Clarion University’s Visual and Performing Arts Department decided to cancel a play set to open Wednesday, Nov. 18 after the playwright’s request that the cast include actors of South Asian descent.
Korean-American playwright Lloyd Suh wrote “Jesus in India,” a 2012 play about the son of Christ traveling during his adolescent years.
On Monday, Nov. 9, Suh requested via email that professor Marilouise Michel, the play’s director, recast “Jesus in India” to include South Asian actors or shut down the performance. Michel spoke with department chairperson professor Robert Levy and decided they did not have the legal right to proceed under Suh’s objections.
The cast and crew were notified of the play’s cancellation on Tuesday, Nov. 10, barely a week before they were set to open.
“The playwright has the right to decide who was in his play and how his play is produced. I don’t argue with that. I have a difference of opinion, but he absolutely has that right,” Michel said.
The university acquired a copy of the play in January. Michel and Dr. Brent Register created a score in order to turn the play into a musical and wrote 21 songs over the summer. The cast and crew rehearsed for weeks and were due to give five performances from Wednesday, Nov. 18 through Sunday, Nov. 22.
In late October, Suh made a request through his agent to speak with the cast and crew of “Jesus in India.” Michel said she was excited for feedback from Suh.
A week later, Michel received an email from Suh’s agent that he had seen photos of the cast on Twitter and was concerned about the racial makeup of the actors. The university’s Theater Department had chosen Caucasians and actors of mixed race to play Indian characters.
“After doing auditions and trying to see who would play the part best and handle the music best because the music’s very challenging, I chose four Caucasian actors. Honestly, I did not consider anybody’s race for any part. If a black actor or an Asian actor or a Latino actor had presented themselves and was right for the role of Jesus, I would have cast them as Jesus,” Michel said.
Michel said of the nearly 30 people who came to the open auditions, only Caucasian, African American and mixed race students tried out. South Asian students make up less than 1 percent of Clarion University’s 5,400 students.
An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Suh’s Nov. 9 email to Michel stated, “Your citing of ‘color blind casting’ as an excuse for selecting white actors to portray non-white characters is a gross misunderstanding of the practice, and denies the savage inequities that exist in the field at large for non-white performers, both in professional and educational settings.”
Michel said she had explained to Suh’s agent about the play’s open auditions and the university’s low South Asian student population.
“I have received your further message detailing the poor statistics at Clarion in matters of racial diversity. I contend that by producing this play in this way, you are contributing to an environment of hostility towards people of color, and therefore perpetuating the lack of diversity at Clarion now and in the future,” Suh wrote.
Michel requested the rights to the play in the fall and received a contract. Once the contract was signed and the $500 fee ($100 per performance) was paid, the university had the right to perform “Jesus in India.” Michel said the check was cashed, and the department was unaware of any problems.
Michel cited a quote from Suh on playbill.com that she had thought furthered the sentiment that there were no issues with casting.
“This play is for everyone. It’s about humanity, coming of age, finding your way. It’s the lost chapter, before Jesus became ‘Jesus.’ You don’t have to know the biblical story of Jesus or even be religious to appreciate the play. I think in the end it’s about transformation and humanity and nothing is more universal than that,” Suh said.
Michel said if she had known about the concern with race, she would not have continued with the production.
“I see the word ‘universal’ as meaning everybody. That’s how I interpreted it. Had I known that [Suh] would have objections, I would have spoken with him about it, and perhaps I wouldn’t have done the play. I certainly wouldn’t have done the play had I known he had these strong objections,” Michel said.
On Friday, Nov. 13, Suh wrote a post on Facebook meant to clear confusion after the initial news broke early last week.
“Much has been made of an interview I gave years ago in which I used the word ‘universal’ to describe the play. But universal does not and should not mean white, or the privilege of ignoring race. I wish it were not so difficult to accept that an actor of color, playing a character of color, could convey something universal,” Suh wrote.
Suh addressed the Clarion students who had spent six days a week, starting in early October, practicing up to three hours per rehearsal.
“I absolutely understand that this has caused anger, confusion and disappointment among the actors and crew that had been hard at work on the piece. I do not take that lightly. The students are victims, and the timing of this mess has raised many questions. But the timing was never in my control,” Suh wrote.
“Jesus in India” cost Clarion University around $15,000 to produce. This included costumes, the music score, the set and lighting. The university paid Suh $500 for the play rights. The $500 is expected to be returned.
“It’s never our intention to misrepresent what the playwright is trying to say in a play when we [hold auditions]. It’s only to offer opportunities to students,” Michel said.
Michel said the next production at the Marwick-Boyd Little Theatre will be a dance concert next spring.