Casting controversy at The La Jolla Playhouse
The La Jolla Playhouse attracted national headlines with its recent production of The Nightingale, a musical set in China based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable, but critics were not discussing the show’s inventive puppetry or Duncan Sheik’s contemporary score. Instead, they were debating whether it was acceptable to cast a story set in Asia with a mostly non-Asian cast.
The Nightingale was sold as “a new musical about falling in love with the world.” In an interview with Jim Hebert, U-T San Diego theatre critic, writer-lyricist Steven Sater evoked this theme to justify the creative team’s decision to practice color-blind casting.
“It’s not about Asia,” he said. “Hans Christian Andersen was writing a satire of the West, and setting it in China. And we actually have done a great deal of research into Chinese history, and drawn on Chinese history. … [But] we’re very much retaining the world of fable – contemporary fable.”
For many Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, however, this explanation did not sit well, especially given the historical displacement of Asian-Americans in professional theatre. In a controversy reminiscent of the firestorm that followed the casting of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon, Asian-American actors took to Facebook to condemn the La Jolla Playhouse.
Nearly 150 people participated in a public forum July 22 to discuss the controversy, resulting in heated exchanges between the theatre company and members of the Asian-American community. Representatives of the company would not comment on the future of the workshop.
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