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On identity: AATP’s response to an open letter

Recently, The Stanford Daily published an op-ed criticizing the Asian American Theater Project (AATP)’s casting practices, particularly those surrounding casting actors from marginalized communities or who identify as racial/ethnic minorities. The author discusses feeling excluded from roles in two productions – “Centrifuge” and “peerless” – “based on appearance.”

First, we want to extend our deepest apologies to Noah and recognize that you felt hurt by your experience with us. We could have better communicated our casting decisions and created space for you to voice concerns. It is in opposition to our ideals to make any API-identifying individual feel invalidated when, as you pointed out, this happens enough in broader theater circles.

That being said, we do want to address concerns raised about our casting policies, both to clarify our general stances and to invite a broader discussion on diversity practices.

The terms “Asian American” and “API” contain a multitude of experiences. Some, like the “othering” Noah describes experiencing in middle school, are near-universal; countless others are deeply tied to individual ethnic and racial identities. Therefore, AATP rejects the idea that any individual can understand the nuances and lived experiences of all API-identifying individuals. Attempts to homogenize the API community only serve to silence underserved segments of the API community, especially South Asian folks, Southeast Asian folks and Pacific Islanders.

This is not to say that AATP isn’t guilty of these things, but rather, that we are dedicated to recognizing our faults and doing better. Historically, Asian Americans have lost control over portrayals of their own histories and narratives to both white folks and others in the API community. We strive to give individuals and communities that agency back through our work.

The op-ed describes AATP’s mission as “promoting Asian American acting.” While API representation in theater-making is part of our mission, it is not our sole goal. Our spaces push artists and audience members to engage critically with API-relevant issues including, but not limited to, representation. We aim to explore multi-dimensional, diverse API narratives and examine our own histories, privileges and biases in the context of a particular script or issue. Representation without intentionally considering which bodies we put onstage, whose voices we center and why it’s important to tell these stories is not enough.

By prioritizing identity, we will sometimes pass up technically skilled actors for more inexperienced individuals. However, we disagree that we value “appearances over skill.” Rather, we believe the depth of understanding that actors who identify as members of a community can bring to a role is just as valuable as, if not more than, technical skill.

To return to the situations Noah experienced with AATP: “Vietgone” (source material for  “Centrifuge”) revolves around the Vietnamese refugee experience, so we prioritized casting actors identifying as Southeast Asian, and Vietnamese or Vietnamese American, if possible (recognizing these identities are not interchangeable), as the leads. An all Asian/Asian American cast also aligns with the playwright’s vision of subverting traditional white stereotypes of API communities with the show. Professional productions double the “white” characters with the playwright, Qui Nguyen, who is a character in the play and who identifies as Vietnamese American in real life.

Furthermore, Noah was cast in his role based on the comedic abilities, as the character he played has many of the humorous moments in the play. Our intent was both to place him in a role well-suited to his skill set and to give actors who identify as Vietnamese or Southeast Asian a platform to tell a deeply personal story, and we apologize if that wasn’t made clear during the rehearsal process. However, given the chance to start over, we would not cast the show differently.

In the case of “peerless, D – the character Noah mentions – is 1/16 Native American. Historically, blood ancestry has been used to delegitimize Native folks’ indigeneity, with many people arguing that being below a certain percentage Native is the same as being white. We strongly reject this idea; therefore, we committed to casting a Native actor, as anything less would be whitewashing. We were wrong to assume how Noah identified, and we apologize deeply for that, but we still stand by our decision to only consider Native actors for this role.

AATP is far from perfect. We overrepresent privileged segments of the API community, including East Asian and high socioeconomic-status API folks; we struggle with discussing race and privilege; we have our own blind spots around colorism, ableism and classism. These are areas that we are working to improve. That being said, we believe that in both these instances, we acted in accordance with our mission, and we stand by these casting decisions; given the opportunity, we would make the same choices again.

We want to thank Noah for bringing up these issues, and we invite him and anyone else who wants to discuss them further to contact Olivia Popp and Caroline Zha, AATP’s artistic director and executive producer, so we can continue this conversation. We also hope this launches a broader dialogue on diversity, inclusion and our responsibilities as theatermakers who have the privilege of having a platform to tell these stories. As artists and activists, we are passionate about grappling with these issues and expanding our own perspectives and understandings as we work toward a more equitable artistic community.

– AATP Board

 

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu and Caroline Zha at jczha ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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