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
I would like to say that this also not colleges first time with this sort of matter. When I went to see Nanawatai there a few years back, not any of the actors on stage were Russian or Arabic. In fact, one person in particular, the whirling dervish, was
particularly offensive and stereotyped the culture to the point where I felt uncomfortable.
You’re not serious, are you? In a school that is predominantly white, how could you be offended by them casting with what they had? They don’t have this massive diverse pool to cast from. Let the school cast on merit, not to fulfill some racial quota.
if there are not enough ethnically diverse students to accurately portray characters from different culrtures, then all the plays will end up being of white Western origin. What is the end result desired?
The story is still an Asian story. That is a victory for diversity, even if it is just diversity of ideas. If there weren’t enough talented Chinese folks available, it is the duty of the director to do the story justice as best he can. If that means casting white, so be it. Just so long as the story is told.
Ben Saunders says
This whole mess is completely idiotic. Is this seriously what all the hubbub is about? The way I see it, somebody is either butt hurt about not being cast, or they are on a personal vendetta against this director who made the mistake of trying to please somebody by putting on this play, probably the same group that’s now complaining. The department would be better off doing American musicals anyway. Stick to Mary Poppins and let the people who are complaining work and fund their own Chinese show if it is such a big deal.
A necessary letter. Thank you for shedding some light on this. Many alumni share similar experiences, from outdated “typecasting” advice to unease in similarly “diverse” shows.
Unfortunately, the talent pipeline in department shows, unlike most evolving theatres, is not set up with inclusivity in mind, but rather with training for the current BFAs taking priority. Hopefully discussing these issues (coupled with graduation and work in the real world) will help current students see how far many traditional theatres still have to go and how they are needed help support marginalized voices. It’s just a shame that the current model also essentially forces students to audition for shows that they know they won’t be comfortable with.
Wait: “Unfortunately, the talent pipeline in department shows…is…set up with…training for the current BFAs taking priority [rather than] with inclusivity in mind…” ??? It’s a bad thing that the Dept. is focused primarily on mining talent from current BFA students? Why have they come to study here, then? Wasn’t
it to learn and to be trained?
Inclusion and diversity are noble goals, and I don’t want to downplay their importance. However, when productions exist to help train current students, and that pool is mostly made up of white students, what can you expect. The school and/or dept. should looks at attracting a more diverse student body, it seems; but in the meantime, isn’t it cause for celebration that a non-Western play was chosen in the first place?
Um, you realize that the reason more Asians weren’t cast is there weren’t enough performers? Also this story has been told about 1000000 times, and anywhere in the States there will probably be a predominately white cast as that’s what the population reflects. Stop trying to pit people against each other for no reason, this is part of the problem. I’d love to have a conversation with the author of this article because it’s so out in left field.
That does not excuse racism. Just because you can ( “1000000x” might need to see your sources there) doesn’t make it ok to put up. And there WERE Asian actors who did audition who never got called back OR cast. This is 100% what was coming to the theatre department as they chose to do an adaption that Bryan Nasons wrote. (which was based in a show called “Monkey Magic” which you can YouTube and see how racist the show already is). This is not a letter that says that theatres shouldn’t do East Asian theatre just don’t do it in a way in which it erases and represents an entire community of people in a careless broad stroke.
What better version of this story could have been used rather than Bryan Nason’s?
Look up “Monkey King” and there will be thousands of renditions of the story. So in your opinion it would be better for the story to never be told? I think it’s better to be sharing cultures instead of making sure everything is 100% PC all the time. If that’s the goal then a majority of ethnic performances should be boycotted, which seems to be completely against everything that theatre stands for.
“Ben ‘likes’ this.”
Devin Beach says