July 24, 2012
Dear Jeanine, I am the founding President of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), the only organization solely dedicated to advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depictions and coverage of Asian Americans in the media. Our non-profit, all-volunteer group recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Long before the La Jolla Playhouse’s production of “Nightingale” became a public controversy, we were already aware of it and the company’s possible violation of the LORT Contract, to which all local theatres are signatories. Aki Aleong (former President of MANAA) and I met with Actor’s Equity to discuss these violations on July 9. After the panel discussion was announced, I contacted Dana Harrel and suggested Aki be included on the panel because he had a different issue to discuss from the actors who would focus on the lack of opportunity for Asian American actors, etc.
Dana told me the panel was too full but she would make sure the moderator gave Aki a chance to speak to our issues. I confirmed this with her in an email Saturday. So you can imagine my anger when I later heard from my people who drove down from Los Angeles to the discussion that not only was Aki not recognized, but you were rude to him. I waited until seeing the posted video of that discussion before writing you. Aki had no choice but to stand up to speak as you were trying to wrap up the discussion. He identified himself as part of MANAA and reminded you that he was supposed to be recognized. You told him, “No, no…” When he continued to insist, you said, “No, I haven’t called on you.” He pointed out it was supposed to be on your sheet, yet you said, “You can talk to them afterwards…No, it was not scheduled.”
It was only after the audience and Christopher Ashley urged you to allow him to say his piece that he was able to continue. This put Aki in a difficult position of having to be more aggressive just to be heard (he angrily pointed out he’s been an actor for almost as long as you’ve been alive; in other words, “show me some respect!”). He read the LORT contract’s definition of “Non-Traditional Casting,” which was important to show the creative team that they were in violation of that aspect of the LORT Contract as NTC was supposed to benefit ethnic minorities, women, and those with disabilities. Not white men.
There were more issues he wanted to speak to, but he was clearly flustered at having to push through so much resistance just to say that. I spoke with Dana yesterday and she told me she had called you on Friday to tell you about our agreement and that she also reminded you of that on Sunday before the panel started. You allegedly said you did not write down his name because you were in the supermarket the first time (even though Dana told you to) and rationalized that although you forgot about Aki, it worked out “beautifully.” No, it did not.
This controversy surrounding the creative choices of LJP angered the Asian American community in ways I had never seen before. It reawakened lifetimes of experiences being denied opportunities because of our race and being ignored because people believe we’re passive and can be walked all over. And you made it worse by trying to shut down Aki Aleong.
I find it ironic that you warned the audience this was not the place to make speeches and if people rambled on, you would cut them off. And then you proceeded to not do that for most of those asking questions/making comments including the African American actor who loved impressing the audience with his connection to two members of the creative team. Yet, you tried to cut off the one person you were supposed to recognize in the first place–Aki Aleong.
For the record, I chastised Dana for getting it wrong: You were not supposed to allow Aki to speak “if the topic gets to casting in L.A.” It was never about that. It was about the LORT contract. But how could you not even remember his name? When someone gives you a name on two different occasions, do you not write it down?
You also made a major blunder by trying to soften the question Cindy Cheung earlier posed to director Moises Kaufman: If he had set his play in Africa as this play is supposedly set in “mythical China,” would he have dared to cast a white man in the role of an African King? Kaufman skirted the question by repeating what he’d said earlier about always wanting “The Nightingale” to be multi-cultural. Cheung rightfully pointed out that he had not answered the question, and, after you interrupted, spelled out her belief that he would not have because he knew he would’ve gotten hell from the African American community, which the creative community respects more than the Asian American one.
You jumped in and said “I’m not sure it’s productive to say, ‘What would you do if…’” It was extremely productive. This was one of the major points of the entire discussion! I understand you wanted people to hear each other so that there could be a constructive dialogue and that you meant well. You did make some helpful points throughout the discussion.
However, you prevented a major lesson from being spelled out (in fact, that was one of the things Ping Wu tried to do later on since you botched it. He made two good points but then got too angry as he began talking about racial slurs and rightfully had to be told to stop talking). Were you uncomfortable with what Cheung had to say? I also found it interesting that the first person you called on from the audience was a white woman. You seem to be aware of “white privilege” as it was in your materials given to the audience. I wish you’d read portions of it to explain to the whites in the audience why most of them “don’t get it” when it comes to race because they’re not directly impacted by it. Anything they’re denied in life is based on their individual failings, not their race. Not so people of color.
Of course, the elderly woman predictably went on to say she wasn’t bothered by the lack of Asian American roles. Why would she? Does she ever notice when Asian Americans aren’t cast as the stars of television shows taking place in Hawaii or San Francisco? Does she speak out in outrage when they’re not? I doubt it. Two white people interviewed by Channel 5 said the same thing: The lack of Asians didn’t bother them. Wow, what a surprise.
In your wrap-up, you failed to ask what the Playhouse intended to do in the future to avoid situations like this and/or to make up for the fire storm they created. You soft-shoed even that. While asserting, “We all need to be talking about these issues,” you nevertheless said you weren’t committing the Playhouse to do that. Why not? For you, was this discussion just an exercise in being a moderator? Just another gig? Because for the rest of us, it’s so much more. We are extremely disappointed in you.
Guy Aoki Founding President, MANAA