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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 389-409

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Changing Faces:
Recasting National Identity in All-Asian(-)American Dramas

Angela C. Pao


I hate that term non-traditional casting. I believe that the kind of casting we are talking about is traditional casting. Casting that comes out of the great traditions of this country. I would propose a change of terms. I would prefer to isolate what 90 percent of our theatres are doing as non-traditional casting since it does not represent what America is--the American people. 1

--Anna Deavere Smith

Over the past few decades, there has been a sustained and productive convergence of concepts and concerns in the areas of theatre and performance studies, American ethnic studies, and national, transnational, and diasporic studies. One cluster of issues resulting from this convergence involves investigations into the nature and forms of racial, ethnic, and national identity and difference. In theory, the trend has been to investigate avenues that lead away from traditional conceptual and geographical boundaries. In practice, the most prominent arenas for the exploration and deconstruction of conventional notions of identity that have been challenged, even discredited, by historical and social developments have been postcolonial drama, intercultural performance, and drama and performance art created by artists from internal racial or ethnic minority groups. The last category of drama and performance arts, in particular, has taken advantage of the properties of embodiment unique to live performance to revise concepts of human identity. One strategy for reforming visions of identity, however, remains highly controversial in practice but relatively lightly explored from a theoretical perspective. This strategy, or more accurately, these strategies are the array of non-traditional casting practices that have burgeoned in the [End Page 389] United States since the 1960s. Unlike forms of performance that rely on the creation of new cultural institutions and new works to engage with attitudes and ideas regarding race and ethnicity that originated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the non-traditional casting practices developed during the second half of the twentieth century issue their challenge to eurocentric conceptions of American society and culture from inside the very institutions dedicated wholly or primarily to preserving a European-American dramatic heritage. This interior positioning is the source of both the potency of casting against tradition in various ways and the controversies that have surrounded these practices.

The most inflammatory aspects of these controversies were brought to the attention of the general public by the exchanges between August Wilson and Robert Brustein that began with the former's keynote address at the 1996 National Conference of the Theatre Communications Group. In essence the debate positioned Wilson's opposition to colorblind casting and call for support for black theatres and plays against Bru-stein's denunciation of institutional separatism along racial lines and the politicization of arts funding. Wilson saw racially mixed theatres in general and colorblind casting in particular as new instances of assimilationism, while Brustein considered these signs of progress. The debate was carried out on the pages of American Theatre magazine through the fall of that year and concluded in January 1997 with a face-to-face confrontation on the stage of the Town Hall in New York City. In the meantime, the battle had been joined by theatre practitioners, critics, and scholars, whose views appeared in articles, editorials, and letters in major newspapers and trade publications including The New York Times, Village Voice, Variety, and Back Stage. While the Town Hall event brought national media attention to the issues raised by Wilson and Brustein, neither their positions nor their views were new. In her introduction to a series of interviews undertaken by the editors of Theater to go "beyond the Wilson-Brustein debate," Erika Munk points out that Wilson was expanding on points he had made in an October 1990 article in Spin and Brustein had been criticizing the balkanization of theatre since the late 1970s. 2 Specific points and arguments raised on both sides had been explored in a single forum over the course of the Non-Traditional Casting...


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