By Sojin Shin || Op-Eds Editor
Journey to the West, a faculty directed TDF play based on a Chinese legend, was cancelled a week before its premiere due to controversies surrounding its casting and rehearsal process. First, the play was accused of cultural appropriation, especially with five out of six leads being Caucasian students. Second, in an attempt to initiate a talk addressing this issue, the director and a tenured professor Carol Davis segregated the cast into two groups: “American” and “international students.” However, many believe that this was a segregation based on race, because the “international” group included an Asian American student.
In an attempt the confirm everything, I interviewed students who participated in Journey to the West, both as actors and builders. All of them, with the exception of one builder (whose name I still choose to not include) wanted to remain anonymous. Apparently, they have heard that Professor Davis does not write letters of recommendation for people who have spoken against her.
As for the audition process, no consistent information was provided. Some said that a large number of international students auditioned. Some said that it was mostly Caucasian student, as auditions for theater at F&M usually goes. In terms of what Professor Davis is like, some spoke kindly of her, while some mentioned that Professor Davis was “viciously racist” and often took advantage of students of color to attain her visions. This student talked at length about Romeo and Juliet, in which Carol Davis was accused of tokenizing students of color and enforcing racial stereotypes. Then there were the quotes, which could only be characterized as incriminating.
However, while the general story stayed the same, there were inconsistencies or contradictions. Similar quotes were attributed at different times, and a single action was interpreted differently. A student reported that Professor Davis singled out international students, asking in patronizing tone if they “understood” what she was stating. An international student I interviewed, however, stated that Davis was always “checking in” with them to see if they comprehended her directions. Contexts and perspectives always shifted, and it was hard to verify exactly what happened.
After much thought, I decided I must talk to one more person before I wrote this article. To be very truthful, I wasn’t exactly expecting a response when I emailed her. However, Professor Davis got back to me only after four hours after my initial email, asking what time I would like to conduct the interview.
I visited her office at 4pm on October 28th, the Monday immediately following the weekend the show was supposed to be performed. Her office, Meyran 201, was a surprisingly cozy room, with ample space and sunlight pouring in from the large windows on the right side of the room. In this particular autumn afternoon, the vermillion sun grazed the shelves of books (mainly on the topic of theatrical art) that filled an entire side of her office. Professor Davis, who was working on her computer, stood up when she saw me and shook my hand. “Thanks for coming,” she added, smiling. She offered me a seat on one of the couches or armchairs placed near the entrance.
Even though she greeted me courteously, there was something a little scattered in the way she spoke. I quickly got an explanation when she spoke, almost in an apologetic tone. “I have been attending the forums we have prepared all weekend—and I have been talking with, you know, advisees all day.”
Suddenly, I felt very uncomfortable. In my hand I was holding notes with some very ugly accusations about this woman who looked like she needed a midday nap. But I managed to explain to her that while some questions may offend her, they must be asked. She seemed a little hesitant but answered that it would be fine.
The first question I asked was why she chose this particular play. Some students have been saying that the choice itself was an example of cultural appropriation. She began by saying she was looking for a show with large cast. Moreover, she wanted to “break away” from a “Euro-centric program.” To wrap it up, she mentioned that she never felt that the production was solely her own. “Theater’s a communal art,” she added. “Everyone involved in the production of this play tells the story.”
I then asked her what the audition process was like. She explained that she had no rigid structure: no monologue, no scripts. “I looked at the ability and skills of each student, really.” These abilities varied from dancing to playing a musical instrument. I felt a little ambiguous about this answer. In a way, this choice made the audition accessible to students who never participated in theaters. At the same time, it also sounded like a rather subjective and arbitrary sets of standards.
I asked her how she felt about the issue of whitewashing, especially since it is said that 5 out of 6 leads were Caucasian. In a slightly more heightened voice she added, “Truthfully, I did not take race into consideration.” She frowned just slightly and spoke. “I am not sure how you define ‘lead roles,’ but if I had to pick them, they would be the Jade emperor, Buddha, Guan Yan, Monkey King, and the Monk.” Among these five roles, two, not just one, role was to be played by a student of Eastern Asian heritage. Also, she mentioned later that, the play was like a “house of cards.” No single cast was more important than the other, and even one deduction would make the whole thing collapse.
I then asked her some more trivial questions which addressed some aspects of the play students found problematic:
Q: Can you respond to the quote “This is our China, not their China”? A couple of students I interviewed had mentioned that you’ve said this.
A: (looking perplexed, slightly frowning) I am not sure where it comes from.
Q: I was thinking, perhaps the quote refers to fictionality versus reality?
A: I don’t think that is the way I would have phrased it, but it could be. The goal of every production is to create a world that is unique. In a way, the script is like a blueprint without all the details, or a roadmap in contrast to the journey. Each production mustn’t be an exact copy of another, nor should really be a precise reflection of historical reality. We call that ‘dead art.’
Q: A student had told me that, on the first day of production, you went around saying “Namaste” to the cast members?
A: It was an icebreaker for all students to do. On the first day, we said “Namaste, I am ____” to each other because India represents the “West” part of Journey to the West. On the second day, we said “Nihao, I am _____,” since the play starts in China.
There were a couple other verifications like these, but it all seemed rather pointless and even a little irrelevant to the main issues concerning the cancellation of the show. I wanted to talk about the day of separation, or segregation, as some students have phrased.
In order to bring up the topic, I explained the version I know: she had segregated the student based on race, rather than identities, as evidenced by one Asian American student who was included in the “international” group. Instantly, I could feel the air between us tensing up. She crossed her legs, and spoke, a little louder than before. “I didn’t know the history.”
I asked her what that meant.
“With the tight schedule we had, we had no,” she paused, as if searching for words. “…luxury to get to know everyone in the cast.” I realized she was referring to the Asian American student. It seemed that she never really knew the girl, and she was beginning to sound upset. So I asked her to retrace the day instead. She took a moment, and spoke on.
According to Professor Davis, the department chair was approached by a student who brought up the issue of marginalization of international students. Because of this, the chair suggested that she have a talk with the cast. “I was surprised and sad to hear this through someone else, rather than a member of the cast,” she added, in a more elevated pitch.
At this point, she suddenly diverted to tell me a story that seemed to have affected her decision to segregate the group. “A few days before the incident had happened, one of the American cast [members] had made a rude remark about the international students.” Even though she did not go in detail, I remembered hearing this from an international student, who reported that they were called “extras” by this one American lead. Professor Davis spoke on. “I was also noticing that during breaks students were sitting only with their language groups. I wanted to address these things.” Okay, so what did it have to do with segregation? Before I could ask, she continued.
“I felt that the international students may feel more sensitive if American students were in their presence. I thought I should let them talk privately.” I was still unable to properly understand why she would choose to have the discussions on the same day, when there were two issues that seem somewhat linked, but were in fact separate: the issue of “whitewashing” and a “rude comment made by a lead.” She herself sounded a little confused herself. Her stories surrounding this particular day was somewhat out of order, jumpy, and difficult to hold onto. When I asked for clarification, she responded.
“I wasn’t planning to do this. It wasn’t premeditated.” She emphasized several times while telling this story. I asked her what she discussed with with the “American” Group. Many of them had told me that Professor Davis seemed to avoid responsibility, or even that she delegated the blame upon the students for the marginalization issue. She could not recall exactly what was said, but told me she had said something along the lines of, let’s be “sensitive” to each other, or that it’s incumbent upon “you” who are not far away from home, to welcome them more warmly.
“I wasn’t trying to blame them. But some students may have felt that way.”
“I understand.” I didn’t, not really. I tried to make sense of it. “So you are telling me that you were trying to address internal segregation, which may coincidentally aligned with the students’ race?”
“But what about the Asian American student?”
Her voice cracked a little bit here. She sounded defensive. “I really had no knowledge of her background. She has done translation for me from Chinese to English. She taught a Chinese chant.”
“Didn’t you still make an assumption?”
“I did, I guess. I made an assumption, as you said. I am responsible [for] that.”
I still found a couple things problematic. Based on what she said, it seemed that she addressed the issue of internal segregation among the students based on language. But that is not really what the department chair asked her to address. What she was supposed to discuss was “marginalization,” as she phrased, or, more curtly, “whitewashing.” There should have been a clear explanation as to how the leads were picked and what attitudes she had towards the play. Instead, she segregated the two groups to address issues that were linked but ultimately different. Internal or implicit segregation within group is purely about student dynamic. The issue at hand, the casting, was something that only she really had control over. Not only that, I found the act itself inappropriate, no matter the purpose. Even if the separation was done to facilitate the addressing of internal tension, and even if the segregation was not based on race, she had reinforced and formalised the implicit division among students by physically removing them from each other.
Professor Davis seemed abashed, a little fidgety. “I was not really addressing it racially, although other people thought I should have.” She spoke. “It wasn’t by design that I segregated them.” “In hindsight, rather than getting back to work, I wish we had a meeting as one big group. I would have asked if anyone wanted to talk about any issue.” She sounded sincere. Moreover, she seemed more distressed than she had been at any other time during my interview. Once again, I felt that discomfort and guilt, but verified a couple more quotes I have heard. A student I had talked to attributed the quote “it’s not like I asked you guys to paint your eyes smaller” to Professor Davis, on that day she was talking to the “American” group. When I told her, she backed out and shook her head in cartoonish motion. “No way.” I asked her if there was anything that she said that may have transformed into this quote. She could not think of anything. Understandably, she did not want to discuss the quote any further. We moved on.
I did bring up the phrase “American accent.” According to some people, she has said that she had no time to teach the international student “American accent,” which was an important part of acting. Upon hearing this, she frowned and shook her head. “Theater is a chorus of voices.” Was she possibly referring to diction but made bad word choices? “I believe an actor needs to be clear. But I don’t believe I used that phrasing. I don’t see in any way it could have been said.”
We briefly discussed Romeo and Juliet, a play that was set in “nondescript, war-torn, Middle-Eastern country,” as characterized by students who were in this play. Some of them even mentioned that this was how Professor Davis described it. The main controversy surrounding the play was tokenization. One student had even openly posted on social media that she felt she was cast based on her skin color, rather than talent. Many students told me that Juliet’s family members were played by students of color, whereas members of Romeo’s family was played by Caucasian students. Professor dismissed it by saying it simply did not happen (Also, Juliet’s mother was played by a Caucasian student, she added.) I referred to the SPOTs form that were supposedly filled out against her after this production, to see if she was aware of them. She shook her head. Here she seemed to show some genuine frustration about the issue of communication. “Years ago, our played carried .5 credits.” “People were more passionate.” she added. “The creative process was healthier. Now, people are too afraid to speak up against the authority.”
I asked her if she was aware that students think she will not write recommendations to those who speak against her. She was surprised. “That’s not true.” She said.. She raised her voice significantly. She sounded emotional, although I could see that she tried to stay articulate. “No one came directly up to me.” She said. “Not before it blew up. Other than the chair of the theater department, no one had told me what was simmering.” I asked her if she thought students were responsible for communicating with their professors. She was quick to respond. “I think communication is key. Art [I think she meant visual art] is a solo act, but theater needs communication from everyone.”
I decided to give her a momentary pause, under a pretense that I needed to retype some of things, straighten out typos. Then we began to discuss the day the show has been canceled. She said that moment she read the posters on the Protest tree, she felt a need to talk about this. She sat in a circle with the cast. They had a long discussion about whether they should “go on” with the play, which opened a “floodgate.” Some wanted to cancel the play immediately. According to her, some were “too afraid to perform” because of aftermath that will follow (as was the case for a student I have talked). It was a long and heated debate, until they finally decided to vote on the issue and asked her to leave the set. I asked her how she felt during the 12 minutes in which was in a distant studio, a place she chose to make sure that the students were out of her earshot. “I was just sad. I was sad about the misunderstanding. I was sad about the work the students put in. I was sad about the resources the department put in, costumes and all.”
When she came back, it was decided that the show was canceled. After the cast said their goodbyes, she stayed extra 40 minutes to talk with the students who lingered. Most of them shared brief words of thanks with each other and gave hugs. She noted how two students acted. “There was someone sobbing.” She spoke. “Then there was a student who came up to me and said, I didn’t know it would turn out like this. It seemed like she admitted that she got the ball rolling, but I don’t think she wanted this to happen.” Then, as if to summarize, she spoke. “Still, I am more sensitive to now than I was before. I understand different points of views. I understand how the appearance of things look.” She did add, skeptically. “But some came up to me and said they voted because they were afraid of demonstrations that will happen, or being blamed for participating in this play.”
There was a quiet. In a way, the interview was done—it had covered all the timeline needed. But it sounded like there was more for her to say. When I probed, the anguish with which she spoke when talking about issue of communication surfaced again.
“When I came out,” she spoke. “It was plastered all over the campus and buildings, these huge, neon, handwritten signs saying that ‘Carol Davis and TDF is racist.’ ‘The theater program is racist.’” She sounded angry. “They were put up while everyone on the cast was on the stage. So it was signs made by people who do not know me, who have never interacted with me.” I remembered those signs. They were indeed neon, bright, although not huge. 8.5 by 11 inches, standard A4 size. But many of them were provocative. After all, students were angered by this issues–their rage was transferred directly on those posters, I recalled.
I collected myself and then we discussed forums that replaced the show. There were talks and discussions led by Asian actors and directors. Dr. Amanda Kemp came to discuss campus diversity. On Friday, Asian American Alliance was invited to host a forum, but they had declined. The attendance to these forums were very low, never exceeding more than 20 students per event. Professor Davis sounded bitter when mentioning the number, although when I asked about the experience, she had said, “I went through quite an education. I wish everyone had come.” And as a person who was interested in the controversy but did not attend these events, I didn’t really have a response.
(Having done some follow-ups, now I know that there were practical reasons as to why students did not come, other than an unwillingness to communicate. Due to the urgency in which everything was prepared, the forums were not publicized enough. TDF contacted AAA only three days before the date forum was supposed to be held. Even the e-board members are students—it is practically impossible to juggle the school work and prepare a decent forum in three days.)
It was clear that she wanted communication, or some sort of dialogue. After all, she was sitting with this random student writer for two straight hours. I asked her if there was anything she wanted to say about the experience. “It was incredibly hurtful. I do not understand why we couldn’t talk about it in civil ways. I do not understand why people who did not know me wanted to destroy me so completely. No on will look up at me in the same way. I will never be the same.” She then added. “Nothing I did was intended to be mean. I understand how choices I made caused people to be frustrated. I understand that. And I am sorry for that.” She spoke quicker, louder, as her body tensed. “And I wish they have talked about it. I wish we had talked as soon as situation arose. The second I knew about it, it exploded—it was like a wildfire.” In my head, I recalled the neon posters, the black markers. I also remembered how bitter, betrayed, and just despondent my fellow Asian American students felt when they heard the news. I could see the broken, feverish expression on Professor Davis’ face overlap with theirs.
Professor Davis’ voice was becoming teary. She covered one eye with her right hand. “See, I don’t know what’s there.” She then removed the hand that covered the eye with her other hand. “If someone did that, I would go like, oh yeah, I didn’t know that.” She spoke on. “I truly wish that, someone came up to me, and that we talked about it.”
And that was the end of our interview. I closed up my laptop, and we thanked each other. “Thank you for your interest, and thank you for making an effort to verify,” she said.
“It’s not an issue. I feel that many things were taken out of context, and I don’t think it’s fair that you had a chance to speak.” I responded, but inside I felt the same discomfort I had when I first entered the room. But now it was more like emptiness, or even deep hunger.
We chatted for a bit afterwards, for which I did not take notes. I learned that her dissertation was on Shakespeare plays, that she started a theater organization in Nepal that promotes sanitation and education of girls, and, lastly, that she once studied in a country that I call home, South Korea. She had almost taught theater in college only 45 minutes away from where I used to live. She spoke of temples she had been too, and then try to say in slightly awkward but oddly familiar way, “Hangugmal,” or Korean. She spoke some short Korean phrases. I couldn’t help but laugh a little. And in that moment, I felt that there was something between us that transcended my disapproval of her actions. In that brief moment, I felt faith in my ability to talk to her. Meaning, I guess, I found her personable.
As I left Meyran, I felt uneasy. There were just too many loose ends, unresolved questions for both parties. Many Asian (American) students who encountered the stories were shocked and hurt. Professor Davis who faced the burst of anger is left with unanswered questions and frustration. But they never had a chance to properly communicate. That bothered me. Because I knew that the bitterness never really disappears. Instead, it only gets pushed to the side, because one cannot live past it otherwise. I have had that experience too many times. Because of that, I knew that this bitterness will resurface in one way or another, perhaps in more violent ways. I found no resolution, unlike I hoped, as I went back to sleep that day. But moments before I fell asleep, I thought, “I hope we can talk.”
Sophomore Sojin Shin is the Op-Eds Editor. Her email is sshin@fandm.