Controversy Pushes NAAP to Cancel All Asian-American SHOW BOAT

By: Feb. 23, 2015

After a public outcry, the National Asian Artists Project has cancelled its upcoming, all Asian-American production of SHOW BOAT.

The classic musical, featuring music by Jerome Kern and book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, would have been directed by Broadway veteran and Tony Award winner Tommy Tune.

NAAP's statement explaining their decision reads:

"Due to a number of concerns and production complexities, NAAP has decided to cancel the upcoming production of Show Boat. We spoke with, and listened purposefully to members of racially diverse communities and particularly with our most direct constituents, Asian-Americans, regarding how tackling this work might be perceived when the Asian presence is thrust into the center of a conversation that has historically excluded it. After carefully absorbing arguments of both support and opposition, we have chosen to cancel the production, concluding that the goal that propelled us - to lift up the Asian-American theater artist - could not be sufficiently achieved.

"The announcement of our Show Boat sparked discussions concerning the show's prominent themes of racial discrimination, and how an Asian/Asian-American cast production of this controversial piece might speak to today's audiences and artists. Our reasons for selecting Show Boat were manifold. Its enduring recognition as an American musical theater masterwork is a testament to the merits of its script and score, demanding a high level of artistry from those who accept its challenge. Here came a chance to explore the complexities of 'color-blind' and 'non-traditional' casting on a level rarely investigated; in addition, how an almost century-old classic, of numerous incarnations, could be rediscovered and examined anew, for and by those who are not conventionally represented in the piece's traditional mounting. Such introspection is relevant within our own Asian-American families, as both culprits as well as victims of racial discrimination, from both outside and within our own communities.

"We felt that with a creative team comprising some of the theater community's most accomplished artists guiding the production, these difficult issues could be thoughtfully examined with great sensitivity. With permission from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization to explore the show from a unique perspective never before seen, we recognized our duty to honor the integrity of the show's themes. Ultimately, we believed Show Boat strongly supported NAAP's goals of promoting opportunity, inclusion, and respect for the Asian/Asian-American theater artist.

"We are dedicated to our mission, and in the absence of opportunity, will continue to move forward in our pursuit to showcase the work of professional theater artists of Asian-descent through performance, education, and outreach. As a mission-driven not-for-profit organization, our work to confront head-on the inequity within the American Theater dialogue continues, and we encourage all theater artists to continue the learning and thoughtful discourse to which this experience has given breath."

Erin Quill, a blogger ("The Fairy Princess", aka TFP) and actress, pointedly expressed her thoughts on why an all-Asian SHOW BOAT would be inappropriate in a recent post, saying:

"Now, to be perfectly honest, when TFP first saw this announcement, and then when her Agent called with an appointment for it, she was sick to her stomach -- because National Asian American Project does do good work. They are active in the community, they promote Asian American composers, performers, and education, and community outreach to children. They are known for doing All Asian American versions of shows, musicals, specifically, and those do need to be done.

"Here is why -- the dearth of Asian Americans on stage in the New York Theater community and elsewhere does limit the amount of stage time necessary to work on ones craft, and if Asian American performers are to maintain their skills at the highest level, it is necessary to perform in all kinds of shows, and 'All API' productions do give performers that stage time that they may not get elsewhere."

But Quill went on to write:

"This show is a show about the great racial divides within the Deep South -- divides that are, without question, Black and White. It does not matter that Asian Americans were in the United States at this time, we were not 'toting that barge' or 'lifting that bale'. Asian Americans were not recovering from being ripped from their homeland and bound in chains due to the color of their skin. It is not 'our' story to tell. Ever. Nor is Ragtime, or Hairspray, or Memphis, or The Color Purple and so forth and so on....RACE MATTERS IN SHOW BOAT. SHOW BOAT IS A SHOW THAT IS DEFINED BY RACE. SHOW BOAT IS A SHOW WHERE RACE IS THE REASON THE ACTION MOVES FORWARD."

SHOW BOAT, based on Edna Ferber's novel, centers on the lives of performers, stagehands, and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River show boat, from 1887 to 1927. The musical premiered on Broadway in 1927; later revivals (in 1991 and 1995) won both a Tony Award and an Olivier Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

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