by Ed Malin · November 8, 2014
There is quite a debate going on as to whether Non-Asian ("white") actors might be cast in roles written for Asian actors. Are major arts institutions which consider such casting within their rights for color-blind casting, or discriminating against Asian actors, or just plain racist?
Ma-Yi Theater Company is presenting Han Ong's play on this subject, Chairs And A Long Table, directed by Linsay Firman, in repertory with Livin' La Vida Imelda.
The action takes place within a conference room, where an Asian American performing group is preparing for a conference in Los Angeles by planning their response to another group which has cast a Non-Asian actor in a traditional Chinese role. Landon (Ron Domingo) is angry on purpose. He explains that, if Asians are seen as nice, compliant people, he simply must break that stereotype in order to highlight the problem with the casting. His Non-Asian associate Crissie (Julie Fitzpatrick) tries her best to understand his feelings. Fellow actors Angie (Julienne Hanzelka Kim), Bill (Moses Villarama) and Brin (Jeena Yi) have other approaches they would like to discuss.
The cast is strong. The dialogue is fast, funny, and rich in diverse voices and ideas. At an hour and a half, the play is entertaining, stimulating, and relevant. See also Ma-Yi's website and Facebook page for some feedback from the creative team, such as any Non-Asians they think could pull off Asian roles, and why.
Everybody's got an opinion on this issue. I know many Asian actors who complain that there are not enough realistic acting opportunities for them. Thank God we are no longer in the age of "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), where excessive eye makeup could turn anyone into an Asian. Why is this even an issue today, as opposed to other defunct kinds of discriminatory casting? For example, white people wearing blackface is a reminder of an age of horrible discrimination. But from time to time, a major opera production will use a Caucasian as Otello. Is that more OK than the blackface used in "Tropic Thunder"? (I am one of those people who couldn't finish that movie and have yet to comprehend why it was made.) Is it all right to cast a Dominican as an Indian?
In brief, do yourself a favor and go see Chairs And A Long Table. The issues presented here are far from simple, and will make you think.
This Election Day, I was very excited to see Ma-Yi's new production of Carlos Cedran's Livin' La Vida Imelda. This political yet very personal play about the most charismatic Filipina will definitely give you something to think about.
Imelda Romuáldez-Marcos was not the typical elite debutante. She was comparatively dark-skinned and was taller than her future husband, President Ferdinand Marcos. She did things the wealthy would not do, such as compete in beauty pageants. She also understood the common people well enough to charm them while exploiting them. So the story goes, although Mr. Cedran adds another dramatic layer by admitting that most sources about Imelda are unreliable.
During the Cold War, the U.S. had a strategic partnership with the Philippines. Imelda found a way to construct wondrous palaces, film centers (her country’s film industry ranked third in the world), etc. to glorify her husband’s regime.
During the regional upheaval that was the Vietnam War, she and her husband began 10 years of martial law, quietly disposing of any nay-sayers. While her husband destroyed his body by taking steroids to overcome his male inadequacies (so it is said), she forged bold diplomatic ties, such as with Muammar Qadafi of Libya. (The “First World” did not mind how many Communist sympathizers in the Philippines were liquidated. Confusingly, Qadafi was one of the only leaders to support Mandela, who was considered a Communist alongside more murderous Soviet-funded forces such as the P.L.O.)
During those paranoid times, Imelda Marcos had style. She built a palace replete with a polished coconut interior. For her protection, the C.I.A. had tape recorders hidden under her bed, which led to some embarrassment for her family. She and her husband, obsessed with the number 7, tried, and sometimes failed, to build enormous modern structures on tight deadlines. She tried to arrange for her eldest daughter to marry Charles, Prince of Wales.
I will not give away more of this fascinating life story. Carlos Cedran and the show’s director (as well as Ma-Yi’s Artistic Director) Ralph B. Pena tell an immediately relatable and modern tale of a woman whose influence is still felt. Perhaps she did as much good as she did harm? Why not see the show and decide for yourself.