It would not be unusual for me, born in England, to see a play set in Britain with no British actors. When a director gets the brilliant idea to relocate a Shakespeare play to the Spanish Civil War, they wouldn’t be criticized for not casting any Spanish actors. But Lantern Theater Company’s decision to stage Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in feudal Japan, when what that meant was “in kimonos with some Japanese screens and music” seemed somehow considerably more culturally tone deaf.
“Will it be in yellow face,” my friend asked when I told him about it and confirmed that it would have no Japanese American actors. Reviewing it in these pages, I found other points to criticize (and praise: Jered McLenigan gave an impressive performance), and failed to comment on the potential racial insensitivity of the staging. But other viewers were more significantly more attuned to this. Local performer and playwright Makoto Hirano, whose work includes an affecting consideration of the 2011 tsunami, hand-delivered an open letter to the company with some “friendly unsolicited pointers” on “How to Stage Your Show Without Being Super Racist.”
Lantern’s artistic director Charles McMahon responded: “One of the major goals of Lantern Theater Company has always been to foster dialogue and discussion among our audience. We have a long history of hiring actors of all backgrounds for Shakespeare roles, but our production of Julius Caesar has offended some people, and we want to better understand their concerns. I have reached out personally to Makoto as well as other members of the local theater and Asian American communities and am interested in hearing all points of view. I welcome the opportunity to further discuss diversity and cultural representation in the theater with anyone who has an interest in an open and direct exchange.” Let’s hope he replied in Times New Roman.