There is a habit being perpetuated in theater around the world. Asian males are not being allowed to play Asian male Leads. Sometimes they get to play donkeys or dogs. Often times, they are a side character: grocer, editor, doctor, etc. But when the Lead calls for an Asian male, my Asian brothers are not being cast.
The tragedy in this race-bending casting is not readily seen by the wider world. The illustrious Royal Shakespeare Company and the La Jolla Playhouse are as blind to their racism as are many non-Equity Chicago theaters. I have spoken and written about this topic in reference to Lifeline Theatre’s upcoming production of “Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was” by Barry Hughart. My words have not always been pleasant, but I ask for leeway since there is pain on all sides. Here I wish to share my vision and the reasoning behind my words, posts, outrage and tears.
The Lead in “Bridge of Birds” is Chinese scholar Master Li Kao who unfailingly introduces himself as a man with “a slight flaw in my character.” For almost 300 pages, the humble Master Li and his side-kick Number Ten Ox traipse through China in hopes of finding the Great Root of Power. The children of the village have fallen comatose, and the Root is their only cure. From page to page, Master Li’s ingenuity, humor and lucidity pull them through predicament after predicament.
Toward the beginning of the book, they cross paths with Miser Shen, one of the greediest men alive. He has spent his life foreclosing peasants and squeezing money from the poorest of the poor. However, along the way, Miser Shen has a conversion experience, sees the error of his ways and joins forces with Master Li and Number Ten Ox. Unfortunately, one of their adventures proves deadly, and Miser Shen is fatally wounded. On his deathbed, Master Li reassures the dying man that the Yama Kings will surely reincarnate him as a tree and “... for miles around the poor peasants will know you as Old Generosity.”
The Hero of a play is the person with the greatest heart. Consequently, it is there that the audience rests their hearts. For an actor, how thrilling it is to embody the vessel of integrity and bravura! It is the chance to display and amplify their nobility, no matter the banalities of their “real life.” Playing the Lead calls upon the best in an actor, and for two hours (or so) a night, that actor gets to distill themselves into their brightest essence.
The Lead, however, is also of paramount importance to the audience. Played appropriately, we grow to trust them. Our emotions follow them. As the action builds, we look to the Lead to shepherd us through this ritual of theater. We, the audience, get to fall in love anew.
When Master Li assures the dying Miser Shen of his arboreal legacy, the audience is reminded of the refreshment in forgiveness. As Master Li designs a flying bamboo basket, we get to float aloft on the currents of ingenuity. We live through the Lead. We feel relief through the Lead. An audience of strangers binds their hearts together through the Lead.
The beauty of theater is its ability to enchant disparate audiences through Leads of varying facades. “Jitney” at Court Theatre is an example. I’m not African-American. I’m not from Philadelphia. I have no experience in driving a cab. Yet I loved them all for the span of the play.
I wish so passionately for my Asian brothers to be able to play the Lead because they deserve to have audiences love them, too. They are worthy of the opportunity to display high-minded versions of themselves. Also, we, the general public, subconsciously thirst for the chance to surrender and be lead by one of them. How do I know this? Because we all want to know the many faces of love.
My heart can attach to the Lead whether they be homosexual or Jew, female or deaf, colored or amputated. Increasing the types and shapes of Leads in our plays, reiterates the foundational Truth that by simply being human, we are each capable of being Heroic. And isn’t that the light we wish to bring to the world through our craft called Theater?