Following Public Outcry, NAAP Cancels All-Asian Production of Show Boat

News   Following Public Outcry, NAAP Cancels All-Asian Production of Show Boat
 
A production of Show Boat, the landmark musical that addresses romantic and racial relations on a Mississippi River show boat following the Civil War that had been slated for presentation by the National Asian Artists Project, has been canceled.

Baayork Lee
Baayork Lee Photo by Aubrey Reuben

A statement released by the NAAP credited the cancelation to the racial aspects of the show when performed by Asian American actors. The production would have been directed by nine-time Tony Award winner Tommy Tune (Grand Hotel, My One and Only).

"Due to a number of concerns and production complexities, NAAP has decided to cancel the upcoming production of Show Boat," the statement said. "We spoke with, and listened purposefully to members of racially diverse communities and particularly with our most direct constituents, Asian-Americans, regarding how tackling this work might be perceived when the Asian presence is thrust into the center of a conversation that has historically excluded it. After carefully absorbing arguments of both support and opposition, we have chosen to cancel the production, concluding that the goal that propelled us — to lift up the Asian-American theater artist — could not be sufficiently achieved."

Erin Quill, a performer who blogs as The Fairy Princess, shared her thoughts online, writing, "To be perfectly honest, when TFP first saw this announcement, and then when her Agent called with an appointment for it, she was sick to her stomach — because National Asian American Project does do good work. They are active in the community, they promote Asian American composers, performers, and education, and community outreach to children. They are known for doing All Asian American versions of shows, musicals, specifically, and those do need to be done.

"Here is why — the dearth of Asian Americans on stage in the New York Theater community and elsewhere does limit the amount of stage time necessary to work on ones craft, and if Asian American performers are to maintain their skills at the highest level, it is necessary to perform in all kinds of shows, and 'All API' productions do give performers that stage time that they may not get elsewhere."

Quill expressed her unhappiness with the production, saying, "This show is a show about the great racial divides within the Deep South – divides that are, without question, Black and White. "It does not matter that Asian Americans were in the United States at this time, we were not 'toting that barge' or 'lifting that bale'. Asian Americans were not recovering from being ripped from their homeland and bound in chains due to the color of their skin.

"It is not 'our’ story to tell. Ever. Nor is Ragtime, or Hairspray, or Memphis, or The Color Purple and so forth and so on..."

Read Quill's blog entry in full here.

The non-profit arts organization NAAP seeks to "to bridge diverse communities with the outstanding work of professional artists of Asian descent to inspire children and adults and bring them to the arts, as well as the art into them," according to their website.

In recent years the organization staged all-Asian productions of Oklahoma!, CarouselHello, Dolly! and Oliver!

The executive artistic director of NAAP is Baayork Lee, who served as the re-staged choreography of the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line as well as working as the associate choreographer of My One and Only and the dance captain of Seesaw. She also performed in The King and I and Flower Drum Song, among others.

Based on the best-selling novel by Edna Ferber, Show Boat is one of Broadway's most frequently revived works. The 1995 production received the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. It follows the lives and relationships of the people who live and work on the Cotton Blossom. The musical features the songs, "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man."

The cancelation is the latest in an ongoing conversation about casting of Asian-American actors in plays and musicals. In October 2013 a touring production of the musical Miss Saigon was met with protests at Minnesota's Ordway Theater. Read about the protests here. Participants objected to the musical's portrayal of the Vietnam War and Asian women, and, during the event, a protestor, cast member and blogger shared their thoughts on the protests with Playbill.

"Our reasons for selecting Show Boat were manifold," the NAAP's statement said. "Its enduring recognition as an American musical theater masterwork is a testament to the merits of its script and score, demanding a high level of artistry from those who accept its challenge. Here came a chance to explore the complexities of 'color-blind' and 'non-traditional' casting on a level rarely investigated; in addition, how an almost century-old classic, of numerous incarnations, could be rediscovered and examined anew, for and by those who are not conventionally represented in the piece’s traditional mounting."

Show Boat features music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Kevin Stites was listed as the music director and casting was by Michael Cassara, CSA.

Visit naaproject.org for more information.

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