Events and Updates

April 2, 2013

La Jolla Playhouse’s White-Washed Play Nightingale

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Written by: MANAA

After word gets around that the La Jolla Playhouse (LJP) is going to do a production of the Hans Christian Andersen fable Nightingale (which features Chinese characters in medieval China) with only two Asian American actors and white men playing Chinese men, MANAA approaches Actor’s Equity about a possible violation of their rules.

  • · The La Jolla Playhouse holds a public forum on the controversy, but former MANAA President Aki Aleong (who was promised he’d be allowed to speak) is treated rudely by the moderator leading to an angry letter from MANAA board member Guy Aoki. 
  • · Later, at a panel discussion at East West Players, Aoki criticizes Christopher Ashley, artistic director of LJP, for (misleading) comments he made on a radio show about the controversy.

The following timeline details MANAA’s involvement in speaking to various people behind the scenes about the issue.

July 2-Aki Aleong calls Michael Van Duzer of Actor’s Equity with his concerns.  Van Duzer wants to wait until a board meeting later that month to discuss the situation, but Aleong gives him three days to research the subject.

July 5-Van Duzer tells Aleong the Playhouse was in violation of the LORT contract (to which every local theatre is a signatory) for only casting their play in New York and not a 50-mile radius of the theatre itself in La Jolla, California.  Four days later, Aleong and Founding MANAA President Guy Aoki met with Van Duzer at the Actor’s Equity office in Hollywood.

Former MANAA President Aki Aleong and Founding MANAA President Guy Aoki meet with Michael Van Duzer of Actor's Equity about the La Jolla Playhouse's controversial play.

Former MANAA President Aki Aleong and Founding MANAA President Guy Aoki meet with Michael Van Duzer of Actor’s Equity about the La Jolla Playhouse’s controversial play.

July 11th-UT San Diego covers the story (“Behind a Playhouse casting controversy; Theater facing criticism over scarcity of Asians in ‘Nightingale’; here’s what creators say”).  Lyricist Sater says, “On the subject of casting, I have to say, we had a workshop that was fully Asian, and it’s not appropriate to the piece [we’ve written]. It’s not about Asia. What’s really important to the piece is to have completely color-blind casting. Completely multicultural. Which is what we have. We have an African-American mother of a white son in our show now. Our cast is not even predominantly white. It’s a mix.”

July 12-On their Facebook account, LPJ announces there will be a panel discussion to discuss the controversy.

July 13-On Facebook, LJP announces New Yorkers Cindy Cheung and Christine Toy Johnson (part of the recently formed Asian American Performers Action Coalition—AAPAC–whose study of more than 400 productions showed that while stage roles for other minorities have risen in five years, Asian roles in the non-profit sector fell to 3% and only 1.5% of Broadway roles despite AAs making up almost 13% of NYC) will be included on the panel along with LJP artistic director Christopher Ashley, director Moises Kaufman, and New York casting director Tara Rubin.

Later that night-MANAA board member Miriam Nakamura-Quan and Dr. Raymond Quan see the play.  All of the characters (except the title character) have Asian names.  Six of the men are played by white men and four of the women are Black.  One actress (Kimiko Glenn) is half Asian while a 12 year old Filipina plays the Nightingale.  There are Chinese lanterns and clothes to still convey a Chinese backdrop.  No one speaks in broken English or uses make-up to change the shape of their eyes.  There are modern-day references as Glenn talks like a valley girl and there are jokes about Vera Wang.  After the performance, there is a 15-20 minute “Talk Back” where a representative of LJP asks the audience for feedback, but no one mentions the racial casting.  Most of the audience is white, average age 60 or older.  There are one or two Asian couples and mixed Asian couples and no blacks.

July 16-Aoki leaves a message for Becky Biegelsen, director of public relations for the theatre, wanting to get Aki Aleong on their panel discussion for the following Sunday’s performance.

Dana Harrel.

Dana Harrel.

July 17-Aoki speaks with Dana Harrel, associate producer of LJP.  She says the panel may be too full to include Aleong, but she’ll ask the moderator to recognize him.  Aoki tells her LJP is in violation of the LORT contract and Aleong needs to raise that as a separate issue from the casting one.

She insists LJP cast in La Jolla for both Nightingale and the upcoming Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.  After the conversation, she emails Aoki a copy of the casting notice for the former.  She agrees to give complimentary tickets to Aleong and his guests and to make sure MANAA members driving down from L.A. will be guaranteed seats for the panel discussion.  Aoki urges LJP to stream the discussion live so those unable to get down there can watch it live.  In the end, they can’t do it, but it’s video-taped and put on the LJP website.

Christopher Ashley.

Christopher Ashley.



That day, Christopher Ashley, when interviewed by radio station KPBS, says that at LJP a few years ago, they did Surf Report and liked an Asian American actress so much, they cast her as the daughter of a German couple even though it was written for a white character.  He says he “passionately defends” non-traditional casting as “an important tool” to give minorities opportunities to play white characters (neglecting to acknowledge it’s supposed to give white roles to minorities, not take away ethnic roles and offer them to white men).

July 18-David Ng covers the controversy for (“La Jolla Playhouse gets heat from Asian Americans over casting”).

July 19-Aoki forwards the casting notice to Ng (since he’s continuing to cover the issue) along with parts of the EEOC rules of Actors Equity from their website that, he says, proves “color-blind casting is not for white people.”

July 20-Harrel e-mails Aoki to re-confirms that Aleong will be given the opportunity to speak. She spoke to the moderator that day and would remind her again.

Later that day, Van Duzer emails Aoki:  “At the time we spoke, I was unable to find any evidence of La Jolla having a local seasonal call. After I left town, the staff was able to find proof of that call happening which meant that they were not in” violation of the LORT contract.

July 21-Through e-mail, Harrel tells Aoki Jeanine Hillis—who’s had 30 years experience and was recommended by an Asian American—will be the moderator.  Harrel says she’s told her about giving Aleong time to speak.


July 22-MANAA board member Miriam Nakamura Quan, members Dr. Raymond Quan, Emma Quan, Aki Aleong, and supporters Drew Mandinach and Luka Jazvic attend the panel discussion (Aleong and Jazvic also attend the matinee performance).  (For more info on the discussion, see July 24)


The six panelists, left to right: Andy Lowe, Cindy Cheung, Christine Johnson, Christopher Ashley, Moises Kaufman, and New York casting director Tara Rubin.

During the Q&A portion, MANAA member Dr. Ray Quan asks for clarification: If the musical was always going to be multi-racial, why was there an earlier workshop that was entirely Asian?  Lyricist Steven Sater stands from the audience to answer that they realized with the all-Asian cast they couldn’t tell the story they wanted to.  He adds, “I’m here as your student.” After the discussion breaks up, Quan goes over to thank Sater, who hugs him, and tearfully tells him, “These issues mean a lot to me.”

Composer Duncah Shiek, Moises Kaufman, and lyricist Steven Sater.

Composer Duncah Shiek, Moises Kaufman, and lyricist Steven Sater.

When Hillis tries to wrap up the discussion, Aleong tries to speak, but she won’t allow him to until the Quans and others shout for him to.  Ashley suggests Hillis let Aleong speak.  He eventually reads the definition of “Non-Traditional Casting” from the Actor’s Equity website, says he enjoyed the play, and wishes them luck with it.

Click here to see the entire discussion.

July 23- Aoki emails Harrel:  “I heard that the moderator at the panel was “horrible.”  “Aki told me you apologized to him but I’m confused as to how she didn’t know about our agreement when you previously said, ‘I’ve told her all about our conversation.’”

Aoki calls Harrel, furious at the way Aleong was treated.  Harrel insists just before the panel began that day, she reminded Hillis that “if the topic gets to L.A.,” recognize Aleong.  Aoki angrily points out that wasn’t the reason Aleong was supposed to be called; it had nothing to do with L.A. but the LORT contract.

According to Harrel, Hillis felt “it worked out beautifully” as Aleong was allowed to say his piece.

Harrel calls herself “a bleeding heart liberal” who’s been shocked by the uproar and deeply hurt by some of the angry online comments.  She needs to take a couple weeks off to regain her perspective.

Aoki’s angry letter to the moderator

Aki Aleong, representing MANAA, tries to speak despite resistance from the moderator.

Aki Aleong, representing MANAA, tries to speak despite resistance from the moderator.

July 24-After viewing the discussion online, Aoki emails a letter to Jeanine Hillis which is cc’d to Harrel and posted on Facebook.  After outlining the reasons Aleong was supposed to speak and of his agreement with Harrel, Aoki writes:  “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 [non-traditional casting] 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…

“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.

“…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?…

“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.”

To see the full letter, go to (need to put on website):

July 29-Aoki requests a response from Hillis.  He never gets one.

August 1-Aoki e-mails a letter to the L.A. Times (edited with Miriam Nakamura-Quan).  “Why is this not a shock? The L.A. Times usually turns a blind eye to media grievances of the Asian American community.  Now, it prints a front page story by one of its reporters—Charles McNulty (‘Curtain Up On Inequity, Creativity,’ July 28)–who supports the La Jolla Playhouse’s creative team allowing six white men to play all the male Chinese characters in The Nightingale.  Their excuse?  It’s ‘non-traditional casting.’”

Aoki explains his previously explained understanding of the intention of non-traditional casting, quotes Section 25 C (1) of the LORT contract and concludes, “Nowhere does it mention white male actors.  End of story and argument.”  The letter goes unprinted.

August 15-Aoki emails Actors Equity’s Michael Van Duzer:  “Aki told me he talked to you the other day and that you got to see the play.  I assume you feel it had enough Chinese elements in it that casting Asian Americans would’ve been appropriate…  To me, what La Jolla Playhouse did was in violation of the [LORT] contract.  Look at 25 C (1).”

August 31-Van Duzer responds.  Although there were Asian elements throughout the production, he doesn’t believe the Non-Traditional Casting language is “useful in this case. If you make the argument that the characters should be Asian, casting non-traditionally, in the broad sense, is what they did. You can’t really argue both ways.

“As Aki and I explained during our meeting, in the end, the union can’t govern the casting choices, only access to auditions and that each member in the company works under the contract. The best we can do is include the language in our agreement with them and point out problems when we see them.  In this case, the community did a better and more public indication than we could ever do.”

Christopher Ashley (2nd from left), East West Players artistic director Tim Dang (4th), and (6th).Sheldon Epps of Pasadena Playhouse.

Christopher Ashley (2nd from left), East West Players artistic director Tim Dang (4th), and (6th).Sheldon Epps of Pasadena Playhouse.

October 22-East West Players hosts a panel discussion (“Why Asian?”) with artistic directors of other playhouses to discuss how to include more Asian Americans in their productions.  After it ends, Aoki tells Ashley he was annoyed by his July 17th NPR radio interview where he implied in order for Asian Americans to be cast in roles not specifically written for them, we had to put up with white people playing Asians.  Ashley says he realized he didn’t articulate it as well as he should’ve and proceeds to explain the multi-cultural thinking behind Nightingale.  Aoki stops him, saying he’s already heard it.  Going forward, he wants to make sure Ashley understands that “non-traditional” or “color blind” casting is to help minorities get roles, not to have white people take them away from them, as Sheldon Epps of the Pasadena Playhouse expressed on the panel.  Aoki shows him a copy of the LORT contract.  It specifies that women, minorities, and handicapped people are supposed to be the beneficiaries, not whites.  Ashley agrees.

Dana Harrel, also there, introduces herself to Aoki and hugs him.  Also attending:  MANAA President Aki Aleong, Vice President Miriam Nakamura-Quan, and Mack Wei.

MANAA President Aki Aleong, Vice President Miriam Nakamura-Quan, Secretary Guy Aoki, and Mack Wei.

MANAA President Aki Aleong, Vice President Miriam Nakamura-Quan, Secretary Guy Aoki, and Mack Wei.

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