Déjà Vu All Over Again – The Nightingale and Miss Saigon

I’ve written about diversity in the performing arts before here and here. In fact, my last 10 blog entries here have been about how my need to create a mainstream viable Asian American protagonist led to my first novel The Repatriation of Henry Chin.

During the past week, a dust storm blew up on social media sparked by a brave post,  Moises Kaufman can kiss my ass & here’s why written by Broadway veteran Erin Quill. The controversy was over La Jolla Playhouse’s decision to produce a musical adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Nightingale set in an ancient, mythical China with no Chinese actors.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. This controversy has strong echoes of the casting of a white actor to portray a Eurasian pimp for the 1991 Broadway production of Miss Saigon, produced by Cameron Mackintosh.

Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in the London production of Miss Saigon.

Miss Saigon originally opened in London the previous September with Jonathan Pryce playing the lead role of the Engineer, a brothel owner and pimp in Saigon during the Vietnam War. In anticipation of the Broadway production Mackintosh asked Actors’ Equity to certify Pryce as a ‘star’ for an H-1 visa allowing him to recreate the role in the United States.

On July 23, 1990, Actors’ Equity condemned the casting of a Caucasian actor “painted yellow” in the leading role of Miss Saigon. In response, Mackintosh threatened to cancel the entire production if permission was not granted. The next day Actors’ Equity failed to come to a decision whether or not to endorse Pryce for the visa.

Mackintosh then made the assertion that not only did Pryce qualify for the visa as a star, he was the only person in the entire world who could play the Engineer.

In the New York Times on July 24, 1990 Mackintosh issued a statement that said, in part:

“Despite the extraordinary casting efforts around the world which we and our casting office have demonstrated to Equity, (in order to fill the 34 non-Caucasian roles in ‘Miss Saigon’), they are insisting on ignoring the list of artistic qualifications we consider essential to perform the part of the Engineer in a star manner.”

Casting director Vincent Liff confirmed Mackintosh’s assertion about the scarcity of Asian talent the following day in the New York Times with this paternalistic and patronizing assessment:

“I can say with the greatest assurance that if there were an Asian actor of 45-50 years, with classical stage background and an international stature and reputation, we would surely have sniffed him out by now. Furthermore, if we hadn’t found him, he certainly would have found us.

“There has been no professional venue for the development of the Asian actor or Asian actor/singer to exercise his talents on the Broadway stage between ‘Flower Drum Song’ and ‘The World of Suzie Wong’ in 1958 and ‘M. Butterfly’ in 1988, a 30-year span.

“With the exception of the original and revival companies of ‘Pacific Overtures’ and two Broadway revivals of ‘The King and I,’ there was nothing in between. The bottom line is there was just no product to provide Asian actors with successful financially viable acting careers in the mainstream venues of Broadway, film and television.

Liff cited the hundreds of Asian performers he had auditioned in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hawaii and Manila without finding any suitable Asian candidates.

Peter Plouviez, general secretary of British Equity confirmed there was no casting controversy in England. In a phone interview with the New York Times, as reported on July 25, 1990 he said:

“We have had no complaints from our Asian members. In this country extensive efforts were made to cast the role with an Asian actor, but none of them thought they could do it.”

What is extraordinary about this quote is that the New York Times took it at face value and did not challenge its veracity. Is it believable that every Asian actor in England would turn down a starring role because they perceived themselves incapable of performing it?

Two weeks later on August 7, 1990, Actors’ Equity voted to deny permission for Pryce to perform on Broadway. The reaction from Mackintosh was swift and furious.  The following day Mackintosh announced that he would not seek arbitration to overturn Actors’ Equity’s decision and then canceled the entire production.

In his statement to the New York Times on August 9, 1990, Mackintosh asserted his right to complete artistic freedom and accused Actors’ Equity of denying him that right with their decision.

“the only issue which Equity has the right to consider in making its decision is whether or not Jonathan Pryce is a ‘star.’ Equity has previously certified Mr. Pryce as a ‘star,’ when it endorsed his appearance on Broadway in 1984 under an H-1 visa. Therefore, there is no legal basis for their objecting to his admission for ‘Miss Saigon.’

“We passionately disapprove of stereotype casting, which is why we continue to champion freedom of artistic choice. Racial barriers can only undermine the very foundations of our profession.

“Indeed, Equity has rejected our application solely on the grounds that Mr. Pryce is Caucasian. By choosing to discriminate against Mr. Pryce on the basis of his race, Equity has violated fundamental principles of Federal and state human rights laws as well as Federal labor laws.”

Mackintosh grabbed the moral high ground and quickly his supporters chimed in to concur with his opinion and pile on they did.

Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters:

“The nicest thing I can say about this decision is that it’s stupid. It’s also self-destructive. They’re canceling work for a lot of their membership. … It seems to me they have a doubtful stand when they say that nontraditional casting can only go one way. I thought in the end they would come to their senses.”

Joanna Merlin, co-chairwoman of the Nontraditional casting project, though sympathetic to the frustrations of Asian and other ethnic actors said:

“However strongly Equity feels they must condemn the casting of Jonathan Pryce for these reasons, I believe their vote seriously threatens freedom of artistic choice. How can anyone legitimately dictate who will or will not be cast in a show except the creative team.”

Linda Winer, theater critic for Newsday, wrote on August 10, 1990:

“Asian actors, like most minority actors, have genuine cause to complain about the lack of jobs in the theater. But Miss Saigon is not the right fight to take to the mat. … First, the role is Eurasian, not Asian, which means a Caucasian has just as much claim to it as an Asian.”

Liz Smith, in her August 10, 1990 column for the Daily News wrote:

“To insist that an Asian role be played by an Asian, or a black by a black, or a white by a white makes a mockery of the art of the transcendence of acting, not to mention interfering with truly creative casting and free enterprise itself.”

The editorial staff of the Daily News made their own contribution with this cartoon

NY Daily News – August 10, 1990

Frank Rich, the theater critic for the New York Times took it several steps further down the rabbit hole in his piece on August 10, 1990:

“A producer’s job is to present the best  show he can, and Mr. Pryce’s performance [in the London production] is both the artistic crux of this musical and the best antidote to its more bloated excesses. It’s hard to imagine another actor, white or Asian, topping the originator of this quirky role. Why open on Broadway with second best, regardless of race or creed?” … By barring that art for American audiences under the disingenuous guise of promoting democratic principles, Actors’ Equity has, I fear, stumbled onto its very own Vietnam.

This is where the conversation turned ugly. Rich introduced the assertion that there were no other qualified actors to play the role: that anyone else would be second best. That opened the door for others to inject racial superiority into the dialogue.

Dick Cavett took Rich’s cue and ran with it in his Op Ed piece in the New York Times on August 10, 1990. Cavett said:

“Suppose, just for fun that all available Asians audition for the part and none are good enough. Does Equity say, Cast one anyway? Or at least an Asian-looking actor? One who has been to the East? Eats in Asian restaurants? Does Equity think people leave a theater saying, “He wasn’t very good, but at least he was Asian”? … Could I offer a suggestion to the worthy [sic] who made this decision? Put your money where your mouth is: Move over and let an Asian have your job.”

Is it reasonable to put forth a premise that in the entire world, there are no qualified Asians to sing and dance in a Broadway musical? Yet all of Mackintosh’s allies accepted this premise as fact and none of the New York press challenged that assumption at the time: not the New York Times, Daily News, The New York Post or Newsday.

Things began to move quickly from there. Theatrical agent Craig Dorfman spearheaded a petition drive to force Actors’ Equity to reconsider their decision. In the Boston Globe on August 11, 1990, he said:

“If we believe in interracial casting—which I am a strong proponent—then this is reverse discrimination. An actor can play any role. It should be color blind.”

Petitions were circulated backstage at six Broadway productions. On August 9, 1990, Actors’ Equity responded to petitions from more than 150 members by scheduling a meeting in one week on August 16 to reevaluate its rejection of Jonathan Pryce. Chuck Patterson, chairman of Equity’s Committee for Racial Equality noted in the Daily News on August 10, 1990, “A lot of signatures on the petition come from people who are in Mackintosh’s shows.”

Of the six Broadway shows where the petitions were circulated, “Cats,” “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” were produced by Mackintosh.

At the same time, Pryce went on the offensive with a multi-pronged attack; first by playing the innocent bystander to the press. In Newsday on August 10, 1990 he said:

“I said nothing for weeks, letting them have their say and assuming that logic and reason would prevail. I’m becoming more and more angry. The whole idea of acting is to tell a story as a character who isn’t you. If we had to play characters who shared our own backgrounds, I’d be stuck playing a Welshman for the rest of my life.”

All I can say to this is that at least you got to play a Welshman. Asians actors have trouble finding any decent Asian roles to play. Pryce echoed the assumption that Asians aren’t qualified. In the Evening Standard on August 9, 1990 he stated:

“You cannot legislate for an actor to play a role if he is incapable of playing it.”

Then he played the victim card:

“I would find it difficult to work there now. They have made polite noises about my status as an actor but I feel hugely offended by the decision.”

And then finally the coup de grâce—Pryce questioned B.D. Wong’s motives for his leadership role in the protests. Wong had won a Tony Award for his performance as a cross-dressing spy in M. Butterfly. In the New York Times on August 11, 1990 Pryce stated:

“I fully support B.D. Wong’s protest that ethnic minorities should be given every opportunity to have their work seen, but in this case I think his protest has been fed by his own self-interest.”

Then Pryce went on to insult Wong:

“If I tell an audience ‘I’m Vietnamese’ and they want to see me that way, they will. Obviously ‘M. Butterfly’ was not a learning experience for him.”

On August 9, 1990, the New York Times reported that Marc Thibedeau, a spokesman for Miss Saigon, said that the cancellation of Miss Saigon would mean the loss of 182 jobs including 50 Equity members with a weekly payroll of $201,579. On August 11, 1990, the New York Times reported that Miss Saigon had a $10 million budget and $25 million in advance ticket sales. The implication was clear: the action taken by Actors’ Equity was going to cost jobs and hurt the theater economy.

It is not an exaggeration to say the press was very one sided in its coverage. A press conference was held by Actors’ Equity at St. Clement’s Church and backed by a coalition of 15 Asian American community groups including Pan Asian Rep, the New York Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Chinese Progressive Association. The press conference took place on August 15, 1990, the day before Actors’ Equity would meet to reconsider the ban.

Chuck Patterson, chairman of Equity’s Committee for Racial Equality and Tisa Chang, artistic and producing director of Pan Asian Rep were the main speakers.

The New York Post, on August 16, 1990 reported that Tisa Chang and Chuck Patterson stressed that a deciding factor in their position was Mackintosh’s unwillingness, as they saw it, to conduct a serious search for an Asian actor for that role. Patterson stated:

“Asian-Americans should have been given an opportunity to compete for this role. All we’ve asked for is an opportunity to compete. [To say that] nowhere on the planet earth can they find an actor to play a starring role is absolutely racist,”

The New York Post said that “Patterson added in an interview that the committee received a letter over two months ago from Mackintosh saying that ethnic actors would be auditioned for all ethnic roles in “Miss Saigon” “with the exception of the role of the Engineer,” because the company had already decided to bring in Pryce from London, where the show had been running since September.”

Tisa Chang stated:

“In an ideal world, any artist can play any role for which he or she is suited. Until that time arrives, artists of color must fight to retain access to the few roles which are culturally and racially specific to them.”

The statement issued by coalition said, in part:

“It is not our position that the character of the Engineer be played by an Asian actor, but there must be a good faith effort to audition Asian actors for the role.”

The New York Times ran their coverage of the press conference on the day of the vote with the tepid headline “Equity Panel Head Criticizes ‘Saigon’ Producer.” The New York Post undercut their headline “Stand firm on ‘Saigon,’ Equity Told” with the sensational subheading “Heston quits union in protest.”

Unfortunately for Asian American actors, the thoughtful analysis and reporting happened outside New York.

In an interview on August 11, 1990, the Boston Globe reported:

“Chuck Patterson rejected Mackintosh’s statement to Actors’ Equity on July 25 that he a conducted “a worldwide” search for an American replacement. Mackintosh and his casting director Vincent Liff “admitted [to me] in private conversations that the role was reserved for a star and that Jonathan Pryce was at the head of that star list from day one. They stated to me [in a meeting] that Asians were not looked for for this role and the reason they were not looked for for this role is because there were no Asian stars that they knew of. Looking for someone who may not have been a celebrity but who had the talent to give a stellar performance never occurred to them.”

Patterson defended Equity’s position on “nontraditional casting” by saying for years the union has pushed for minority actors to play roles not racially designated, he said.

“Doctors, lawyers, teachers: Those parts often have no racial designation whatsoever and yet they always seem to go to whites.”

The San Francisco Examiner published an in depth feature on August 12, 1990 that refuted many of Mackintosh’s “artistic freedom” arguments:

“Miss Saigon” isn’t some classic set in a society distance from contemporary passions over racial questions. In fact, its Vietnam setting is still fraught with powerful emotions, many of them related to race.”

The Examiner was also skeptical of the casting process.

The “Miss Saigon” production team has said it was unable to locate a single Asian performer capable of acting and singing Pryce’s role as the Engineer, a greedy pimp. That’s hard for anyone who’s witnessed the recent growth in Asian American theater to credit. And it’s contested by Asian American directors, who will reel off names of performers they’d recommend for the role.”

They also suggested that the Engineer’s mixed race status might have been a little too convenient:

“Pryce’s part is universally referred to as “Eurasian,” adding to the consternation at Equity’s decision: If the character is already half-white, why the fuss? On the other hand, if you read “Miss Saigon’s” published libretto, there isn’t a single reference to the character’s mixed descent—and there are several comments that suggest precisely the reverse: “Why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice?”

They also challenged Mackintosh’s assertion that he possessed the moral high ground and that those who disagreed with him were few in number:

“Mackintosh has publicly fumed over “the irresponsible actions of a small and radical group.” But a quick canvas of prominent Asian American theater people on the West Coast suggests that the community of ethnic artists is nearly unanimous on this question—and that it was an informal grass-roots letter-writing campaign to equity that got the debate started in the first place.”

Finally, the Examiner provided a clear, succinct statement, articulating simply the goal of Actors’ Equity’s decision. Ken Narasaki, a Bay Area actor and nontraditional casting activist said:

“One of its goals is to improve the employment opportunities for minority actors. The crux of the matter in this case is the right of minority actors to portray themselves on stage.”

Unfortunately, few if any people participating in the vote read these articles before they made their decision. As a result, the outcome was not surprising. On August 16, 1990, Actors’ Equity reversed its ban on Pryce. The editorial page of the New York Times on August 17, 1990 celebrated the reversal and awarded us a moral victory as a consolation prize:

“All who love theater can rejoice in a victory for artistic freedom. But protesters who demanded more opportunity for Asian performers can be satisfied too; their legitimate complaint has now been heard worldwide.”

Pryce, in the news piece about the reversal, remained indignant:

“It has to be seen as an illegal and unconstitutional act to deny me employment because of my race. They [Actors’ Equity] would have to just come right out and say they were wrong.”

Unfortunately, the New York Times chose this day to publish a statistic that would have been helpful in the debate.

“Equity cited the fact that from April 1989 to May 1990, out of a total of nearly 100 shows produced under the agreement between Equity and the League of American Theaters and Producers, 33 of the shows, with 504 roles, had no ethnic minority actors and 12 other productions with only one or two ethnic actors.”

It was after the reversal on August 18, 1990 that the New York Times published an Op Ed piece by acclaimed actor Paul Winfield. He recounted the humiliation of wearing “whiteface” as the Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” to “avoid having student audiences misinterpret a black man playing a white woman’s suitor.” In addition, he said:

“What is actually an extremely complex issue about equal opportunity in the professional theater was reduced to jeers about “creative freedom” and “reverse racism.” Equity was accused—wrongly—of formulating a policy that would prevent minority actors from being cast in Shakespeare, and of rolling back the gains we have made toward color-blind casting over 25 years. While color-blind, or non-traditional casting is a laudable concept, too many of my colleagues are never offered opportunities to play against “type,” especially on Broadway.”

The venerable actress Ellen Holly wrote a piece for the New York Times that was not published until August 26, 1990, well after the reversal. In her piece she said:

“In an ideal world actors should be able to play any fictitious role they are capable of creating the illusion they are right for. … In arguing for the Caucasian Jonathan Pryce’s right to play a Eurasian in the New York production of “Miss Saigon,” a spectrum of whites has invoked this ideal world. Such a world, believe me, is one that every performer longs for. My only problem with is is that, to date, is has been a one-way street in which whites co-opt roles from their darker brothers.”

Perhaps the deepest cut was from Mel Gussow, the prominent New York Times theater critic. He wrote a long, thoughtful piece about the history and struggles of Asian American actors. He mentions the outstanding work of actors such as John Lone, Sab Shimono, Pat Morita, Joan Chen, Randall Duk Kim, Alvin Lum, Jodi Long and Mako.

He also talked about the Asian American playwrights who created original stories for the stage including David Henry Hwang, Philip Kan Gotanda, R.A. Shiomi, Ping Chong, Momoko Iko, Wakako Yamauchi, Frank Chin and Genny Lim.

But what was most illuminating was that even though the Miss Saigon protests were a watershed moment in Asian American history, it was not the first time actors protested about access to race specific roles.

“As recently as 1970, when the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center was presenting Bertolt Brecht’s “Good Woman of Szechwan,” Asians were not cast in the Asian roles. (The title character was portrayed by Colleen Dewhurst.) In 1973, in response to a suit by a group of Asian-American actors, the New York State Human Rights Appeal Board ruled that the casting policy at the Lincoln Center theater was discriminatory.”

Later, as clarified by Margarita Rosa, New York State Commissioner of Human Rights in a letter to the editor:

“The Appeal Board’s decision ordered the State Division of Human Rights to hold public hearings to establish the facts in the case of Sab Shimono et al. v. the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center over the casting of Bertolt Brecht’s “Good Woman of Szechwan” and other plays. The division ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove discrimination, and the complaint was dismissed. … Clive Barnes, who was then drama critic of The New York Times, testified [at the hearings] that in his opinion they were not Oriental plays, but universal parables, and did not require preference for Oriental actors.”

Mel Gussow’s article was published on September 3, 1990. Margarita Rosa’s clarification on September 7.

Would these pieces have made any difference if they were part of the discussion and debate before August 16, 1990? The more relevant question is: would they make any difference to someone living in a gated community just outside of San Diego today?

Obviously there are differences between the situation we faced with Miss Saigon and what is happening with The Nightingale in La Jolla.

In the 21 years since I participated in the Miss Saigon protests, I have seen slow and incremental improvements in the business.

  • Actors of color are no longer automatically excluded from auditions because of their ethnicity.
  • In a global economy, ethnic actors are more marketable and therefore more in demand than ever before.
  • A fertile and vibrant indie film and theater scene gives talented Asian American actors more opportunities for success.
  • Asian American plays are no longer exclusively about identity politics.
  • We invented and defined the vocabulary we needed to sustain an ongoing dialogue about race and the arts.

As an artistic community we must remain diligent. All the progress we’ve made can disappear with the first executive or director who thinks it’s okay to appropriate our culture to serve their narrative. To control our stories and how we tell them is what we’ve fought for and must continue to fight for.

It doesn’t matter much to me if the artistic decisions about The Nightingale were the result of incompetence, arrogance or malice. It also seems unlikely that La Jolla Playhouse will significantly alter their aesthetic to accommodate Asian Americans.

The victory is knowing that when it comes to any future productions at La Jolla Playhouse, exclusive, unexamined, uncontexualized, fetishized, culturally misappropriated performance works can no longer claim ignorance as a justification.


2 thoughts on “Déjà Vu All Over Again – The Nightingale and Miss Saigon

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