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In Conversation: Diversity in the Theatre

This interview originally appeared in The White Snake program.

Creative Director of MOSAIC, Aline Mayagoitia, sat down with The White Snake director, and resident director of MOSAIC, Greg Strasser, to have a brief conversation about the play.

AM: So, for starters, could you give me a brief glimpse about this play and why you picked it? GS: I like describing The White Snake as a cross between Romeo and Juliet and Beauty and the Beast, except that it’s Romeo and Snakeulet, and Beauty is the Beast because she’s a snake.

AM: What is the specific origin of this myth? GS: It’s a Chinese fable, specifically one that became popularized in the Ming dynasty.

AM: If we go all the way down the rabbit hole, we should only have an all-Chinese cast, right? GS: I don’t necessarily believe so. I think part of the reason I loved the play was because I saw myself in it as Lady Bai. She’s never ventured beyond her comfort zone. She’s never experienced anything as crazy and terrifying as requited love. She’s afraid, so she stays hidden. You don’t need to be Chinese to tell that story, it’s something we all go through.

Of course, it is important to pay homage and respect the integrity of the story’s origins. I’m lucky because my heritage and culture instills understanding and appreciation of the Chinese mythic tradition. But even that can only get you so far - to tell this story it requires certain elements: characters who are filled with wanderlust, who have good hearts, and who constitute the “other.” This play, in a way, is very gay, and to use white, heterosexual characters as the leads, in my opinion, does not pay respect to the story’s central idea that love is a universal, unique, and more often than not, an odd thing.

And I think to further that point, this was something I talked to the playwright, Mary Zimmerman about. She and I have a mutual love for oral traditions and we agreed that stories - especially those rooted in oral traditions - were meant to be told.

AM: What is the ideal casting practice we should ascribe to, and what's the closest we can get at Michigan with our limits? What about professional theatres? GS: When I was working at Steppenwolf, a big concern was trying to cast this Vietnamese character who had to be fluent in the language. Now, finding a Vietnamese actor in Chicago was pretty difficult - but Steppenwolf has the resources to cast a race-appropriate actor and hire a coach to teach her the language and nuances. However, smaller theatres that wish to do a show of this nature find themselves down on their luck, but I don’t necessarily believe that means they shouldn’t try to do the play.

If we look back at 2013’s Caroline or Change, we put a white woman in the role of the Moon and the Washing Machine - characters that were supposed to be black in order to reclaim ideas of the personification of beauty and domesticity. However, we didn’t have the adequate casting pool and we had to make due. I don’t think shelving Caroline would have been a good idea -- because at least most of the characters could be cast and still preserve the core themes and storyline. I’m glad it got done, it was a marvelous and important production. I still think about Caroline to this day.

I think, however, if you’re a professional theatre doing something so rooted in identity, like In the Heights, then you absolutely need to use Latinx and other POC actors, because then it’s not about the look - it’s about the cultural identity.

In general, to cultivate more actors of color, more queer actors, just a larger diversity of actors, it needs to begin in the grassroots. Free theatre for children, producing more plays by artists of color, casting more actors of color in plays that have been normalized in whiteness. It’s a long process, but change is effective when it starts from the bottom up.

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