East West Players holds discussion on race politics in American theater


Tamlyn Tomita. photo by Michael Palma

LOS ANGELES — East West Players led a discussion on race politics in American theater Oct. 22, at its Little Tokyo theater.

The panel consisted of the artistic directors of four of the leading theaters in Southern California, Christopher Ashley of La Jolla Playhouse, Sheldon Epps of Pasadena Playhouse, Marc Masterson of South Coast Repertory and Michael Ritchie of Center Theatre Group.

Linda Oku, a corporate diversity consultant, moderated the interactive forum. Attendees received a pre-event survey, participated in an exercise to identify audience members and expressed their comments and questions via Twitter, open mic and written note cards.

EWP Producing Artistic Director Tim Dang opened the forum, acknowledging the need to advance from the “Nightingale” casting controversy and the need for solutions.

“The American stage needs to reflect the changing face of America. We must acknowledge the increased presence of Asian Americans in all walks of life in the U.S.,” Dang said in the theater’s statement.

In July, the La Jolla Playhouse presented a workshop production of a play entitled “The Nightingale,” which is set in ancient China. According to the East West Players, “the mixed cast consisted of several white males, no Asian American males and only two Asian Americans in a cast of 12.”

Tamlyn Tomita. photo by Michael Palma
Tamlyn Tomita. photo by Michael Palma

Actress Tamlyn Tomita acknowledged the “headache and heartache” that the La Jolla Playhouse’s casting of “The Nightingale” brought to Asian Americans, and stressed the role of the theater, to “tell stories so that we can learn from each other … theater cannot right every wrong in society but it can cast a light on disparities in society.” Tomita said that unjust practices continue, such as the casting by the United Kingdom’s Royal Shakespeare Company of “The Orphan of Zhao,” in which a cast of 17 has only three people of Asian descent.

The forum aimed to find ways for theaters to provide more opportunities for Asian Americans. The participants shared a number of solutions.

LA Stage Alliance CEO Terence McFarland offered to convene a larger regional initiative on developing more diverse boards of directors, to which Ritchie and Ashley stated were both open; the East West Players said.

Epps suggested creating a Pasadena Playhouse collaboration with East West Players.

According to the East West Players, “Director Jon Lawrence Rivera suggested specifically articulating ethnicities in casting notices that the roles are open to diverse talent.”

Actress Jodi Long advised fellow actors to have their agents to submit them because of what they bring they bring to the role. Long encouraged artistic directors to push the bounds of creativity that diversity can bring.

Sandra Oh.  ­   photo by Michael Palma
Sandra Oh. ­ photo by Michael Palma

Actress Sandra Oh encouraged artistic directors “to see this not as a burden, but to open and examine the limited thinking we have right now, and grow past it. … I understand the reactiveness to [protect] the purity of artistic freedom, but there is room [for diversity]. We are asking the artistic directors to be our advocates, because you are in the room [making decisions],” the theater said.

Wrapping up the event, Dang summed up the importance of this discussion, and that it must continue so change can be brought about. “I hope that the idea of a diverse theater can be a reality by the end of our lifetime. … We (Asian Americans) are used to getting lip service about (change) and I hope that we can get past the lip service. We need to lean heavily on everybody to cast Asian Pacifics.” He also urged the theaters to use East West Players as a resource. “We have worked with over 4,000 Asian American actors since 1965, so we know where everyone is. Call us if you need submissions from Asian American actors and writers.”

An archive recording of the program is available on the East West Players Website. For more information, visit

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