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Other Blogs: writing plays with non-white characters

Posted May 21st, 2013

More great reading on Howlround! This time an interview between playwright A. Rey Pamatmat and Christopher Oscar Pena.  Pamatmat humorously recounts his frustrations with writing plays with Filipino characters and then being asked why the characters are Filipino to which he responds, “Why are you white?” Though his first question to Oscar Pena is why the characters in his new play are Chinese-American? (As oppose to Latino.) The question is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but also Pamatmat is interested in where these characters come from, not why aren’t they Latino (or white).

The return of Mr. Moto style casting!

The return of Mr. Moto style casting!

What follows is an interesting dialogue not just about the frustrations about having to justify the presence of non-white characters on stage (because, after all, if there’s no “reason” for a character to be of color, shouldn’t we all default to white? Because white is normal, you see), but also the many creative opportunities by telling the stories of characters of color–and not just stories of immigration, hardship, and drug cartels–as well as being able to work with all the great actors of color, who are itching for meaty parts and the opportunity to contribute to their art.

One of the most astonishing recent developments that both playwrights are baffled by is white actors playing Asian and Latino characters in yellow/brown-face. And I thought this was only still happening at the Metropolitan Opera, where they still paint the extras in blackface/brownface/yellowface, depending on the opera (as if the audience will otherwise be able to tell they’re not actually Egyptian slaves, which perhaps at one time they were). But no, this face-painting is back in fashion as evidenced in a hilarious but infuriating blog by “a disgruntled Asian actor” titled “Why I’m Tired of Being an (Asian) Actor,” which I came across on the same day, detailing a long audition process with multiple callbacks, only to lose out to a white actor (who will play the part of a South Pacific chieftain who disrupts the white world–in other words the whole play is predicated on one part being white and the other not-white, but now they’re both white, except one white person will be in South-Pacific-Island-face, which is probably not a first, but maybe hasn’t been since since the days of Melville).

However, the HowlRound interview mostly concentrates on the many and varied experiences of Americans, the complex communities we grew up with, and the varied cultures beyond our households’ that were integral to our lives. The stage must be opened up to these experiences, or it will just continue down a road to stale lameness and irrelevancy.


–Said Johnson