Why don’t we see more Asian Americans onscreen and onstage with accents that aren’t played for laughs? Is it OK for a Japanese actress to play Korean or Taiwanese? And why, if they live in New York City, don’t the characters on Friends have any friends who aren’t white?
These were among the questions tackled on January 18, 2018 at a Community Conversation titled "Asian American Representation: The Politics of Casting." This was the second of four free events co-hosted by Center Theatre Group and East West Players leading up to the World premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s Soft Power at the Ahmanson Theatre May 3 – June 10, 2018. Soft Power is offering an opportunity for us to explore the questions, themes, and ideas that Hwang has grappled with throughout his career.
One of panelist Amy Hill’s first big roles was on the short-lived mid-1990s TV series All-American Girl, starring Margaret Cho. After that show failed, it took two decades for an Asian American family story to come back to primetime, with the 2015 premiere of Fresh Off the Boat. Panelist Jeff Yang, who co-hosts the Asian American current affairs podcast They Call Us Bruce, is the father of one of that show’s stars. Yang recalled a conversation with an executive before the show aired, who told him,
‘There are so many projects with Asian Americans I would love to make. We are hoping Fresh Off the Boat is a hit so we can make them.’ It was literally stating, we have great ideas with great talent attached that we cannot make until somebody else is successful. Yang added,
There’s this conceptual challenge that Hollywood, that every industry, has to overcome: to just think of an Asian American in that space before they’re willing to actually open the door and make that happen.
One notable exception is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which stars Filipino American Vincent Rodriguez III as the romantic lead, and on which Hill currently appears. The show’s creator grew up in Torrance, explained Hill, and the prom king and queen at her high school were both Asian Americans.
She wasn’t thinking, ‘I think this should be diverse.’ She was reflecting her experience, said Hill.
These people creating shows, they don’t have any experience with people of color except for as maids and housekeepers and servers.
Nonetheless, panelist Phil Yu, who blogs as Angry Asian Man and co-hosts They Call Us Bruce with Yang, sees a great deal of progress in representation and conversation.
For a long time it felt like I was shouting into the void and I was just that guy on the Internet, he said.
It now seems like people are listening...and then you see change and reaction happening because of it.
Panelist Alice Tuan, a playwright, asked her fellow panelists if they share Yu’s optimism.
Do you all think that because there’s so much more demand for content and because people have a little more agency to choose...there’s going to be more and more diversity, in all genres?
The verdict was unanimous: yes.
Tuan herself is optimistic about the way a new generation of playwrights, including Lauren Yee (King of the Yees) and Young Jean Lee (Straight White Men) are tackling these questions. Her own work is changing, too.
I started writing because I wanted to write myself into the culture, she said.
Now the project is writing myself so that I am the dominant culture.
Which isn’t to say it’s all been figured out. In the question-and-answer session that concluded the panel, an audience member asked about casting Asians in non-traditional roles.
I think it’s dangerous to approach something as, ‘What are the rules to this and when can we make the exception?’ It matters when it matters, and it doesn’t matter when it doesn’t, said Yu.
You have to interrogate all of [the roles] individually. There’s no, ‘Here are the rules to casting, and here are the rules to casting Asian Americans.’ Which means conversations like this one will continue to be necessary.