Last night Angeli,…

Last night Angeli, Manish, Samanthi and I went around the corner to see our local theatre's production of the Bollywood Pippin, who has gotten some negative publicity because the entire cast and crew appear to be white. I went into it with a reasonably open mind, curious to see what they'd done with it. Review and thoughts follow:

Circle had a rocky opening night -- for the first twenty minutes, I thought it was all going to fall apart, because they didn't seem to have the voices to sustain the parts. Their Bollywood-style dancing also was fairly weak (for most of the cast; one or two notable exceptions). Angeli thought in part they seemed terrified because they were doing this Bollywood thing and it was so outside their normal comfort zone -- I don't know.

I did think they improved over time, and by the second act, they were much more solid, although few of them had really good voices. The lead player was overall awesome (although even he started a bit shaky), Catherine was quite good (and I'm pretty sure is a Circle company player, since I've seen her in two other musicals there, which she rocked), the mother had good comic timing (although a bit over-the-top for my taste), Pippin, Charlemagne, and the grandmother were okay. The rest were fine, but could have been played by anyone who could sing / athletically dance (I don't know how many Rasaka folks do musical theatre?)

The Bollywood layer, unfortunately, didn't add anything to the production, and from an artistic view, detracted, I think. Their attempts to modify the music didn't work well, and totally shredded "Corner of the Sky," tragically. At one point, they had a Ganesh on screen in the background, and my friend leaned over and said, "Wasn't Charlemagne supposed to be fighting the Moslem infidels, instead of the Hindus?" I didn't have any confidence that they had thought in any interesting way about what it would bring to the production to have a South Asian flavor. When Pippin goes to the countryside, it's definitely not an Indian countryside in any interesting way, etc.

The only real thematic connection I could come up with was that Pippin is supposed to be about a young man searching for excitement (the first lines actually do reference the 'exotic'), and the whole central conflict of the play is between an ordinary life and the search for the spectacular. And Bollywood does, of course, lend itself to massive spectacle, so there's an argument you could make there. But it's a bit thin. And in the opening, when all these white people came out in Indian dress, it reminded me of nothing more than the white people who go to ashrams searching for the mystical East -- if they had done that consciously, played it up, it could actually have offered a decent rationale for what they were doing, and even for the all-white casting. But I don't have any confidence that they were thinking about that at all; it's not developed in any visible way, as far as I could tell.

So those are my production notes. On the political casting front, before staging a large protest or anything, I'd first like to interview the director and casting people and ask them a few basic questions:

1) how many South Asians actually auditioned (in the open auditions)?

2) I know at least one South Asian actor auditioned; when you chose not to cast her or other South Asians who auditioned, did you consider the value of having a South Asian in the cast at all?

3) did you know about the existence of Rasaka Theatre (if you search for South Asian actors Chicago, they're the first hit), and did you consider reaching out to them to help create a larger South Asian pool of auditioning actors?

4) did you make any other efforts to find South Asians for your cast or crew? (Notably, even the sitar player isn't South Asian.)

Circle is a relatively small suburban theatre -- personally, I wouldn't go after them as fiercely on this as I would if the Goodman were so clueless. But I do think it's worth making this a learning opportunity, and bringing some publicity and discussion to the idea that when you're drawing on cultural material, you should make a serious outreach effort to draw on the resources of that community. (They might have avoided the Ganesh gaffe, for example, if they had had just one South Asian consultant on the show.)

Still possibly worth seeing, but you might want to wait until they're 2-3 weeks into the run and can get over their early nerves. I was wincing for them in the first ten minutes.

UPDATE: I have some more info now, and while I don't want to just quote a personal letter without permission, I do want to note that apparently one of the cast members is South Asian. Not evident from physical appearance (although I did wonder about two of them), and definitely not from name. Although of course, there's no requirement that either should be evident. And apparently they cast three South Asians (out of a cast of a dozen or so) originally, but two weren't able to continue with the production for personal reasons. That definitely alleviates some of my concerns, although I also think more outreach to the South Asian theater community would be a goal to strive for in the future.

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