The Real Story of Clarion and Lloyd Suh

I don’t have any insider information. But I’ve been both teaching theatre in the university system and producing professional theatre for over 20 years, and I’m sick of the articles being written about this that have no understanding of what we do or how we do it.

Marilouise Michel of Clarion University wanted to produce Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India, but never completed the licensing agreement, or responded to the agent when asked about casting. Michel cast with all white actors, including the roles written for East Indian actors. The rights, having never been granted, were denied.

Here’s what happened: In January, Clarion asks for a copy of the play. In May, they inform Lloyd they’re adapting it into a musical. For those of you unfamiliar with IP copyright, this is illegal if done without author permission. Lloyd generously tells Clarion that’s fine if it’s just a classroom exercise, but he (obviously) has questions if it’s for public performance. The director never responds. Meanwhile, she’s begun negotiations with the agent, who has asked her about casting. The director does the paperwork required for the university to disburse a check to the agency, but never completes the actual rights negotiations or licensing agreement. On October 30, five months after Lloyd asked about the musical adaptation, the director emails Lloyd asking if he would be able to skype with the actors who are currently in rehearsals. Lloyd, thinking WTF? heads over to google and sees that the production (still without the legal permission to adapt or even perform the work) has been cast with all white actors. He emails his agent. The agent emails the director. The director says LOL, we couldn’t cast it any other way, and I forgot you even asked. Lloyd discovers from his agent that the licensing agreement was never completed. He clearly restates what the agent was (obviously) trying to discuss with the director five months earlier: the Asian characters need to be played by Asians, or the rights will not be granted. The director says no. The rights were not granted.

And the world goes nuts BLAMING LLOYD.

The coverage of this has been enraging, painting Lloyd and his agent (the marvelous and wonderful Beth Blickers) as bullies, when nothing could be further from the truth. Clarion is completely to blame, even if you believe white people should be allowed to play people of color. 

The director maintains the agent never mentioned race in her email. That may very well be true. The email may have said something along the lines of, “Before we release the rights, how do you plan to handle the specialized casting in this play?” or even just “How do you plan to cast the play?” It’s disingenuous to assert that a question like that doesn’t, at the very least, make clear that casting is an important consideration in rights negotiations. I’m willing to bet Michel didn’t complete the licensing agreement because she didn’t want to have to confess to Beth that she had an all-white cast, knowing full well that would be a problem. I’m willing to bet Michel, who had a provisional yes and had already sent the paperwork required for the university to disburse a check, believed she was far enough along in the process that she wouldn’t get caught if she kept her head down.

I have had innumerable conversations with people in education about paying performance rights, rewriting scripts, or violating the playwright’s express instructions, and invariably I’m trying to convince someone that Yes, you WILL get caught, because internet. (I’m of course also discussing Ethics, and IP rights, and OMG are you even kidding me with this?) It’s depressingly common for my fellow educators (and even more so for administrators) to believe they won’t get caught violating contract or performing without rights, so I have no trouble believing that this director believed a little of both.

The people out there howling that Lloyd shouldn’t have cashed the check are spurred by misrepresentative coverage. First of all, Lloyd didn’t even see the check. The agency deposited the check along with every other one they received that day, and would eventually disburse payment to Lloyd for all the shows for which they’d contracted. It’s not at all uncommon to send a check before all the details of an agreement have been finalized. If the agreement isn’t completed for whatever reason, the agent returns the money. Cashing the check is not a tacit way of saying “I would love for you to violate my IP rights and do whatever you like with my play.”

Playwrights, agents, and publishers pull the rights for ALL SORTS of reasons. Beckett’s estate famously won’t allow women to be cast in Waiting for Godot (with some notable exceptions). Tams Witmark once shut down a production of Anything Goes because the company wanted to use a drag queen Reno Sweeney. MTI shut down a Bay Area production of Godspell— with a C&D!!–because the company changed the lyrics. Neil Simon refuses the rights to schools and companies that want to edit out his swear words. Lloyd owns his play. If he wants to refuse rights unless a production agrees to put a full-page elegy to Mr. Jingles the Sock Monkey in the program, he has that right. He sets the rules, just as you set the rules for who uses your property.

Clarion is in the wrong here, period, even if you believe white people should be allowed to play people of color. Which, in 2015, is just nonsense.

I’m sick of the mainstream articles (and posts and comments) wherein the years of activism, resistance, discussion, and progress around casting and diversity in theatre are invisible. Is the director at Clarion misrepresenting the issue deliberately? Or is she really so disconnected from the theatre community that she doesn’t know about these issues? Why are the writers of these articles so ignorant of the years of discussion, the hundreds of articles, and the massive national controversies around casting and diversity in theatre?

At least 95% of the available roles in any given season are open to white people. It’s embarrassing to watch white people throw a tantrum over the remaining 5%. We’re not entitled to everything just because we want it. I’ve written repeatedly about the many reasons non-white characters should be played by non-white people (search “diversity” if you’re interested). Many writers far better than myself have written about this issue repeatedly. In brief:

  1. History. Theatre, film, and television all have a long history of casting white people as people of color while shutting actors of color out. Those portrayals have almost always been insulting and racist. The historical context has made this issue a sensitive topic for people of color, and rightfully so as they have had to watch themselves portrayed in insulting ways by white people while being shut out of opportunities to play themselves. If you think this is a matter of the past, think again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
  2. Representation. Actors of color are still underrepresented in theatre. Most of the available jobs go to white actors, who are disproportionately represented. White men in particular have always dominated, and continue to dominate, the industry. It’s unethical to push people of color aside to allow even more white people to have even more roles, especially the tiny handful of roles written specifically for people of color. This is also why it’s not at all the same when a person of color plays a role written for a white person. That’s a step toward proportional representation, not “racism against white people.”
  3. Ethics. People of color in the theatre industry have been very clear that the continued use of yellowface, brownface, and blackface, as well as the continual whitewashing of characters, is hurtful to them in multiple ways. White people have three choices and three choices only: “We hear you and we’ll stop,” “We hear you, but we don’t care if it hurts you, so we’ll keep doing it,” “We don’t believe it should hurt you; you are incorrect about your own experience of the world.” The first choice is ethical; the others are not.

So when we discuss issues like the cancellation of Clarion’s production of Jesus in India, let’s focus on the facts. Let’s insist on accurate coverage. Let’s hold each other accountable. And let’s have the self-respect to admit when we’re wrong.

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10 thoughts on “The Real Story of Clarion and Lloyd Suh

  1. AMCas says:

    I LOVE when you discuss casting and race and you didn’t disappoint. I was hoping you’d speak out regarding Kent State U. casting a white man as Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop, but suffice it to say that this entire article covers that too! As a mother of color to an actress of color who is now in college studying musical theatre, it’s nice to know that there are directors and educators out here who “get it”. Thank you.

  2. gregm91436 says:

    Thank you. Can’t believe people are blaming the playwright. Appalling. And good for Lloyd for asserting his rights.

  3. In 1978 the University of Hawai’i undertook a production of the Kabuki play Chushingura. A new translation of the Kabuki version of this play was made by James R Brandon, Junko Berberich, and Michael Mark Feldman.

    The UH production was titled: Chushingura – The 47 Samurai. The production played for three weeks in Honolulu, then a week in the neighbor islands and finally a six week tour of the mainland US culminating with a performance in Boston.

    Under the tutelage of Nakamura Matagoro II (Chief Instructor at the National Theatre) and a cadre of Kabuki actors, musicians, and technicians, we immersed ourselves body and soul into the world of Kabuki.

    Many of us had come from great distances to be a part of this program. Indeed, my theatre professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Dr. Leonard Pronko, told the students in his Japanese Theatre seminar that if any of us were serious about learning this art form then we should head to Hawai’i for we would never have the opportunity, even in Japan, of working as closely with the Kabuki talent being assemble for this production. I got on the airplane to Hawai’i and never looked back.

    The cast was, like Hawai’i itself, racially and ethnically mixed, and as is common with many university theatre programs, there were more women than men and thus many women were cast in male roles.

    Our mornings were devoted to dance and acting classes and our afternoons were spent in academic classes on Kabuki history, costuming and music. In the evenings many of us took additional dance and music lessons and, once the play was cast, we spent every evening, from 3:00pm until 9 or 10 pm in rehearsals. By the time we opened our Honolulu run in May, we had learned the entire play in Japanese and then re-memorized it in English. We ate, slept and breathed Kabuki. It was, for me at least, the best year of my theatrical life.

    Having read your excellent essay, I have a question: Was it wrong to cast non-Japanese actors in roles that are clearly Japanese and indeed are based upon actual people from Japanese history?

    By extension, is it wrong for student actors in the US to study and perform Kabuki, or No, or Kathakali, or Wyangkulit or JingJu?

    Just curious.

    http://narukamisthunderbolts.blogspot.com/2011/12/december-7th-serendipity-of-70-years.html

    • The One says:

      The situation is not in any way analogous, but you had actual asian artists involved in the production. You learned about the culture first-hand.

      I think if you were all white and worked on a new play by a living author without any representative of the culture you were representing present, then it would not be such a good thing–artistically or educationally.

      I think your experience shows that it is possible to do intercultural work in a respectful way.

  4. A Curious Beetle says:

    What is your source for this info? Why don’t you think the mainstream media is including this information in their reports?

    • Click the link on “here’s what happened” and you’ll see Lloyd’s post about the timeline. I’ve been producing for over 20 years and have personally negotiated licensing agreements with Beth Blickers, so I understand exactly the process Clarion went through, having gone through it myself. As I say at the top of my post, I don’t have any special information– just the publicly available information filtered through my years of experience teaching university theatre and producing. Those of us who have produced can easily see where the misrepresentations are.

      I think the media is leaving the facts out for a couple of reasons– Lloyd never wanted to go public with it. Clarion went to the press first, even executing a PR from a professional PR company. My guess is they so deeply feared being branded “racist” in this emotional climate, they got out in front of the story and spun it as kids “being punished for the color of their skin.” It’s a deeply troubling accusation. The PR is online– you can read it for yourself.

      The press, having only Michel’s deeply spun, half-told story, didn’t do their due diligence by contacting Beth or Lloyd (in most cases), and/or didn’t have the understanding of our industry to see the misrepresentations obvious to theatre professionals, and were happy to spin the story as “big bad Asian playwright picks on helpless white children because PC is out of control!111!” That’s going to stir up more controversy, and get more clicks, than “Local university fails to adhere to contract they did not complete in the first place; rights not approved; hours of rehearsal wasted because of faculty bungling.”

      • John Allison says:

        Hello: Thank you for noting “in most cases” in your last paragraph about media coverage. I am an editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. For our first article about this, we contacted Lloyd and Beth. This is what we got: “Mr. Suh declined to comment Wednesday through his literary agent, Beth Blickers. She would only say: ‘There are several characters of color for which there were not available appropriate actors and so it was decided that the production should not proceed.’ ” Online, we added the letter he sent to Clarion on Nov. 9. http://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2015/11/12/Clarion-University-forced-to-cancel-production-over-actors-race/stories/201511120096. And we did have a story on Sunday about Lloyd’s FB statement: http://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2015/11/14/Playwright-Clarion-University-issue-dueling-statements-on-cancelled-play/stories/201511140139 . Please feel free to contact me about any aspect of the coverage — Thank you. John Allison, jallison@post-gazette.com, 412.263.1915

      • Context Query says:

        Re:Mr Allison, this is a question that’s long been on my mind regarding a decline to comment. We obviously get a quotation (or truncated quotation) of exactly how a declination occurs, such as Blickers’ quote, but it seems to me that context is already fundamentally removed by not also including a quote of the specifically asked question. Is that considered good journalistic ethics? As Ms Hillman refers to above, the story was obviously spun in a manner that revolved around a race narrative and I imagine your request for comment was along those lines. Therefore, the IP/copyright issue that this post is saying has been largely ignored by the greater media remains untouched as the question leading to it was not asked.

        Less verbose: Since a declination to respond is in reply to a specific question, why then is it acceptable for the initial request comment not to be similarly quoted?

  5. Marcel says:

    Great post. Thanks for cutting through the half-truths with precision and insight.

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