Tuesday, November 4, 2014

No Shibal, Sherlock

I've been seeing teasers for this hit Korean musical on the subway monitors since I got here three weeks ago, and have wondered idly if I should try to see it.  One thing that makes it interesting is that the play, which spawned a sequel, is not a translation of a Western play but an original Korean work.  But then something occurred to me: there are no Caucasian actors in it.  Holmes and all the other, supposedly English characters are being played by Koreans.

This does not in fact bother me.  But it brought back memories of controversies in American theater and movies over the casting of Caucasian actors to play Asian characters.  I have mixed feelings about these controversies.  In the case of Miss Saigon, there were objections to the way Asian characters were depicted, but in that case wouldn't it be better to have them played by whites rather than have Asian actors sully their principles by playing racist depictions of Their People?  These complaints just confused the issue.  There were ample absurdities from the show's defenders, of course, such as the claim that there just weren't enough good Asian (or Asian-American or Asian-British) actors to play the parts.  (Something like that was a rationalization for the use of boy actors to play female characters in Shakespeare's day.)  I think that excuse is not likely to fly anymore (though some still try, like the producers of the TV movie Earthsea), as more and more actors of Asian descent have found work in American media.

But there's something more going in these objections, I think: a deep-rooted literalism that demands that the theater and movies, far from being the Kingdom of Fantasy we hear so much about, must be realistic.  This may carry more weight in film, where the camera gets right up in the actor's face, and the kind of "facial prostheses" used in Miss Saigon won't convince.  Though we still get a Caucasian actress playing a probably "Asian" character in The Hunger Games by darkening her hair and hoping for the best.  And there's also the question in a world full of multiracial people (who tend to make racists of all colors uncomfortable) of who's white and who's not.  There were people who complained that the hero of The Matrix was played by a white actor while characters of color were delegated to supporting roles, and who had to be reminded that Keanu Reeves has Native Hawaiian, Chinese, English, Irish, and Portuguese ancestry.

Another even more literal form of this literalism was the reaction to a Coke commercial made for the Superbowl, in which the song "America the Beautiful" was sung by people in a variety of languages. Although this song has no official status -- it's not the national anthem or anything, though apparently many believe it is -- many people felt that it was somehow defiled by being sung in languages other than English.  (That it was defiled by being used in a Coke commercial during a commercial sports event seems not have entered their tiny heads.)  One could point also to racist hysteria over the national anthem's being sung, again at a sports event but in English, by a young native-born American citizen of Mexican descent.  It's hard to detach the gut-level racism in such reactions from considerations of power and "representation" in media, but I believe that gut-level response is almost always a factor.

On stage, though, it's a different matter.  You can mix up the "races" quite nicely, and you can have divas of sub-Saharan descent playing ancient Egyptian (which is to say, supra-Saharan) royalty.  You can have men playing women and women playing men, straights playing gays and vice versa, for all sorts of reasons.  If a play is racist, it would better to argue that no one should act in it than to demand that parity requires that only an Asian actor should play a racist caricature of a "half-caste."

Me, I'm delighted to see Koreans engaged in the kind of cultural appropriation that gave us Sherlock and Sherlock 2, with Korean actors playing Victorian Brits.  But those who object to whites playing Asian characters should take notice, and come up with some reasons why this doesn't bother them.