Dear Central Washington University Theatre Department,
In this current cultural and political climate, it is incredibly important to cultivate an inclusive and diverse environment. Central Washington University (CWU)’s theatre department claims to publicly support inclusivity and diversity. However, the theatre department’s actions still align with the same racist figures they try to separate from. Historically, Western theatre and film profit from the whitewashing of their creative casts, as well as the portrayal of racial stereotypes onstage and onscreen. On Jan. 19, CWU’s theatre department took part in the Ghost Light Project, a national initiative where theatre spaces across the country were promised to be places of diversity and inclusivity. Although the theatre department took this initial step to be an ally in our racially tense environment, the department is failing to commit themselves to the pledge.
Monkey: His Magic Journey to the West, CWU’s current mainstage production, is the result of a desire to produce a show of non-Western origin. However, the adaptation they chose to produce was the translated work of Bryan Nason, an Australian playwright. The theatre department does not have enough students with cultural ties to Asia who may be able to represent the Chinese figures who appear in Nason’s adapted folklore. This led director George Bellah III to cast white actors as Chinese characters.
Theatre is an intentional art form. Every aspect of the project is discussed and decided. From the actors, costumes, set, and lights, designers had to come together and deliberate how the production will be presented to an audience.
Choices, like the use of a Mandarin accent and the act of bowing, had to be approved by the production’s director.
Voicing the intention to be as authentic and culturally sensitive can only do so much when multicultural bodies are being represented through white bodies. It is hard to believe that there have not been any talks about racism within the show. The depiction of the real Chinese characters within this production is also intentional. If there hasn’t been a discussion about this issue, that is an act of gross negligence. Monkey: His Magic Journey to the West is only one instance of the theatre department’s continual whitewashing. Why weren’t there more efforts made to contact the Asian community at CWU if they wanted to be more culturally sensitive? The Observer, the university’s school newspaper, wrote that the cast and crew of Monkey were aware of the lack of representation onstage and that the creative team were making an effort to be more sensitive. As a precaution, the production’s director talked about having a diversity specialist assess the show for cultural accuracy. However, according to cast sources, there was no indication that any diversity specialist consulted with any member of the creative team. It is important to note that the impact of the message depicted in this production does not in any way affect the cast or crew, but it does have real consequences for those in Asian communities.
Bellah claims to be an Asian scholar, but a quick search for scholarly articles penned by Bellah comes up empty.
Bellah is a specialist in Japanese theatre. Conventions of Japanese theatre differ greatly from those of Chinese theatre. He has intentionally chosen to stage a Chinese folktale that has been filtered through Nason’s white-centric, Western lens. Bellah, as a white male director, perpetuates a Eurocentric narrative of Chinese culture by casting white actors in ethnic roles.
Intentions of authenticity may be challenged when it is recognized that actors are dressed in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese robes, with little distinction between each style. Monkey: Journey to the West is yet another example of white people profiting from the depiction of racial minorities on stage. This issue highlights the problematic culture within CWU’s theatre department, which has made little effort to cast people of color as actors or directors in major productions. The CWU theatre department’s superficial attempts to be inclusive and diverse is a performance that lacks true engagement with those who they claim to support. They proclaim themselves allies, but refuse to encourage and cultivate necessary changes.
In the future, if CWU attempts to mount another production that features any marginalized communities, I would like the theatre department to look to organizations on campus for guidance. I would encourage the theatre department to collaborate with these organizations both onstage and off. The department should not wait for the marginalized to come to them. Rather, they should make the effort to be respectful of the stories attempt to stage by making a proactive effort to show the marginalized that their stories are held in high regard. I also strongly encourage the department to diversify their own student bodies, so that they can sustain a production like Monkey: Journey to the West with the appropriate members of their respected communities. Although it may be difficult to comprehend, some stories are not meant to be told by those who are not a part of the community. Minority voices matter.
I hope that these concerns are taken into consideration when future productions are mounted at CWU’s Ellensburg campus.
— Hikaru Addison