by Emilio Ramos
During the week of the show, my Facebook feed began to show that images of our cast were circulating. In private groups dedicated to Asian-American actors and AEA members of color, issue was being taken with the decision to cast Sarah as Tuptim. Feeling the glow and safety of the show around me, I took to these forums unofficially and offered my two cents. We were very proud of the show, but it was easy enough to admit that the whitewashing was a mistake. (Funnily enough, one comment implied I was an “Uncle Tom” for defending our work. How’s that for irony?)
It’s true that there was no official explanation as I had hoped there would be in those early days, but I had let all of that go. I was happy to be doing what I was doing, and I was so proud of our cast, in particular The King and I ensemble dancers, who had exhausted themselves asking questions and reviewing steps to rightfully honor the work. I was proud to publicly acknowledge them not only as consummate professionals, but also as allies. At the time I was offering these thoughts, we had four shows left (out of a total seven) of the run. It was a rainy Thursday, and just as we thought we would be rained out of that performance, the sky cleared and an enormous rainbow shone above The Muny. I had heard the expression “Muny Magic” before, but this was downright spooky. And wonderful.
On Friday night, Act One went well, though apparently during the unfortunate “souvenir stand” sequence in On The Town, there had been some jeering and booing, but I hadn’t noticed. “Fair enough, though”, I thought. It was dated and inappropriate.
Act Two began and at a pivotal moment after the first sequences of “Uncle Thomas”, chanting began to stream in from the audience so loudly that those of us in the wings panicked. After a few moments, the words became clear. “Boo!”, they yelled. “Yellowface!”, they repeated over and over.
In that instant, I felt isolated. Guilty. I had allowed this to happen. I did not speak up when my gut told me to, because I believed so wholeheartedly in bringing this show to life. I had agreed with my Asian-American brother and sisters that it was inappropriate to speak our minds. I had ignored my own instincts to call out appropriation and I felt incredibly ashamed. But we continued to go out on stage.
In the three or so minutes I had offstage to breathe during the number, I broke down side stage and wept. Wept for my dedicated ensemble colleagues, who were doing their jobs and didn’t deserve to be wrongfully accused of appropriation (see above, re: appreciation vs. appropriation). I wept for my Asian-American sisters, Erica and Jess, who were baring their souls at that exact moment dancing Eliza and the Angel’s duet - a gorgeous moment they had earned that had now been taken away from them. I even wept for Sarah, who comes from a culture (Australia, where I also grew up) and has been working in another culture (Europe) where the conversations regarding race and representation are not nearly as advanced as they are in the United States. She was executing her job to her utmost ability, doing exactly as she was directed to do by Cynthia. But mostly, in those few minutes, I wept for my own sense of deep shame. How could I have let this happen?
After the show, there was a company meeting to discuss the evening’s events. Leading the conversation were myself, Erica, Jess and Brian Shimasaki-Liebson - all the Asian-American cast members who had been deeply affected by the protest. We explained to the Muny higher-ups who were present how we had been privately grappling with this issue for weeks prior, and everyone present knew immediately that this was a conversation that should have happened at the earliest sign of discomfort. But we all knew why it hadn’t: out of respect for this glorious material, out of respect for the history we were making, and out of respect for Cynthia Onrubia - an Asian-American theatre legend who comes from a generation of actors of color who didn’t have a national conversation surrounding race to use as a sounding board. She is not alone in a generation of performers of colour, some of whom I know personally, who are used to staying silent and letting whitewashing occur. It was the norm in their heyday, driven by fear of unemployability, and they continue to let it slide. I’m not sure it was even an occurrent thought. Cynthia hired the actor she thought would do the best job and didn’t consider the ramifications.
It was our responsibility as a new generation trying to erase injustice in our industry to speak up. And we failed.
During the conversation, I learned that the uproarious protestors were members of well-known theatre organizations who had been invited to, and received complimentary tickets to, the performance. They had decided to use this opportunity to disturb the show and stage a “walk out” during The King and I sequence. They chose not to speak face to face with Mr. Isaacson, who had been in contact with them in the days and hours prior to the show. They chose not to express their discomfort in a two-sided conversation, or even a peaceful protest outside the theatre before the show to express their hurt and concern. They chose to disturb a paid performance, directing their ire at the performers on stage who were simply doing their jobs.
Anyone who works in a theatre will tell you it is a dangerous workplace. If something is thrown off there could be severe physical consequences. Especially at The Muny, it involves large moving pieces. Missed cues and ill-timed traffic can cause permanent injury. Beyond that, to be in America in 2018 is to be fearful of any sort of public disturbance, because such an event could easily escalate into violence. There is too much of a precedent in this country to ignore that possibility. We did not know this was going on when the chants started. Had it been anything else other than a walk out, we wouldn’t have known what to do. It was more than disturbing; it was downright frightening.
Ready for the kicker, folks? If I wasn’t so closely connected to the show, I would probably be right there in solidarity and outrage with these protestors. It’s true that I am too involved and too close to the subject matter to do any sort of clearheaded thinking about the events of that weekend. And I understand their anger; the pain of feeling invisible. As a person of color living in the Western Hemisphere, I have been dealing with microaggressions, injustices and attempted erasures like this my whole life. I get the impulse to stand up to what you believe is wrong. But to put artists, human beings who are doing a difficult job in a hazardous workplace, in such a precarious and dangerous position? That is wrong.
Shame on those protestors.
You may have sparked a conversation - but your thoughtlessness only caused those of us on stage trying to maintain our integrity and culturally represent to feel further erasure, and the distinct lack of effort to peacefully communicate your thoughts to The Muny producers before resorting to something like that didn’t look like the high road to me. It looked like utter carelessness.
As for the subject of shame, I will not pretend I am not ashamed of the fact that I did not express my discomfort sooner. I will have to live with that feeling forever - feeling that I also had a part to play in putting us all in danger. Never again. In 2018 and beyond, marginalized people and allies alike have the distinct responsibility of forging through our own discomfort to call out injustice. That we should think our actions through beforehand to comb for possible dangerous consequences, however, is crucial. I believe that progress is made by stirring the pot, but I cannot condone pouring the pot onto the head of another.
What kind of progress is that?