Playwright Cancels Production Because Student Cast is Too White

"[Y]ou are contributing to an environment of hostility towards people of color."

Clarion University of Pennsylvania students have been rehearsing six days a week since October for their upcoming premier of the play Jesus in India. But last week, the production was suddenly halted at the request of the playwright because too many white people had been cast.

Three of the five characters in the play are Indian, but because of the very rural location of the university, they don't have much diversity showing up to the auditions. So, two white actors and one mixed-race student were cast to play those parts instead.

Lloyd Suh, a Korean-American playwright, sent a scathing rebuke to the school requesting either the show be recast with "ethnically appropriate actors" or "shut down the production entirely."

The university, now $15,000 in the hole for sets, costume, lighting, and music, tried to appease Suh, who himself received $500 for the rights to his play. He was offered a page in the program to explain why casting Asian actors was preferred and the school suggested giving a "stage speech" to explain to the audience why no Asian actors were cast. But he would have nothing of the kind.

So, because the play could not be recast in time for opening week, Clarion had no choice but to cancel the production, leaving the hard-working cast and crew devastated. Suh is refunding his $500 fee.

Here is his letter in part:

Dear Ms. Michel,

I received your response to Beth Blickers’ query concerning the casting in your production of my play JESUS IN INDIA at Clarion. As you well know by now, I have severe objections to your use of Caucasian actors in roles clearly written for South Asian actors, and consider this an absolutely unacceptable distortion of the play.

I consider your assertion that the ethnicity of the characters are not “specified for purposes of the plot/story/theme” outrageous. The play is called JESUS IN INDIA. India is not irrelevant, and I take great issue with the insinuation that you (not the author) are entitled to decide whether the ethnicity of a character is worthy of consideration.

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.

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.

You may argue that because you are a university and not a professional theater, that you should not be held to the same standards of cultural responsibility as the rest of society. I strongly believe otherwise, and maintain that professional training programs have a duty to prepare students for actual theater practice. That practice includes the rigorous cultural conversation present in the field at large; to excuse your students from that work is to woefully underprepare them for the realities of the profession...

... You should know that what you are doing is connected to a very painful history of egregious misrepresentation and invisibility, and is incredibly hurtful. Hurtful to a community for whom opportunity and visibility is critical, and also extremely hurtful to me personally as a flippant denial of Asian heritage as a relevant and valid component of one's humanity.

It hurts me to my core. I couldn’t stop myself from crying when I saw the photos and realized what was happening. It is embarrassing, humiliating, and demoralizing to be so casually disregarded.

I therefore insist that you immediately (1) recast the play with ethnically appropriate actors, or (2) shut down the production entirely.

It is incumbent upon me, professionally, personally and morally, to distance myself from this production, and condemn the way it has been cast. I hope you are able to adjust your plans accordingly so that I don’t have to make any public declarations against it and pursue other further action in order to make this right.

Yours sincerely,

Lloyd Suh


Sources: Post-Gazette, Washington Times