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IU Theatre postpones play about asylum seekers after backlash over inauthentic casting



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A phone displays the current and upcoming productions for the IU Theatre. The production “Asylum Anguish: Stories from the Border” has been postponed indefinitely due to concerns over inaccurate depictions of characters during casting. Izzy Myszak

A play about the testimonies of refugees seeking asylum in the United States has been postponed indefinitely after backlash over callback decisions by the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

The play, “Asylum Anguish: Stories from the Border,” was written with characters of specific racial, ethnic and gender identities. But the theater department, like the rest of IU, is predominantly white and said it cannot cast “Asylum Anguish” as written. 

In a letter to students who were called back for roles last week, the department said its casting would reflect how the refugee crisis is “worldwide and an urgent global problem.” 

“In practice this means that ethnic authenticity will not be a principal factor in casting, though diversity will be,” the letter read.

A white cisgender woman in the department was called back for the role of a transgender Latina woman. A Black woman was called back to play a white Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer. 

Casting is always criticized by actors and viewers, according to Jessica Gelt of the LA Times. There is always someone different who could better fill the role, she wrote. But some actors say character roles should be filled by people who have shared the characters' experiences.

“Who has the right to tell what stories?” Gelt wrote. “And who gets to make that decision?”

This kind of debate is nuanced, which is why it deserves thought and interrogation by the department, said Jayne Deely, a second-year Latinx MFA playwriting candidate.

“I think bluntly canceling without creating structure for those conversations to start happening, you've wasted an opportunity,” Deely said.

Theater department students petitioned to cancel the play, but it has only been postponed so far. Nearly 500 people had signed the petition as of Sept. 7. 

After a week of backlash to the callbacks, the department’s Student Advisory Board called a town hall for students to discuss callbacks and messages sent between students and administrators. They normally have town halls twice a month but called this one a few days in advance, according to senior Taylor Ward, chair of the board.

During the meeting, several students called to cancel the show instead of postponing it to protect nonwhite and genderqueer students from trauma. Others called for the department to call off the entire season and reinvest its resources into anti-racism training.

About 40 people attended the first hour of the town hall.

But canceling the show without any dialogue robs theater students, staff and faculty of doing the work to understand and address racism and mistrust within the department, Deely said.

“To cancel without there being required conversations to come out of this is to just delay this from happening again,” Deely said.

Deely believes the department will never be able to safely perform a show such as “Asylum Anguish” if the department’s students and administration cannot engage in a meaningful conversation about why it can’t be done now. This isn’t going to go away, Deely said. 

Catherine Barker, a white sophomore majoring in musical theater, did not audition for a role in “Asylum Anguish” but was called back for the role of a trans Latina woman seeking asylum. Barker declined the callback, feeling she wouldn't be able to accurately portray that experience.

“I think this issue is not just specific to this show,” Barker said. “It’s specific to all theater, ever. It’s based in the misrepresentation of culture onstage, usually by white people.”

“Asylum Anguish” was written and directed by Jane Page and Gavin Cameron-Webb, both of whom are white and have volunteered at the nonprofit Friends of Orange County Detainees since before the play was written. Cameron-Webb said they began to volunteer without the plan to eventually develop a play.

The show is a staged reading of testimonies from six immigration detainees who gave the interviewers permission to share their story, according to the LA Times.

The script is based on letters, recordings and court documents the detainees shared with Page and Cameron-Webb, who keep in contact with most of the immigrants they wrote about in “Asylum Anguish,” Cameron-Webb said in an email.

The writers update the script as they receive new information from the asylum seekers and immigration policies change.

Deely said people share others’ stories on social media all the time, such as reposting a photo of Breonna Taylor or the last words of Elijah McClain. This isn’t to take ownership of their trauma but to raise awareness of it. 

“Sharing stories is how change happens, and we do it all the time,” Deely said. 

But as important as the narratives in “Asylum Anguish” are to Deely and the department, Deely said perhaps they can tell them at another time. Systemic racism and departmental mistrust cannot be healed in a couple weeks’ time. 

“Maybe we just weren’t ready," Deely said. “I think that’s a fair thing to think about.”

If you are part of the theater department and would like to speak about the issues addressed in this piece, please email arts@idsnews.com.

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