The Nightingale (2012)

Nightingale controversy

On the heels of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s problems with The Orphan of Zhao, the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and an award winning composing and directing team generated their own controversy in the latter part of 2012. 

The team of Steven Sater (book) and Duncan Sheik (music) (both were Tony Award winners for Spring Awakening) embarked on a musical adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen story “The Nightingale“, set in ancient China. While previous workshop productions (in 2003, 2007 and 2011) used various casts, including an all Asian cast, this particular workshop, part of La Jolla’s Page to Stage program, utilized a cast of 12, with two Asian Americans in minor roles and all major roles played by non-Asians.

This drew intense criticism from the Asian American theatre community, particularly the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, who stepped up as a major advocate in casting and representation debates. Using perhaps the only solid data sets in existence on stage casting, AAPAC showed that casting (at least in the New York area) lagged far behind the demographics (<3-4% APIs on stage vs 12-15% APIs in the metro New York area). In a statement, AAPAC said “The Nightingale is a glaring example of the continued lack of employment opportunities given to Asian American actors. This invisibility reinforces how Asian artists are often denied a voice in shaping how Asians are represented, particularly when it comes to the appropriation of Asian cultures and themes.

In response, director Moises Kaufman mentioned he wanted to explore multiple ways of telling the story through a multi-cultural lens. Kaufman later told the Los Angeles Times that his intention was to combine elements of both Eastern and Western cultures. Sater described his vision as comprising a blend of cultures with a focus on the mythical elements and heritage of the fable on which it was based, in lieu of traditional realism. 

(However, various audience members have mentioned that this “blend” was rather haphazard, almost random, with the Chinese elements dominating).

In response to the outcry from the Asian American community, La Jolla called for a public forum to discuss the issue. About 150 showed up for the forum to lodge their complaint about the lack of Asian actors in the cast, made egregious by the lack of casting in the rest of the industry. Representing AAPAC was actors Cindy Cheung and Christine Toy Johnson.

In the LA Times, Sater stated the multicultural casting was deliberate and was meant to “reflect the world I live in.” He said a multiethnic vision is one that “I continue to embrace for the piece.”

Sheik didn’t speak during the panel, but in a brief interview afterward the composer said the discussion had “affected my thinking of the show. My head is spinning.”

Results of this incident is not quite that clear (as, after all, The Nightingale has not gone on to Broadway), but AAPAC has received increased attention and credibility for their parts, which uses hard data to make its point.


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