Nineteen years ago, the musical Miss Saigon first came to Broadway with a white actor augmented by eye prosthesis and bronzing cream to make him look more Asian.
Sound a bit too Charlie Chan-like for the modern day? It seemed that way to me, and I said as much in a commentary on NPR at the time.
Actors’ Equity raised a fuss too, as did a number of Asian American groups claiming the whole thing was racist and that the role should go to an Asian or Asian American. But some white actors argued the hubbub was much ado about nothing, and that a white person playing an Asian was perfectly acceptable as part of the expressive artistry of the theatre. Besides, they argued, the musical’s male lead role, the Engineer, was written as half-Asian, half-white. That made the actor Jonathan Pryce at least half-right for the part.
In the end, people were made more aware of the community’s sensitivities, but nothing was done. The show went on to be a smashing success with Pryce as the star. And he even won a Tony.
But that didn’t necessarily make it right.
The memory of that battle came back to me this past Saturday as I watched the opening of Saturday Night Live, a send-up on a G-20 summit press conference with Hu Jintao and Barack Obama. How many times have you or your friends even mentioned the G-20 summit over the past few days? SNL made it hip with a brilliant bit of edgy, though tasteless, satire.
The only negative was that Chinese President Hu Jintao was played by Not Ready for Prime Time player Bill Hader, a Caucasian actor.
I’ve watched SNL through the years and when there’s an Asian part, I’ve seen them hire an Asian to play it, even if it’s just to stand and look Asian.
But in this key role, the show cast Hader. (Should that be the “Not ready for diversity players”?) To Hader’s credit, he did not squint his eyes and go “buck-tooth funky” on us. There is no prosthesis for his eyes, but maybe there was for his hair, which bumps up high mimicking Hu’s do. The funny kicks in when Hader spoke. He did so in accented Chinese-sounding gibberish. That in turn was translated in English by another actor, Nasim Pedrad, an Iranian American actress and cast member, who delivered the punchlines.
Yes, I know, it’s a comedy program. To show you how open-minded I am, I didn’t mind when Hu Jintao asks Obama about all the billions that the U.S. owes China that now doesn’t seem forthcoming. Dissatisfied, Hu then asks if he can turn off the lights because he “likes the lights off when someone is doing sex to me.”
He then bends over and extends his rear to Obama.
The joke is repeated three times in the course of the short sketch.
That didn’t offend me.
I wasn’t even offended by the Obama character played by SNL cast member Fred Armisen (who reports say has a mother of Venezuelan descent and a father who is German/Japanese). There’s no black in Armisen. But Obama is white and African, a mix. There’s some white in Armisen. And besides he has Obama’s ears cold.
So no quarrel with the casting of Armisen, who has played Prince, Steve Jobs, and New York Governor David Paterson. (What about Paterson? Well, he’s appeared on the show, and is apparently down with the portrayal. The lack of public outcry or caring may simply be due to his unpopularity).
But Hader playing an Asian, I minded.
Consider this: Would SNL cast a white person as a black character by going heavy on the bronzing cream?
Isn’t that a bit too minstrel show?
What if SNL was doing something on an African world leader? Do you think they would even consider going black face on a white actor?
Probably not. But they have blacks on the cast to take care of that. Where are the Asian Americans? That, after all, has always been the point behind any grousing over casting.
No, SNL relies on the way showbiz has always done it. Warner Oland and Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon.
No matter how many great Asian and Asian American actors are now out in the world today, we’re still bending over the old-fashioned way.