In a statement, Suh said, "As a writer of color in a field where representation and visibility are ongoing struggles, I feel a responsibility to provide opportunities for artists of color to be seen."
Suh's bold actions come in the wake of a Kent State University production of The Mountaintop that double-cast the lead role of Dr. Martin Luther King with both a black and a white actor. Playwright Katori Hall broke her silence and blasted the logic behind the staging in a passionate essay.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Suh said that he wanted the roles of Gopal, Sushil and Mahari to be recast. According to the Post-Gazette, casting the production was challenging because Asian or Pacific Islander students account for 0.7 of 1 percent of the school's 5,368 students.
With no other options to recast and performances beginning in a week, Suh pulled the rights from the university. The roles were being played by two white actors and one multiracial actor.
In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Marilouise "Mel" Michel, a professor of theatre at Clarion University and the director of the show, said that when she informed her students of Suh's decision, "They were stunned," and that one actress "burst into tears."
She went on to say that the playwright’s literary agent, Beth Blickers, reached out about casting last spring. At the time of Blickers' inquiry, the show had not yet been cast, and there was no discussion that the show required actors Asian actors, or actors of Asian descent.
In an article written for the The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michel expressed her thoughts on the situation.
She said, "Certainly a playwright has the right to place limitations on productions of his or her work. However, I purport that without those specific hindrances, theater artists can and should have as much artistic freedom as the playwrights themselves. Perhaps Shakespeare would wince at a Western-style production of The Taming of the Shrew, but he never told us we couldn’t. He never said Petruchio couldn’t be black, as he was in the 1990 Delacorte Theater production starring Morgan Freeman."
Michel and Bob Levy, chairman of the visual and performing arts department at Clarion, said that Suh had spoken of the play’s "universality."
However, in a statement, Suh said, "Universal does not and should not mean white, or the privilege of ignoring race. I wish it were not so difficult to accept that an actor of color, playing a character of color, could convey something universal."
Clarion officials offered Suh a page in the program to discuss why Asian actors should have been used and to have a university representative give a "stage speech" on why no such actors were in the cast, but he declined.
Suh sent a powerful email to Michel Nov. 9, explaining his decision to pull the rights. Below is the transcript which Michel shared with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
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:
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.