How White is Your Steampunk, or, What Color is Your Gurkha?

A couple of years back, I was talking to my friend Ron about the remarkable openness and diversity I’d just seen at a Steampunk convention, how they were so inclusive of age and alternate genders, so welcoming to people with disabilities, so celebratory of different body types. He smiled at my description then said, “It is remarkable. Sometimes you’ll even see a black person!”


A well-earned zing. As liberals and artists, it’s easy to get congratulatory about how progressive we are about all subjects, including race. We certainly like to think that we’re open-minded and lacking in prejudice, but when you take the time to look at the faces participating in our art, sometimes there’s a disturbing lack of racial diversity.

In casting our late-night Steampunk adventure serial “BRASS: Oh My Azaleas!” (opening next month at Theater Schmeater) we wanted to address these concerns. That’s tricky, as the philosophy of creating a racially diverse cast is undergoing a major paradigm shift. For the last 30 years, the dominant philosophy in the American theatre has been color-blind casting:  that is, get the best actor for the role, regardless of ethnicity. While a somewhat laborious process, by most metrics this philosophy has been successful—more actors of color being cast, in all forms of theatre, often playing roles written for whites. For the last 20 years, no has blinked an eye at an African-American Hamlet, an Asian-American Willy Loman, a Hispanic cowboy in Oklahoma. (A black cowboy in Oklahoma who’s threatened with a noose? Okay, maybe that, as The 5th Avenue Theatre learned in 2012.)

But in the last couple of years, discontent in some minority communities hasn’t focused on people of color not getting roles. Instead it’s been on actors playing roles that they believe should be reserved for their race. Last July there was a kerfuffle when Greenstage cast an Indian-American actor as Othello, and then soon after a production of The Mikado by the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan society became the scene of protests from the Asian-American community. The term “yellow face” became prevalent to describe white (and Hispanic) actors playing G&S’s make-believe Japanese, and even reasoned commentary by culture critics trying to give some perspective led to accusations of racism and unconscious white privilege.

I was thinking about absolutely none of this when I was co-writing Oh My Azaleas.

There are challenges when you’re working in Steampunk, a genre most often set at the height of the British Empire. This was a society famous as the apotheosis of white male patriarchal culture. It’s hard to write about that world without importing its thoughts on race.  While British gentlemen talked in Parliament about bringing enlightenment, in reality their Empire was based upon the dispossession of land from people with complexions of a very different hue. Every military victory that pushed the boundaries of where the Imperial sun set involved the slaughter of races that didn’t have the fortune of superior firepower and technology.

What’s more, the milieu in which our play is set, London in 1885, certainly contained people of different races, but most were of poor economic class and at the margins. Even our “alternative” England, progressive towards the rights of women and other races, offers fewer opportunities for multi-ethnic casting. If we were casting the roles as they would have been “historically” lived, this show would end up looking as white as an episode of Downton Abbey.

To counter this, we’ve instituted color-bind casting. Our audition notices not only explicitly encouraged actors of color to audition, I pre-cast one of my favorite actors, who happens to be African-American, to play a major role. Heading into auditions, I’m happy to say that we’ve attracted a handful of other actors of color–and almost none of the characters are defined by their ethnicity.

Well, with the exception of two.

They are Gurkhas. For those unfamiliar with the word, they are the fierce and astonishingly effective warrior caste of Nepal. These men are widely regarded as some of the most amazing fighters in history. After battling the British to an effective standstill in the 19th century, they were recruited into their own regiments in the British Army, a position held with pride to this day. Gurkhas have a reputation for ferocity that has been earned repeatedly in battle. For some amazing stories of just how bad-ass they are, go here, here and here.

Gurkha culture is fascinating. Having given their loyalty for almost 200 years to the British Empire, they’ve also developed some strong cultural antipathy to other races. They are known to loathe the Japanese, for example, who they are proud to have terrorized throughout World War II. And while some Gurkhas have served with Indian military units in recent times, they were on the British side during the Sepoy Revolution in the 19th century, and were notably contemptuous of their enemy. So casting actors who were Japanese-American or Indian in these roles could be seen as even more culturally insensitive than casting white actors.

What’s more, if the Gurkhas have a strong allegiance to any people, it is undoubtedly the British. Even as enemies there was much mutual respect, and since joining their military ranks these Nepalese warriors have been unwavering in their loyalty. The prevailing sentiment seems to be: we have taken your food, we have taken your money, we are yours to fight who you choose. In Nepal it is seen as a great honor to become a Gurkha, even though this means leaving your country, very possible for the rest of your life.

It seemed to me that our chances of getting Nepalese actors for these roles was slim. (So why did I create Gurkha characters? Because they are AMAZING and TERRIFYING!) Still, I wanted to make the effort, so early last month I contacted Kathy Hsieh, a friend who works in the Office of Arts and Culture and has made race in Seattle theatre a main focus of her work in the last year. I explained my dilemma, and she passed on two additional names of artists of color with ties to the Nepalese community.

Both of them got back with suggestions, and one offered to contact her Nepalese friends to encourage them to audition. (I eagerly accepted.)  But while I appreciated their advice and assistance, I was also struck by how more realistic and less cautious about the issue they were than I felt I was trying to be. One said, in all seriousness, that I should consider casting Filipino actors instead, because they look “a LOT like Nepalese.” (Can you imagine the uproar if a white person said this?)

Here’s the advice I ultimately decided to follow: “Since you are double casting it seems that it will be more than okay to cast non-Nepalis. Not knowing your script at all I can suggest that perhaps having as diverse a cast as possible in general, may be the best way to ‘thread the needle’. That way it’s clear that no one is ethnically specifically cast?”

This seems like a commonsense, and appropriate, way to address this issue. (I did offer copies of the script to all and sundry by the way.)  Given time and resources, perhaps we could have done more—spent months in conversation with the Nepalese community, for example, or personally invited local Nepalese community leaders to attend the auditions. Both of these were proposals given late this week by Kathy Hsieh. But with our budget and time commitment, these weren’t practical considerations.

Still, I’m proud of what we’ve done so far. It’s taken time and extra effort, but we’ve been as thoughtful and sensitive to this issue as I’ve ever been in my career as a playwright and director. I’m looking forward to seeing the actors who come to our auditions, and filling the roles with the best artists we can get—regardless of their race.

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