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The Carletonian

Tales of Rashomon: refreshing diversity or cultural appropriation?

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-5bc8beee-3ec1-7348-8dda-247ea5a50c50">On 6th and 7th weekend, this term’s Carleton Players’ production, Tales of Rashomon, will go up in the Weitz. Helmed by guest director and experience Japanese theater artistic director Kathy Welch, the production will feature three traditional Japanese performance styles: Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku style puppetry. Tales of Rashomon will be the only theater performance from an Asian culture, with the largest pool of Asian actors participating in a Carleton production in four years. As such, it has drawn interest from students who see the production as progress within the Theater department’s diversity initiative as well as from those who see it as an example of cultural appropriation.

Tales of Rashomon is an adaptation of the short stories of early 20th century Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the source for Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon. Aiming to show an original Japanese play in traditional style, the production staff conceived posters promoting auditions with a large caption encouraging Asian and Asian American students to try out. When the cast was announced, several students expressed discomfort surrounding the process as well as the result.

The first major issue evokes criticism of whitewashing: three of the play’s five major characters are white. One major role was given to a white student, even though an Asian student auditioned for it, raising the question of how to handle diversity given a small pool from which to cast. The remainder of the ensemble consists of Asian and Asian American students, one of whom described this outcome as “insulting.”

Had the director reached out to the Asian community before casting, would the outcome have been different? The allegation of cultural appropriation remains more of a rising concern than a boiling debate or a solved investigation. Not enough people have found it problematic to inspire action; some Asian students in the cast actually see the production as an example of cultural appreciation rather than appropriation.

One Japanese student in the production was impressed to see people from other countries study his culture and present a show from that tradition. Other Asian students in the ensemble added that they don’t see their roles as peripheral; the show cannot go on without them. Welch pointed out that the role of the ensemble in Tales of Rashomon is different from that of many musicals, where ensemble actors have few lines with parts distributed between them. In Tales of Rashomon, however, the ensemble functions more like a Greek chorus, which rarely leaves the stage and usually contributes just as much as a leading role.

Whether to cast the play with careful consideration of or complete disregard for race not a central consideration in the casting process. Welch’s casting philosophy was to be faithful to the basics of the show, prioritizing the actor’s experience, training, and availability. But the task became more difficult when only 16 students auditioned, with none on the third day. Thirteen were ultimately cast.

Some students argued that Carleton has a sufficient number of Asian and Asian American actors; they simply were not invited into the process. Instead, they say, those roles were given to white students. Welch received funding for the production from the Japanese government’s scholarship to promote Japanese cultural studies in other countries. She affirmed her motivation to take a respectful approach to Japanese culture, which she has been studying throughout her life, and to support people seeking to understand it.

“Passing judgment before seeing the show may cause misunderstanding,” Welch said. “I hope students [will] actually see the show and see what is really going on.”

Still up for debate is the question of who should have taken the role to reach out to the Asian community. Some students believe that having invited a guest director largely unfamiliar with Carleton, the Theater department could have served as a potential liaison between Welch and the student body. Those students are asking the department to be more proactive next time.

The department’s advertisements for auditions also failed to answer questions about the show’s intentions. Was it a “Japanese-style play,” with the purpose of educating people of all races, or a “Japanese play,” to be performed according to its tradition? Given the high concentration of white students at Carleton, attentiveness to audience knowledge and perceptions of Japanese culture would seem imperative in anticipating concerns of appropriation.

On April 17, a group of students held a dialogue with others in the production regarding questions of appropriation and appreciation. The conversation broadened to principles of theater and questions of how students and the department could avoid such issues in the future. Ultimately, despite their varying opinions on potentially appropriative aspects of the production, students maintained a harmonious atmosphere, agreeing to continue an open dialogue in advance of the performance in order to preempt any misconceptions and to encourage audience members to approach the production without prejudice.

The issue of ensuring that students of color receive opportunities to participate in theater is already in Carleton’s collective consciousness. The vicious cycle whereby students of color lack experience, do not receive lead roles, and thus cannot gain experience contributes substantially. Last term’s production of Harlem Nocturne, written and directed by Theater professor David Wiles, attempted to break this cycle. Wiles reached out to many African American students, even individually, encouraging them to participate. And he largely succeeded, assembling a cast consisting predominantly of students of color. As Experimental Theater Board (ETB) has also increased racial diversity recently, many students hoped Tales of Rashomon would be serve to engage Carleton’s Asian community with theater. Most believe it has, at least to some extent, succeeded.

Balancing the goals of crafting a high quality production with racial and cultural sensitivity, particularly given the constraints of the student body has proven challenging. And the complexities of this balance serve to complicate the answer to the fundamental question: what would have been the ideal cast and audience? On one hand, Welch had the option of seeking an integrated, colorblind cast that would theoretically have allowed students with a variety of backgrounds and racial identities to participate; this approach would raise the question of authenticity and being true to the play’s traditional Japanese roots. On the other hand, Welch could have sought exclusively or predominantly Asian and Asian American performers, acknowledging the culture and featuring an underrepresented minority group but subjecting the production and performers to the inevitable white gaze of the audience.

Uniting the students on both sides of this debate was the goal of continuing to promote racially and culturally diverse and aware production from the Players. In the meantime, the discussion will continue on Friday, April 29, at 4:30 p.m. in Leighton 305, as students aim to improve the process in the future for those who felt isolated.

Irrespective of the controversy, Tales of Rashomon has motivated more students to start these questions about diversity in the Theater department. At this point, most students see the production as more of a step forward than a step backward, but evidently, the path of progress is rarely unobstructed. The hope moving forward is that the intensity of this discussion does not thwart the movement towards more diversity in theater.

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