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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.