The theatre world is embroiled in controversy right now over the attempted White-washing by Clarion University of Lloyd Suh’s cutting-edge play, “Jesus In India”.
Suh’s play — an irreverent exploration of popular conceptions and misconceptions of historical religious figures — includes several characters of Indian descent. However, when Professor of Theatre at Clarion University Marilouise Michel decided she wanted to put on a student production of the play this year, she seized upon a quip by Suh in one of the play’s liner notes (wherein he describes the play’s appeal as “universal”) and interpreted it as license to cast non-South Asian actors as characters named “Gopal”, “Mahari”, and “Sushil”. Michel also decided to make dramatic rewrites to the play (which originally contained only two or three songs). She commissioned a full songbook, transforming the play into a musical.
Yesterday, I wrote about the news that Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Chronicle) would be adopting the mantle of The Human Torch. I talked about my enthusiasm for integrating diverse story-telling into comics, and my reservations that trans-racial casting in the absence of varied and complex writing is literally skin-deep diversity.
On the other side of the argument, some have celebrated Jordan’s casting, arguing that cross-racial casting of major superhero properties is the path of least resistance towards the goal of diverse superheroes. They argue that the road towards introducing superheroes of colour to the major publishing houses — DC and Marvel — is rife with red tape obstacles; the solution, therefore, is to encourage the seamless and casual transracialization of existing characters.
If the purpose of diversifying comics is to introduce minority fans to relatable superheroes, then while seeing an empowered brown body shoot lasers from her eyes is fun, seeing an empowered brown body shoot lasers from her eyes and who is also brown when she takes her cape off is far more relatable. Cross-racial casting doesn’t dismantle the pretenses of an industry that has since time immemorial treated race like window-dressing while it is also viewed as an unseemly subject best left out of comics. When comic writers and publishing houses are encouraged in the fantasy that writing a superhero is race-neutral until an artist puts blue pencil to paper (or a casting director taps a talented non-White actor to play the part) it perpetuates a system that has historically ignored, disrespected, and devalued Blackness and race in general.
If we want to inject diversity into comics, the solution isn’t to offer the appearance of race while ignoring its impact on the people behind the mask. The solution is to tackle race head-on.
Want an example? Meet Grace Choi.