Sunday, May 26, 2024

Miss Saigon Makes No Excuses for Casting and Neither Should Hollywood

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I feel like I’ve written way too much about casting choices within the realm of entertainment, especially due to casting accurately to race. You are all probably way too tired of hearing about it from me, but it does need to be said. Multiple times. As everything else in life, of course, the matter is not just black and white.

Whitewashing Asian characters has become an epidemic in modern Hollywood. From Ghost in the Shell to Death Note to Doctor Strange, an unfortunate westernization has commenced with minor and major characters alike, and the excuses for each have rolled in. Most recently, Marvel’s Iron Fist has alienated a great part of its audience through it’s casting choice.

I’m always curious to see the casting calls involved in this situation. Sure, the leads of these productions are mostly chosen by casting directors and producers that see the “Star Quality” of certain actors and a profit margin which they may not achieve with lesser known Asian actors. Which—in this day and age, at least—is bullshit. From a black perspective, both Moonlight and Get Out featured quite a few unknowns and lesser known actors- and look how they turned out. Moonlight won the Academy award for Best Picture for crying out loud.

As something of a rebuttal to the recent trend of disappointment, the off-Broadway section of New York nicknamed the Great White Way has revived Miss Saigon, which seems to be one of the best opportunities for Asian actors nowadays. Twenty years ago, Miss Saigon went through the same issue as pretty much any production featuring Asian characters faced: a lack of Asian people. In short, many white actors were literally painted yellow, Jonathan Pryce among them.

Jonathan Pryce in Yellowface as “The Engineer”

This is not to crucify the actors at all. Rather, it shows how lenient (and lazy, really) casting directors were in a show that is so important to inclusion on Broadway. Hell, my high school drama department committed the same sin (with not only Saigon, but The Wiz as well, which made for quite an interesting story to tell my musical loving mother).

The revival of the show that helped to put Lea Salonga on the map is receiving rave reviews so far, which is why it made its appearance at such a poignant time. I’m hoping to see it in a few months myself, as it holds personal significance to me, along with my Filipina friend. Both of us have faced our casting trials and discussed them ad nauseum, especially when it comes to correctly casting people of character.

This time around though, Miss Saigon seems to have finally got it right, maybe due to the years of protests following the mess that was the original casting. The show has played countless times off-Broadway, with the professional theaters taking very special care to cast the right people, and this time is no exception. It’s an important story to tell about the history of the Vietnam War’s impact, and the false “American Dream” that was fed to Vietnamese people. Actors performing in yellow face is not only wrong, but inauthentic. It does not serve the piece whatsoever. Instead it bastardizes it, and distracts from the core message.

One could argue “isn’t that a part of acting in general?” and I will respond with a resounding no. Because acting is supposed to be a quest for finding truth, and that is made infinitely easier and more significant by people who have ties to that specific truth, especially a racial one.

So my plea to Hollywood for some common sense persists. With great actresses such as Constance Wu and Rinko Kikuchi in the western circuit, I kind of find it bullshit to state that Scarlett Johansson ‘ought’ play the western version of Ghost in the Shell‘s main character. News flash: Asian Americans exist, and are there to utilize in films. They are experienced; they are willing to take the job. If the story actually had a point that did not have to be fabricated by the fandom, then maybe I’d have less of a problem with changing ethnicities of characters. Then again, the rip-off feeling would still rub me the wrong way. However, getting into the room is the hardest part for most, because the casting call for what was originally an Asian character had been scrubbed. In terms of perspective, if the casting call lists open ethnicity, it’s coding for something else. To many, it seems like a “need not apply” notice- which may or may not less us to what we are getting in the media today. 

This won’t be my last article about white-washing, I’m sure. The entertainment industry seems to be one of the slowest to evolve, even as the population continues to diversify. Regardless, we must bring attention to the fact that while one medium (theater) has definitely learned, another continues to have the same issues over and over again.

Images Courtesy of West End Theatre and Broadway Theatre

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