theater reporter also seemed slightly confused about the origins of the actors, beginning an article on the production with the comment:
East Meets West, In Theater, 31 October 1997, 6. Irene Backalenick, Long Days Journey Into Night, review of Long Days Journey Into Night by Eugene ONeill, as performed by the National Asian American Theatre Company, New York City, Back Stage, 28 November 1997, 56.
50 49


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One might think that the kind of gross dysfunction displayed by the Irish-American Tyrone family in Eugene ONeills Long Days Journey Into Night would be gladly repudiated by members of other ethnic groups. But a group of folks from the far [sic] East will claim the Tyrones neuroses and substance abuse as their own when the National Asian American Theatre Companys production of the ONeill drama opens . . . .51

Although Miller s participation magnied the degree of attention given to the Beijing Peoples Theatre staging of Death of a Salesman, the perceived signicance of such a production as compared to the work of domestic company like the National Asian American Theatre Company productions is typical. When American classics are translated into other languages and performed in foreign countries by actors of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities, it is considered a sign of the signicance and quality of a play, a conrmation of a works high standing in the canon of American theatre. This is in fact seen as a critical step in elevating a work from the standing of being just an American classic to a classic of world drama as well. The occasion further served as a reminder of the status of certain plays as icons of national culture and their situation in the larger context of international political and economic as well as cultural relations.52 In contrast, although there are exceptions such as the Negro Ensemble Company, the Crossroads Theatre Company, and the East West Players, the great majority of culturally specic theatre companies, like NAATCO, normally have their productions staged in small theatres, often without permanent homes. Although companies located in cities like New York or Los Angeles occasionally are reviewed in newspapers with national editions, their productions otherwise rarely receive national coverage and are of interest only to local newspapers or more specialized publications such as Back Stage, In Theater, the Off-off-Broadway Review, and the Villager or CurtainUp. This is consistent with the general situation in the United States where all-Asian, allBlack, or all-Latino productions of works from the European and Euro-American repertory are more often considered as novelties, rather than as events that enhance the reputation of a work. Theatre companies created to represent a specic cultural group have in fact been subject to criticism from their own communities and professional critics for choosing to present works from the Euro-American tradition, especially if there is no adaptation to justify the presence of non-white actors. When the East West Players (EWP) of Los Angeles presented an urbanized, but not Asianized, version of Godspell with an all-Asian cast, several reviewers commented on the omission. John C. Mahoney of the Los Angeles Times remarked that the production failed to inform the material with particulars from Asian-American

East Meets West, 6. This point was explicitly made when the Chinese government announced that it was canceling all cultural and athletic cooperation between the two countries following the United States governments decision in early April 1983 to grant defecting tennis player Hu Na asylum as a political refugee. There was initially some concern that this incident would have consequences for the Salesman project, but since it had been sponsored by a private organization, it was not affected by the frictions between the two governments. The production was indirectly involved in the controversy, however, when Chinese authorities denied ABC permission to lm a rehearsal of Death of a Salesman because of their dissatisfaction over ABCs coverage of the defection (China Bars ABC From Play Rehearsal, The Japan Times, 2 May 1983, 4). Miller gives his reaction to these events in the April 10 and 12 entries of Salesman in Beijing, 11617 and 142.


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experience or Oriental theatrical conventions.53 After studying the full body of responses to EWP productions for her critical history of the company, Yuko Kurahashi found that this comment represented a common reaction. In her words, if actors were Asian American, the audience often expects to see Asian elements in particular, even in a European American musical.54 On the comparatively rare occasions when American regional companies do stage a European or Euro-American play with a mono-racial or mono-ethnic cast, there is a sense that this choice must be justied and historically consistent. The Arena Stages 1989 all-black production of The Glass Menagerie starring Ruby Dee as Amanda Wingeld illustrates the process of contextualization, if not adaptation, that takes place when mono-racial or mono-ethnic non-traditional casting is employed. The program notes offer historical justication for the racial change:
In the period following World War I approximately one million African Americans migrated to industrial cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis, hoping for better employment and education. In the late 1930s, African Americans constituted 11.4 percent of the population of St. Louis, a city which had been a haven since Civil War times. The WPA Guide to Missouri (1936) points out the variety of social customs, traditions and the particular idiom that greatly enhanced the culture of the city . . .55

Not all viewers were receptive to this attempt to contextualize the plays action in order to naturalize the casting. The Washington DC City Paper notes the contradictory responses elicited when an American classical play written with white characters is performed by a non-white cast of the same racial background:
As for questions of skin color, lets just note that in a mono-ethnic casting of any play, race is necessarily going to be largely irrelevant. That, of course, hasnt kept reviewers from waxing sociological about this production. Praise and condemnation have both come from unexpected quarters. The Washington Times, conceding that Dee was only paraphrasing her part, nonetheless called the evening pure Tennessee Williams and suggested that audiences would swear [the author] always meant the play to be set in the black milieu. The New York Times took the opposite view, comparing Arenas production to a TV sitcom and myopically dismissing the existence of a real landed, post-Reconstruction black gentry in a sarcastic couple of phrases: Forget the improbability that a black woman in the 1930s would recall long-ago beaux who were prominent young planters on the Mississippi Delta and who went on to become vice presidents of banks . . . .56

Whether it is a question of colorblind, cross-cultural, or mono-racial casting, there is no sign that creative and enlightening applications of these possibilities will diminish, nor that the controversies over them will abate. Michael Portantire concluded a TheaterWeek article by observing: The one sure thing about non-traditional casting is that it will continue; with so many actors of color available for work, and so few roles written especially for them, there is probably no equitable alternative. At the same time, it does not seem unreasonable to hope that directors may retain the option to cast

John C. Mahoney, East West Neutral Godspell, Los Angeles Times, 22 May 1981, sec. 4, p. 4. Yuko Kurahashi, Asian American Culture on Stage: The History of the East West Players (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999), 124. 55 Program for The Glass Menagerie, Arena Stage Company (Washington DC), October 6November 26, 1989, 7. 56 Bob Mondello, Soapy Glass, City Paper, 20 October 1989.



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traditionally without inciting anger more appropriate to an anti-apartheid protest; and that theatergoers will have the freedom to object to an all-black Long Days Journey Into Night on purely artistic grounds, with no fear of being labeled closed-minded or racist.57 What is only alluded to in this paragraph, the true root of the controversies, is made explicit by Margo Jefferson when she attributes the erce nature of the casting quarrels to the current environment, where everybodys enraged about political correctness, multiculturalism, and ethnic identity. In this environment, non-traditional casting in general and color-blind casting in particular become a convenient handle, both highbrow and middlebrow, on the raging battle were having now over who owns the culture, who has the right to determine whats canonically respectable, whats avant-garde, whats experimentalthe larger culture wars.58 Those ghting battles of the culture wars on theatrical terrain generally construe the relationship of art and society in two different ways: for the advocates of innovative casting, recognizing the racial diversity of American society and expanding the creative possibilities of American theatre are inextricably linked processes; on the other hand, those who have resisted departures from traditional casting see attempts to alter longstanding practices as an inappropriate and diminishing intrusion of social politics into the artistic realm. In the next section, I will look more closely at the particular connections between art and politics that have been brought to the surface by developments in casting.

National Identity Across Space and Time

The marked contrast between the celebration of an American play performed by an Asian cast abroad and the mild to hostile confusion that regularly greets all-Asian or all-Black performances in the United States strongly suggests that the controversies over non-traditional casting practices in the United States are not simply about having actors of different races perform in works written by European/American writers but about majority-minority cultural dynamics within the United States. The wholesale transposition (language, ethnicity of actors, place of performance) of a play from one cultural context to a foreign one is readily accepted. Partial transformationswhether it be in the form of mixed colorblind casting, or a uniform cast of a different race with no corresponding change of language, setting, or performance sitehas potentially disturbing effects. I would suggest that this double standard emerges because productions of the latter type ultimately upset the logic and ideology of coherent and homogeneous national identities and cultures. Productions like the Beijing Salesman arouse no controversy because they are consistent with long-dominant concepts of cultural identitynational and ethnic identitythat are articulated in predominantly spatial rather than temporal terms. These concepts of cultural identity are closely linked to the notion of national sovereignty, which in turn evokes images of national boundaries and a tendency to think geographically and synchronically. In other words, cultural identity is equated with geographical sites and is regarded as if it were frozen in time. The point in time chosen as an originary reference is established by discourses of nationalism that posit a homogeneous population within well-dened

57 Michael Portantire, Color-Blindness in the Theater: Non-traditional Casting Is Not a Black-orWhite Issue, TheaterWeek, 1319 April 1992, 22. 58 Jefferson, War of the Worlds, 13.

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borders. As John Tomlinson puts it: One implication of this is to think of cultural identity as something staticEnglishness or the American wayrather than . . . as something constantly changing and developing.59 The translation and transportation of a play across national boundaries is ultimately an afrmation of those boundaries, regardless of the fact that, as in Miller s case, the objective may be to transcend those boundaries. The importation of the play Death of a Salesman was seen as a movement across space rather than time; Miller s account constantly emphasizes the need to reframe the American content of the play into a Chinese context. This was true for everything from the smallest details to the most fundamental issues. For example, in order for the attempt to impress the women at the restaurant by mentioning West Point to make complete sense to the Chinese actors, they had to think of the equivalent of having a young Chinese man claim to have a father in Hong Kong. To help the actor playing Biff answer the question, What was [the] burden that only his father [could] help him unload,60 Miller drew a complicated analogy with the Cultural Revolution in which Willy was compared to Jiang Qing, Linda to Mao Zedong, and Biff was like Deng Xiaoping who called for truth to be based on facts not on ideology.61 The rehearsal process entailed constant searches for Chinese references that would parallel events and ideas in the play. At no time, however, was there any discussion of temporal adjustments, of how to update 1950s material for a 1980s audience. The National Asian American Companys stagings of ONeill or Wilder present a very different situation. Here there is no movement across spacethe plays are being presented within Americas borders and in their original language; the settings are the ones ONeill envisioned. Instead of reasserting a static, bounded notion of cultural identity, the cross-cultural casting makes a statement about the changing nature of American cultural identity over time. The companys mission statement very deliberately ties the companys approach to the Western theatrical canon to a larger project of dening the changing face of America today. In the words of artistic director Katigbak, the situation on stage is intended to replicate all the cultural cross-overs that dene contemporary America. More particularly, the superimposition of . . . Asian faces on a non-Asian repertory is seen as a way of asserting an Asian-American presence in American history and culture.62 In contrast to the all-Chinese cast of the

59 John Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 70. 60 Miller, Salesman in Beijing, 79. 61 This was Millers analogy: Its like the dilemma of the Cultural Revolution: Jiang Qings leadership was also full of self-deluded demands on you, wasnt it? . . . She also claimed to be acting out of devotion to China, and that may have been what she felt for all we know. Just like Willy, who believes he is trying to help you, not himself. But no matter how you tried to obey her and come up to the regimes expectations, you had to see that objectively Chinas economy was falling apart, her arts, commerce, the whole civilization going down the drain. And your father, Mao, seemed to be backing her, isnt that right? The point is, you felt a powerful frustration, didnt you, an anger that nobody was able to tear away that complex of half-truths and deceptions to raise up the truth before the people before Mao himself!the facts of the destruction going on. And maybe this is why Deng Xiaoping is using the slogan Truth from Facts, rather than from ideology. . . . Biff is trying to do something very similartear Willy away from his ideology to face himself and you in detail, as a real individual who is at a certain time in his life. You can use the same Cultural Revolution frustration, that feeling of anger and the violence in you, in this role. The same thwarted love (Miller, Salesman in Beijing, 80).


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Beijing Salesman, the all-Asian-American casts serve as corroboration of Stuart Halls assertion that Cultural identity . . . is a matter of becoming as well as of being. It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history, and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation.63 This perpetual state of ux entails a constant renewal of concepts, categories, and practices that not only reect but actually constitute new cultural identities. The search for new paradigms to characterize the national ideology and cultural composition of the United States is an on-going one, the early melting pot analogy having long given way to debates over models organized around the concepts of multiculturalism, cultural pluralism, diversity. The range and intensity of debates over non-traditional casting make it clear that American theatre institutions have a vital role to play in this search.

Mia Katigbak, NAATCO Positioning Statement, 23. Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation, in Black British Cultural Studies, ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr., Manthia Diawara, Rugh A. Lindeborg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 213.