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Theater professionals of color decry the Muny's casting, unwelcoming culture

The Muny box office sells tickets for its 100th season, which has drawn criticism for its production of "Jerome Robbins' Broadway." June 30, 2018
Brian Heffernan | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
The Muny box office sells tickets for its 100th season, which has drawn criticism for its production of "Jerome Robbins' Broadway."

The boos launched by a group of protesters mid-show at the Muny two weeks ago are continuing to reverberate. Actors and directors of color in St. Louis say it’s time for theaters to stop casting white actors to portray people of color.

The debate over the Muny’s season-opening production of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” has drawn national attention. Local theater-makers say the incident also throws light on broader-based issues faced by people of color in the community, such as a sense of not being welcome on some local stages and a tendency for those in power to dismiss their complaints.

The Muny production under fire is a revue of scenes from classic American musicals associated with the choreographer and director Jerome Robbins, including “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

At the performance on June 15, a group of visiting theater-makers in town for the national conference of Theatre Communications Group, the leading professional organization of nonprofit American theater, booed loudly during a scene from “The King and I” — when a white actress played the role of an enslaved woman from Burma (now called Myanmar) living in Siam, now known as Thailand. The protestors kept booing as they were ejected from the theater.

The incident of yellowface — the casting of a white actor to portray a character of Asian descent — is particularly painful because Asian-Americans rarely see their lives reflected onstage or on-screen, according to Caroline Fan, a past president of the Asian-American advocacy group OCA St. Louis.

Fan contrasted the Muny’s actions with those of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which launched a year-long dialogue with the local Asian-American community in advance of its premiere of “An American Soldier,” an opera that deals with the difficulty faced by many Asian-Americans who feel stigmatized as perpetual foreigners in their own country.

“You know I think this is very disappointing and the Muny has some work to do,” said Fan. “And OCA St. Louis would like to work with the Muny on how do we make sure we have culturally sensitive representations.”

The instance of yellowface cued the boos, but critics found fault with other moments in the show as well, such as a scene from “On The Town” in which white sailors try on Native American headdresses for some laughs, and the casting of white actors to play some of the Puerto Rican characters in “West Side Story.”

A group of St. Louis theater artists identified as Rising Leaders of Color by Theatre Communications Group released a statement on June 28 saying that diversity can be found on other stages locally, but that “the Muny is not us.”

“In St. Louis you always hear from some companies that ‘We want to cast actors of color but they don’t show up’” for auditions, said actor Carl Overly, Jr., a black member of that group. “And a lot of times the reason we don’t show up is because we don’t feel like we are even gonna get a shot because they say to show up but then you go to their shows in the season and you only see the same, I’ll say it, white folks on stage.”

Mike Isaacson,the Muny’s artistic director and executive producer, pushed back against the criticism the day after the initial protest. He said the protestors should have reached out to talk before disrupting a show, and that they didn’t fully understand the context of the scenes to which they had objected.

“Nobody else has seen it this way. And I stand behind it as an artist,” Isaacson said. “If you know anything of the history of this theater and who we are and what we do and what this is in our community, it’s a grossly unfair characterization and kind of shallow. They didn’t do their homework.”

There’s a solution for theaters who don’t want protestors to disrupt their shows, said Christina Rios, artistic director of local theater troupe R-S Theatrics.

“I don’t know, maybe stop creating a level of such incredible toxic stress in this city that people of color are constantly made to feel marginalized or tokenized. And then when we do say something we are immediately explained to how we didn’t protest in the right way," said Rios, who is Mexican-American. “It leaves me completely and utterly devoid of hope that anyone has any desire to just go: Hey, I was wrong, I'm sorry, how can I do better?"

The day after Isaacson defended the show, the theaterissued a statement with a different tone. It said “moments in the production have caused hurt and offense,” and called this fact “a disappointing and unintended result for which we have great regret.”

The debate has sparked national attention. The Consortium of Asian American Theatres and Artists said its members were “disgusted” by the Muny’s production. American Theater magazine referred to “racist elements” in the show as a matter of fact. The Wall Street Journal’s theater critic, Terry Teachout, defended the production but faulted the theater for apologizing, calling this a “weak-willed response” that could chill freedom of speech at other theaters.

The Muny’s written statement says the controversy prompted a conversation that is, quote, “incredibly valuable for our institution.”

But the theater declined to continue that conversation when we asked to interview someone for this story, specifically about whether this episode will inspire any changes.

Meanwhile, the show goes on at the theater. Its second production of the year was “The Wiz,” a show featuring a predominately African-American cast. An extension of the Muny’s lease is now pending at City Hall, and the theater has launched a $100 million capital campaign.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter:@JeremyDGoodwin

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of the group Rising Leaders of Color.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.