Playwright Forces Public University to Cancel $15K Production of His Play After He Saw Student Actors’ Race

Clarion University in Pennsylvania was forced to cancel a $15,000 production of a play after its playwright noticed that the racial makeup of the student actors didn’t quite fit his vision for the play.

In a letter to Marilouise “Mell” Michel, a Clarion theater professor and director of the play — “Jesus in India” — playwright Lloyd Suh said he had “severe objections” to the casting of white student actors for roles that he wrote to be played by South Asian actors — something he called a “unacceptable distortion of the play.”

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, three of the five characters in the play are Indian, however Clarion, located in rural Pennsylvania, is a predominantly white school; those three roles were to be played by two white students and one student of mixed race. Bob Levy, the chairman of the college’s visual and performing arts department, told the Post-Gazette that Asian or Pacific Islander students only account for 0.7 percent of the school’s 5,368 students. Furthermore, Levy said no Asian students auditioned for the play.

Image source: KDKA-TV
Image source: KDKA-TV

Suh pulled the rights for the play from Clarion when his demand that the play be recast with Asian actors was told was unreasonable especially as the play was to open on Wednesday, saying that a continuation of the play without Asian actors is “contributing to an environment of hostility towards people of color.”

“Your citing of ‘color blind casting’ as an excuse for selecting white actors to portray non-white characters is a gross misunderstanding of the practice, and denies the savage inequities that exist in the field at large for non-white performers, both in professional and educational settings,” Suh, a Korean-American, said. “I have received your further message detailing the poor statistics at Clarion in matters of racial diversity. I contend that by producing this play in this way, you are contributing to an environment of hostility towards people of color, and therefore perpetuating the lack of diversity at Clarion now and in the future.”

He said he “couldn’t stop myself from crying when I saw the photos and realized what was happening.”

KDKA-TV reported that while the unused set still remained on campus, the marquee outside of the university’s theater now reads, “This production has been cancelled.”

The off-Broadway play production cost the public university, a part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, around $15,000 with costumes, lighting, the music score and the set are all factored in. The $500 the school paid to Suh for the rights to the play will be given back, according to KDKA.

Michel said her students were “stunned” when they were told they could no longer perform the play. Levy described his personal feelings as “numb.”

Kiah Harrington-Wymer, 22, is of mixed race and was looking forward to starring in the play as part of her senior project as she is a musical theater major.

“My family, we have seen our fair share of discrimination, and it hurts just as much this time as it does any other time,” she told the Post-Gazette. “When you discriminate against anyone, it’s the same.”

Image source: KDKA-TV
Image source: KDKA-TV

Harrington-Wymer said that as she was supposed to play the part of Mahari, a slave girl, she laboriously researched the role enough to fill a binder. She also had worked on a presentation and spent six nights a week rehearsing for more than a month for the role that she expected to take her out of her comfort zone.

“[Mr. Suh] said he saw a picture … all he saw was the color of my skin,” Logan Honsaker, a 21-year-old junior acting major said. “All he knew was our race, and he said no.”

On Thursday, Clarion’s President Karen Whitney said that while it was “unfortunate” that the play was cancelled and she regrets that “our students and the Clarion community  no longer have this opportunity to enjoy an engaging cultural experience,” her “hope is that — for all of us — this moment will be an opportunity to reflect upon and consider how race and culture should relate to creative works such as these.”

Read Suh’s letter, obtained by the Post-Gazette, below.

Dear Ms. Michel,

I received your response to Beth Blickers’ query concerning the casting in your production of my play JESUS IN INDIA at Clarion. As you well know by now, I have severe objections to your use of Caucasian actors in roles clearly written for South Asian actors, and consider this an absolutely unacceptable distortion of the play.

I consider your assertion that the ethnicity of the characters are not “specified for purposes of the plot/story/theme” outrageous. The play is called JESUS IN INDIA. India is not irrelevant, and I take great issue with the insinuation that you (not the author) are entitled to decide whether the ethnicity of a character is worthy of consideration.

Your citing of “color blind casting” as an excuse for selecting white actors to portray non-white characters is a gross misunderstanding of the practice, and denies the savage inequities that exist in the field at large for non-white performers, both in professional and educational settings.

I have received your further message detailing the poor statistics at Clarion in matters of racial diversity. I contend that by producing this play in this way, you are contributing to an environment of hostility towards people of color, and therefore perpetuating the lack of diversity at Clarion now and in the future.

You may argue that because you are a university and not a professional theater, that you should not be held to the same standards of cultural responsibility as the rest of society. I strongly believe otherwise, and maintain that professional training programs have a duty to prepare students for actual theater practice. That practice includes the rigorous cultural conversation present in the field at large; to excuse your students from that work is to woefully underprepare them for the realities of the profession.

Perhaps you are somehow unaware of the ongoing conversation on these issues that have been occurring in the American theater for decades. In order to provide an introductory context, I will direct you here:

http://howlround.com/search?f%5B0%5D=field_post_tags%3A441

http://www.aapacnyc.org

http://www.hesherman.com/2015/09/15/putting-on-yellowface-for-the-holidays-with-gilbert-sullivan-nyu/

You should know that what you are doing is connected to a very painful history of egregious misrepresentation and invisibility, and is incredibly hurtful. Hurtful to a community for whom opportunity and visibility is critical, and also extremely hurtful to me personally as a flippant denial of Asian heritage as a relevant and valid component of one’s humanity.

It hurts me to my core. I couldn’t stop myself from crying when I saw the photos and realized what was happening. It is embarrassing, humiliating, and demoralizing to be so casually disregarded.

I therefore insist that you immediately (1) recast the play with ethnically appropriate actors, or (2) shut down the production entirely.

It is incumbent upon me, professionally, personally and morally, to distance myself from this production, and condemn the way it has been cast. I hope you are able to adjust your plans accordingly so that I don’t have to make any public declarations against it and pursue other further action in order to make this right.

Yours sincerely,

Lloyd Suh