The following is a Letter to the Editor submitted to North by Northwestern and does not necessarily reflect the views of its editorial board.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a popular show for educational and student theatre, not least because of its quirky humor, its sincere portrayal of the pressures kids face at school, and its aggressively honest music. However, for many Asian American children growing up with this musical, our fondness was rooted in something different - the ability to see ourselves in a character the way we hadn’t before. For many Asian American girls, the character Marcy Park is distinct because she was one of the first Asian American characters we saw in a musical who was not sexualized and who also eventually fought against the stereotype of the “over-achieving Asian.” For Asian American women in theatre, Marcy Park represents an opportunity to play a fully rounded part that reflects our experiences in a way theatre rarely does.
Despite many indicators in the show’s script, as well as the continually disappointing lack of roles available for Asian American actors at Northwestern, your team has decided to not to call back any Asian American actors for the role of Marcy Park in your upcoming production. We implore you to reconsider this decision. Marcy Park is an East Asian American character at her core, indicated by the Korean surname Park, the character description according to rights agency Music Theatre International, and most importantly by the experiences and peculiarities of the character herself. Marcy Park is not a stereotype; rather, she represents an experience that is relatable to many Asian American children, especially first- and second-generation Asian Americans. This role would be an opportunity for an Asian American actor to shine, and for a character to appear on a StuCo stage that represents and relates to the large, theatrically underrepresented Asian American student body.
The creative team has stated that a diverse cast is their goal, yet the disturbing lack of actors of color throughout their callback list reflects otherwise. A list like this makes it clear that a team’s priority is not actually to cast a person of color, and that priority can be insulting to the handful of actors of color who are called back. Particularly in this situation, Northwestern’s setup of casting deliberations works against a callback list with so little racial representation. When you are vying for the same actors of color as other directors, someone else could scoop up the one or two actors you had in mind for a role, forcing you to cast one of the many white actors you called back instead. In Spelling Bee’s case, it makes it that much more likely that the resulting cast will simply be white. It is unreasonable to expect to achieve a goal of a diverse cast with a callback list composed almost entirely of white actors.
Furthermore, the creative team has called back only one or two actors of color for Marcy Park, and while one of these actors may be South Asian American, the other is not of Asian heritage at all. This perpetuates the view that actors of color are interchangeable onstage, and disregards racial specificity. The team’s current perspective is that Marcy Park’s race is unimportant to her story, because it is not explicitly referenced in her dialogue beyond her East Asian surname. We strongly disagree, and see the lack of explicit mentions of East Asian heritage in the dialogue as an indication that Marcy Park is a well-rounded character with experiences informed by a specific racial background as well as many other defining characteristics. Additionally, deciding in a vacuum that her race is insignificant ignores the context of underrepresented Asian Americans in theatre and the specific plight of Asian American actors at Northwestern. We ask that the entire team advocate for this position: that Marcy Park can and should be played by an Asian American actor. The talent to support this decision is available in spades on Northwestern’s campus, especially when you recall that South Asian Americans are also Asian Americans. It would be a demonstration of support for a community that continually feels unnoticed and underrepresented in NU theatre, without sacrificing the goal of a spectacular production this fall.
Here are our short-term goals, both for the role of Marcy Park and for this production:
1. A woman or nonbinary person of Asian American heritage is cast as Marcy Park
2. If necessary, the role is listed as TBD this week and an open call is held
Addendum, to the Executive Board of Arts Alliance:
The treatment of Marcy Park’s casting is not the only prevalent issue in this production of Spelling Bee. Another issue is the way the creative team has chosen to ignore the more problematic elements of the source material. In particular, this is relevant in the storyline of the character Olive Ostrovsky, whose mother travels to an ashram in India and returns in a dream sequence wearing a sari and singing “Om Shanti Om” to stereotypical snakecharmer style accompaniment. Olive and her mother have historically been portrayed by white women and elements of Indian culture are historically disrespected in this story trajectory. I (Nina), being of Indian descent and being one of maybe five South Asians involved in theatre on this campus, felt disrespected knowing that I would be forced to see my culture appropriated on this campus. However, even after sitting down with Director Yianni Kinnas months ago to discuss my concerns, I found myself feeling dismissed and hopeless. There is no way to simply remove this content from the storyline, the easier solution that Kinnas was perhaps looking to find. I hoped to address this issue by suggesting the casting of a South Asian woman in the role. However, he seemed unable to reconcile with the character being South Asian and actively disagreed with my suggestion. This lack of willingness to address the problematic elements of the source material was not characteristic of the goal he voiced to prioritize “diversity.” Theatre boards on this campus need to take more responsibility in overseeing this kind of treatment of other cultures.
That being said, here are our long-term goals for Arts Alliance as a theatre making entity on this campus and as a member of the StuCo community as a whole:
1. Arts Alliance takes responsibility for diverse and racially respectful casting in its shows, and holds its directors accountable for the same.
2. A diversity panel is held for student directors each year, as done in past years.
3. The promotion of a board culture that chooses directors and producers with track records of inclusive casting, and a system of tying certain allotments of funds for a production to the choice of a diverse cast and rehearsal team.
Diverse and racially respectful work should be a staple of accessible theatre at Northwestern. In turning a blind eye to casting practices like Spelling Bee’s, Arts Alliance shows that it is less concerned with the opportunities it provides for the beautifully diverse student body here, and more concerned with making sure it doesn’t rock the boat. We ask this Executive Board to take action to prevent the racially irresponsible casting practices occurring for this production. We believe that it is the job of a Northwestern theatre board to foster art that represents all people, not just a select group. As a theatre board whose mission prioritizes accessible theatre, meaning “Art that is easy to relate to, art that is easy to speak with, and art that is easy to reach,” we implore you to make your art relatable to and in reach of students of diverse backgrounds. We hope that you can be partners in that mission, and in building a StuCo community that embraces that.
Nina Jayashankar and Shea Lee
We the undersigned are allies to Nina and Shea in this effort and support the message of this open letter.