Students challenge Arts Alliance callbacks, demand ‘racially respectful’ casting

Maddie Burakoff, Assistant Campus Editor

After Arts Alliance released the callback list for its fall mainstage show “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” two students penned an open letter claiming the list was “racially irresponsible” and lacked Asian American representation.

The controversy centers on one of the musical’s main characters, Marcy Park. Communication senior Shea Lee, one of the letter’s authors, said the role is traditionally played by an East Asian woman — but none received a callback for the part.

Lee, who is half Chinese, said she auditioned for the show and sees Park as a rare example of a “well-rounded” character meant for an Asian actor.

“It’s hard enough to convince directors to give us a chance on roles that aren’t indicated as for Asian women,” Lee said.

Yianni Kinnas, the show’s director, said the script does not specify a race for Park’s role. Though the original Broadway cast included a Korean woman in the role, the show’s licensing company, Music Theatre International, removed all race specifications for the cast when it was licensed for other productions, the Communication senior said.

“My interpretation of the character, and overall for this script, is about the toxicity of competition,” Kinnas said. “That is a story and a narrative that is inherently relatable to any person of the Northwestern community, regardless of race or background.”

In the letter, Lee and Communication senior Nina Jayashankar asked Arts Alliance to cast “a woman or nonbinary person of Asian American heritage” as Park. The letter, which Lee said had about 200 signatures as of Thursday night, said there is a “disturbing lack of actors of color” on the callback list.

Kinnas said he thinks two or three East Asian women auditioned for the role of Park. He said the number of people of color on the full callback list was “proportional” to the number who auditioned.

In response to the letter, the production team did call back an additional actor of Asian descent who is still in consideration for the role, Kinnas said. The final cast list will be announced Friday.

Additionally, Kinnas said he, producer Casey Watson and members of Arts Alliance met with Lee, Jayashankar and other concerned students Thursday to discuss possible solutions.

The meeting was “open and respectful,” Jayashankar said, though the parties could not agree on the casting of Park’s role. However, she said, they expanded the conversation to consider an overall “movement toward representation” for Arts Alliance and the entire Student Theatre Coalition.

Andrew Restieri, executive director of Arts Alliance, said the group takes diversity and representation “really seriously.” The specific casting issue comes down to “a fundamental creative disagreement” over whether Park’s character is necessarily Asian, the Communication senior said.

Lee said the role of Park is written “with an Asian woman in mind” because her last name is Korean and cues in the script indicate her heritage. The character is a play on the stereotype of the “overachieving Asian,” she said.

However, Restieri said the Arts Alliance board supports Kinnas’ interpretation that the role does not tell “exclusively an Asian story.”

Regardless, Kinnas said he hopes to cast actors of color in the musical.

“I believe we’re all fighting for the same thing,” he said. “If this show doesn’t have diversity in it, then I’m not doing justice to the story and I’m not doing my job correctly.”

Moving forward, Kinnas said he, Watson and other Arts Alliance members plan to recommend the StuCo board take steps to improve representation, including mandatory “diversity panels” for production teams.

Lee said she still feels the team’s casting is “a step back” for representation in NU theater. She said she hopes the letter will lead to future action promoting “racially respectful” casting in student productions.

“My goal is not to punish the production team of this show or shame them,” Lee said. “My goal is to make change.”

A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Music Theatre International. The Daily regrets the error.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @madsburk