Asian American Performers Action Coalition Aims For Paradigm Shift In Casting

Asian-American Actors Struggle To Be Considered 'American' On Stage

In September of last year, an Asian-American actor posted an offhand status message on Facebook. He wrote that he'd finally been seen by one of the top Off-Broadway theater companies in the city, and he was excited about it. But he also wondered why, after graduating from one of the best graduate acting schools in the country, and living in the city for almost 10 years, it had taken him so long to get his foot in the door there.

The actor wasn't aiming to get someone in trouble or cause an uproar, really -- he was merely expressing a frustration. But it sparked a major response. Other Asian-American actors responded in droves: some who had been working for decades vented similar frustrations, while others mentioned that they had also never been seen by that theater and had hung onto similar thoughts for years.

Based on this online conversation, many started thinking on a wider scale. One night the following month, Ralph Pena, artistic director of the Mai-Yi Theatre Company in New York, gathered about 150 Asian-American actors, writers, directors and other professionals at a rehearsal studio, and they dove right into it. They talked for hours.

"The first thing you have to do to shift a paradigm [is] get something on people's minds," said Christine Toy Johnson, an Asian-American writer and performer with extensive theater, TV, and film credits, who is also the co-chair of the Actor's Equity union's Equal Opportunity Committee. "You have to prove that there really is a problem and then you have to do something."

So they did. They formed AAPAC -- the Asian American Performers Action Coalition -- and set out to discover how many actors of their ethnic background were actually being cast in New York. Their initial steering committee researched actors in well over 400 productions, their specific ethnic backgrounds and stories, and what they found was more startling than they'd imagined.

In the report "Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages," AAPAC states that Asian-Americans received only 3 percent of all available roles in the non-profit sector, and only 1.5 percent of all available roles on Broadway in the past five years.

Whereas African-American and Latino actors saw their roles increase since 2007, "Asian-Americans were the only minority group to see their numbers go down from levels set five years ago," the study found. It also discovered that only 9 percent of all available roles city-wide had been cast "non-traditionally."

"Our [level] of research probably wouldn't have been able to happen without Google," said Pun Bandhu, an Asian-American actor who is currently performing in "Wit" on Broadway, and a member of AAPAC's steering committee. "We looked at interviews, read bios, anything we could find online, to see how [actors] identified themselves."

Johnson said the results weren't particularly surprising.

"There's this real subconscious perception in society that Asian-Americans are not actually American," she said. "It's a bit shocking, but every [Asian-American person] I know has had to deal with some sort of perception based on image."

Johnson noted that she and other Asian-American friends are often praised simply for "speaking English." Over the Thanksgiving break, she remembered, a stranger on the subway asked her a question and then proceeded to compliment her grasp of the English language, despite the fact that her family has lived in this country since 1865.

"The thing is: I don't think we are seen as part of the American fabric," Bandhu added. "Ultimately, you want to hire the best actor for the role, but how can you say you've found the best actor if entire demographic groups aren't even in the running? There's no reason now that for the role of the midwestern neighbor, you shouldn't call in an Asian actor."

It's not necessarily about closed-mindedness, Bandhu said. He and others in AAPAC are just trying to make theater professionals and audiences conscious of the issue. It took African-American and Latino actors years to shift the paradigm and earn roles that might have gone to Caucasian actors, but Bandhu doesn't want "to wait 20 more years" for this shift to take place for Asian-American actors -- for them to earn a better living and challenge themselves artistically.

Bandhu said that since non-white populations in New York City are on the upswing -- Asian-Americans make up almost 13 percent of its population and represent the country's fastest growing minority group -- the actors on its stages should reflect that diversity.

"When I was in grad school [at Yale] there was always colorblind casting," he explained. "So coming into the workforce here was really shocking at first."

Though there has been an influx of plays featuring Asian American actors in recent months -- "Outside People" at the Vineyard and "Chinglish" on Broadway especially come to mind -- both of those plays featured story-lines that were specific to Asian characters. That's part of the larger issue, Bandhu said; about half of the roles he auditions for requires him to play a very specific character with "some kind of Asian accent."

David Henry Hwang, the Tony award-winning playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist who penned "Chinglish" and "M. Butterfly," among other Broadway plays, said that the older generations of theatergoers are "perfectly comfortable with works about Asians, particularly if they're in Asia," but are often less comfortable seeing an Asian-American in a lead role that isn't ethnic-specific.

"Even more challenging is having a family not entirely made up of the same ethnicity," Hwang added.

And this is what AAPAC is hoping to change. On Monday the organization held its first roundtable forum at Fordham University, and Hwang was among the 19 participants. Others included Tony award-winning director Bartlett Sher and Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. The Public, according to the report, provided the highest rates of "non-traditional casting," casting non-white actors in 12.5 percent of roles since the 2006-07 season.

Eustis suggested that Asian-American actors might actually get out there and protest -- picketing theaters and forcing more diversity citywide. But Johnson said that that's not really their style. The broader goal is to raise awareness and shift perceptions. These actors want to be a part of the city's general theatrical landscape in addition to making their own, ethnically-specific work.

The New York Times noted that at the forum, Bandhu quoted a theater blogger who had concluded that perhaps "theater is for white people," since they're the ones showing up to most performances. But others who spoke suggested that theaters simply needed to continue diversifying their casting choices, better representing the minority population of the city, and in turn attracting more minority audiences.

Both at the forum and in an interview with HuffPost, Hwang brought up Jeremy Lin, the Asian-American NBA player who is currently on every sports fan's mind. Lin had to overcome preconceived notions, too -- he was dropped by school programs, initially undrafted by the NBA, and then waived by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. It even took the Knicks a while to play him, initially.

"And why? Jeremy Lin is 'like us.' He's an Asian American who grew up in Palo Alto. It means a lot to us and it says a lot about the insidiousness of the glass ceiling," he said. "Because now it's like: how did everybody miss him? What were they thinking?"

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