- Playing Jewish at the National Asian American Theatre Company
“Why don’t the majority of American stages reflect the wondrous diversity of our world?” mused Mia Katigbak, artistic director of the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO). “How is it that we cannot imagine onstage what is outside our windows, on our streets, in our buildings?”1 Simply put: Racial representation on the American stage is incongruous with the heterogeneity of United States. According to 2010 census data, “virtually half of recent births in the U.S. are minorities” (Frey), and yet the opportunities for non-Caucasian actors remain scarce. A recent study of Broadway and leading nonprofit New York City theatres by the Asian American Performers Action Committee explicates the particular difficulties for actors of Asian heritage: they are “the least likely of the major minority groups to play roles that were not defined by their race,” as well as “the only minority group to see their numbers go down, from 3% five years ago, increasing to a high of 4% in the 07/08 season and then dropping steeply for the next two years to 1 percent [sic] in the 09/10 season, with a slight uptick to 2% this past year” (Gener). For over twenty-five years, NAATCO has responded to these challenges by producing European and American classics with all–Asian American casts, adaptations of these classics by Asian American playwrights, and new plays written by non–Asian American writers not for or about Asian Americans yet performed by an all–Asian American cast. “In choosing the repertory above,” NAATCO’s mission is to “demonstrate a rich tapestry of cultural difference bound by the American experience. The enrichment accrues to each different culture as well as to America as a whole” (“About Us”). This essay examines the strategy behind, and the effectiveness of, NAATCO’s mission through a case study of two of its productions as a means of opening up a discussion about racial representation at large.
Of particular interest here are its productions of plays with all Jewish characters, Leah’s Train (2009) and the more recent Awake and Sing! (2013).2 As the reception of these productions indicates, who is considered a legitimate representative of another onstage speaks volumes about critical attitudes toward racial groups offstage. In the context of this debate, interrogating notions of Jewish identity make for a particularly compelling case study by which to investigate racial representation. Jewishness itself is a slippery term to define: not only has it been depicted as a race, a religion, and a civilization, but Jewish as a racial categorization has proven to be a particularly unstable designation. For one, anyone of any background can become Jewish through conversion; moreover, Jewish communities are comprised of people from around the world, including Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Before delving into the specifics of NAATCO’s methodology, however, it may be helpful to step back and consider various approaches to increasing diversity on the American stage. As roles tend to be understood as white unless otherwise specified by character description, they tend to be cast accordingly. As a result, “[o]ver the past five years, African American actors were cast in 13% of all roles, Latino actors in 4% and Asian American actors in 2%. Caucasian actors filled 80% of all roles” (Gener). Perhaps the most common response to this problem is the practice of colorblind casting, or nontraditional casting, which Actors Equity describes as increasing “artistic options by expanding casting opportunities for women, actors of color, seniors and actors with disabilities in roles where race, gender, age of the presence or absence of a disability are not germane.” In his 2010 article “Casting without Limits,” Richard Schechner takes this tactic even further, advocating for [End Page 89] “truly open casting” in which audiences “look at and listen to casts where the gender, race, age and body type of the performers are, as it were, not perceived.” While he notes a continuing resistance to performing across gender lines, Schechner points to the normative practice of colorblind casting as evidence that contemporary theatre has begun to accept the possibility that “role characteristics” can...