'The King and I' brings a diverse cast to ASU Gammage

Jose Llana and the predominately Asian cast brings minority representation to the recent run of the acclaimed show

Accusations of white-washing aren't new for Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," a 1951 musical telling the story of a British schoolteacher who works in the court of a 19th century Thai king. The play premiered with Yul Brynner, a Russian man, playing the role of the king. 

However, the musical's latest national run, which came to Gammage in March 2018, spotlighted a predominately Asian cast.

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director of ASU Gammage, said director Bartlett Sher did an excellent job bringing a more diverse cast to the Broadway stage, making the show more authentic through its casting and display of sensitivity to cultural concerns. 

"Contemporary casting norms have changed over the years and you will see more and more diversity and inclusion in the casts on Broadway and on the road," Jennings-Roggensack said. "It is said the longest road in America is Broadway. I say, 'then it must be reflective of the country.'"

She said white-washing is prominent in theater because it is still a business tailored for a predominately white audience. She said theaters and theater companies should strive to be more inclusive in their practices to attract a diverse audience.

Jennings-Roggensack said Gammage strives to connect communities through theater by bringing that diversity to its stage.

"Communities are not monolithic and are comprised of many different kinds of people in terms of race, age, gender and sexual identities. The work that we present should be reflective of the communities we serve," Jennings-Roggensack said. 

She said the process of picking shows for Gammage comes back to the mission statement of connecting communities by asking the three important questions of "what do I want?," "what do you want?" and "what do we want together?" 

Jennings-Roggensck said that in the past 26 years, Gammage has hosted hundreds of shows and events that promote diversity around ASU such as the American Festival Project, Drawing the Lines Festival and A3 Asia Arizona and the Arts. 

The underrepresentation of Asian actors is also an issue in Hollywood and other media. 

University of Southern California's Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative last year found that only 3.9 percent of Asian characters had speaking roles in films in 2015, and that 49 of the top 800 films did not feature any speaking roles for Asians. 

Eric Le, biochemistry sophomore and an officer for the Vietnamese Student Association, said as an Asian-American male, he is ecstatic to see that there was more representation of Asian actors in the recent musical, particularly Jose Llana, who played the lead actor. 

"These shows are definitely a step in the right direction as far as representation goes, especially if the actors were chosen for the merits of their acting despite their ethnicity," Le said. 

He also said that for the entertainment industry as a whole, much more time is going to be needed until society fully achieves equal representation in roles traditionally given to straight white men.

"However, if we can acknowledge white-washing as a problematic issue, perhaps the industry can take a step forward in allowing better representations of  minorities," Le said.

Caden DePietro, a recent film graduate from ASU, said he strongly believes that roles played by actors of the ethnicity corresponding to the written character would make stories and movies more authentic and that white-washing is influenced by the market and Hollywood higher-ups. 

"I think the reason white-washing is so popular is that the people that have been running the industry for the last century have largely been white men," DePietro said.  

DePietro said the biggest incentive for white-washing in the entertainment industry is financial gain coupled with the lack of acceptance of other cultures that may not appeal to the demographically homogeneous audience that attend plays. 

"It is a big financial risk any time they make something that is not appealing to their core audience of middle-class white families, even if that seems bad and unjustifiable," DePietro said. "The biggest reason they give these roles to white actors is because they want to make money by attaching big name actors like Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and others."

Despite the long-running practice of white-washing, DePietro said he remains hopeful for the industry with the latest run of "The King and I." He said if audiences and those working in the industry continue pushing to break these norms, then society will eventually achieve equal representation in entertainment. 

Reach the reporter at pthaung@asu.edu or follow @seaboiii on Twitter.

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