In our culture — the polyphonic, multi-hued, gender-diverse, democratic U.S. of A. — citizens can find it hard to talk about race and representation. This reluctance extends to the open-minded, liberal community of theatre artists. As Ruthie Ann Miles declared to Playbill after her Tony win last month, Asian-Americans are under-cast in America's theatres: "There's no place to practice, which is on the stage. There aren't enough roles."
For 25 years now, one theatre has been deprogramming New York's assumptions about what roles an Asian-American actor can play. Mia Katigbak founded the National Asian-American Theatre Company (NAATCO) to cast Asian-American actors in classic works and in new plays by American playwrights, Asian or otherwise. Since 1990, NAATCO has produced plays by Sophocles, Shaw, Chekhov and Churchill. To celebrate their quarter-century, the company has revived its Obie-winning Awake and Sing! with support from the Public Theater.
In 2013, when NAATCO first presented Odets' masterwork, a few of the critics objected that they just couldn't buy an Asian-American cast as the Berger family, Jewish-Americans in the Depression-era Bronx. But Katigbak feels a strong sense of artistic empathy with the play: "It's a story about immigrants trying to make it in this country under economic straits and family dynamics. That's pretty universal."
She continues, "Perhaps the first visual impact could be jarring, but I think people start to identify with the circumstances more than the outward appearance. People said, 'Yeah, when you guys walk out, it's kind of odd that this stuff is coming out of your mouths.'" But just as theatregoers become acclimated to the artificial verse of Shakespeare's characters, NAATCO's audience quickly adjusts to the unconventional casting. Katigbak shows confidence in an audience's ability to accept the reality of the stage world. NAATCO's shows often have elements of abstract staging, underplaying the realism even in a script like Chekhov's Seagull. "If we continue to give the audience something to chew on, something really good to experience — I can't say I want them to forget that we're Asian, but it's no longer a factor."
This combination of inspired staging and Asian-American casting can challenge deeply-held preconceptions of canonical plays, a fact that Katigbak seems to delight in. "When we did The Seagull, I recall in one performance a gentleman huffily stood up in the middle of Act One and yelled, 'This is not Chekhov!' then charged out the theatre and slammed the door. I kind of thought that was fun!"
If alienating a few stuffed shirts is the trade-off for enlightening the theatre community, Katigbak is willing to pay. That's because, as she points out, the onstage representation of Asian-Americans is still a big problem. Elaborating on Miles' post-Tony observation, Katigbak describes how this anniversary remounting of Awake and Sing! was inspired by conversations with Oskar Eustis, her counterpart at the Public Theater.
The artistic directors had noted how casting of Asian-Americans had recently seemed to regress. "There was the whole La Jolla Nightingale debacle [in 2012]: a Chinese tale where there were, I think, two Asian characters, not in any of the main roles. Then dovetailing with that was the casting of a white person in [Edwin] Drood who was supposed to be South Asian."
Katigbak also pointed out a dysfunctional cycle in how larger companies approach Asian-American casting. "The bigger theatres still don't think about it unless it's revivals of The King and I and Miss Saigon. Goodness, those are the same things that we were talking about 20 years ago! In response to our protests, they were like, 'Okay, we're going to put on Miss Saigon and King and I, we'll hire a hundred Asian-American actors.' So all of a sudden the percentage goes up. And then they close, and that's it. Then you protest again and they haul out the same shows."
NAATCO was founded in part to counter these theatrical habits. While Katigbak notes that progress has been too small and too slow, she does note practical changes over the last quarter-century. Returning to the immigrant themes of Awake and Sing!, she says, "As the first and second generations became more comfortable culturally and economically, that has widened opportunities. We're getting to the third and fourth wave of Asian-Americans, so we have a lot more actors come in for auditions, which is a good thing. Which also means there are more Asian-American playrights."
But an influx of talent can only help so much if directors can't imagine an Asian-American actor as Hamlet or Hedda, or as the lead in their new American drama. To help others see the arbitrary nature of casting conventions, Katigbak offers an instructive anecdote:
"The second Chekhov that we did, which was The Cherry Orchard, we were talking to our set designer. She wasn't sure whether she wanted to come on board because she kept saying, 'Oh, are we going to reset this into an Asian cultural context?' And I would say, 'No, that's not what we do.' She thought about it and finally came back and said, 'Well actually, I don't ask Irish-Americans the same question. Why do I assume that they have a natural affinity, or they're able to represent Russians onstage any more believeably than an Asian-American theatre company?'" Representation of America's non-white, non-straight actors is more complex than good intentions and ready-made phrases can accommodate. But Katigbak does share a recent sign of progress. "I just finished a show with Clubbed Thumb, called Card and Gift. At one point, I spoke to Maria Stryer, the artistic director, and I said, 'You know, thanks for casting me, because I don't really think my character is supposed to be Asian-American.' And Maria kind of looked at me and laughed and said, 'Well, we don't want you to stop being Asian-American!'"