The Drive for Ethnic Diversity Takes a Wrong Turn

For the most part, the lack of ethnic diversity  at Clarion University of Pennsylvania and in the surrounding area doesn’t matter too much.  But earlier this month, it became the cause of disappointment to a group of students there and a source of economic trial to the University itself.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported that the theatre department of the University was forced to cancel its fall play.  From the Gazette:

Student actors and the stage crew at Clarion University arrived Tuesday evening for one of the final rehearsals before next week’s campus opening of “Jesus in India” only to learn the off-Broadway production they had spent months on had been canceled.

The reason they were given was race: theirs.

Three of the five characters in the production are Indian, but on the mostly white state university campus, two of those characters were to be played by white student actors and a third was being portrayed by a mixed-race student.

Lloyd Suh, the playwright, told the university through his literary agent Monday that he was uncomfortable with any notion that he supported Caucasians portraying Indian characters in his play, said Bob Levy, chairman of the visual and performing arts department at Clarion.

“He felt they should be of Asian descent,” Mr. Levy said Wednesday.

The Korean-American playwright wanted the parts recast, Mr. Levy said, and ultimately pulled the university’s right to stage the production after being told that finding Asian replacements was not practical given the play was to open next Wednesday on a campus in rural northwestern Pennsylvania where Asian or Pacific Islander students account for 0.7 of 1 percent of the university’s 5,368 students.

Clarion, Pennsylvania, is the home to Clarion University of Pennsylvania.  CSU is a small state school in a rural small town setting.  Clarion is a town of about 6,000, nestled in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania.  In tourism marketing for the State, Clarion is in the heart of an area known as the “Pennsylvania Wilds.” It is not an area where one expects to find diversity among the population.

I grew up about an hour east of Clarion, so I know first-hand that this part of the country is not ethnically diverse.  It just isn’t.  According the University’s website, the small town college has students enrolled from all over the world, however, the majority of students are white.  Statistics from 2012 on the school website state that  86% of the students at Clarion were white.  After spending some time poking around the University website, I discovered that the school has a “diversity plan” in place, so they are trying to remedy the situation.

The writer of the play, Mr. Suh, was paid by the University for rights to produce the play.  The students spent several weeks working on the production, and the University spent $15,000 in production costs.  For the playwright to demand that the play be shut down because the cast was not diverse enough on a campus where that demand is hardly feasible is outrageous, and, quite frankly, just wrong.

The push in our culture for diversity in every situation is artificial and often unrealistic.  If children who are not living in naturally diverse settings are taught to care for others, regardless of their cultural and ethnic heritage, when the time comes and they find themselves living in more diverse places, they can rise to the occasion.  We do not have to create diverse populations just for the sake of having them.

Here’s more from the Post Gazette:

The mixed-race actor was not of Asian descent, Mr. Levy said. He said the Indian characters portrayed by the non-Indians are Gopal, Sushil and Mahari.

Clarion officials said Mr. Suh declined their offers to give him a page in the program to say why Asian actors should have been used and to have a university representative give a “stage speech” on why no such actors were in the cast.

The students had rehearsed their parts six days a week since early October, with each session running 2½ to 3 hours, Mr. Levy said. They and nearly two dozen other student crew members involved in the play were affected.

“They were stunned,” said Marilouise “Mel” Michel, a Clarion professor of theater and the play’s director, of the reaction when she informed the cast. She said one actress “burst into tears.”

Mr. Suh declined to comment Wednesday through his literary agent, Beth Blickers. She would only say: “There are several characters of color for which there were not available appropriate actors and so it was decided that the production should not proceed.”

The performances that were to be staged in the Marwick-Boyd Little Theatre were a musical version of Mr. Suh’s 2013 off-Broadway play. Clarion described it as a coming-of-age musical. Mr. Levy said decisions about race and ethnicity in casting depend on the importance and relevance to the production. Auditions are open to the entire campus, he said.

We do need to learn to live with and accept our neighbors, but we do not need to create falsely diverse cultures to keep everyone in the world from being offended.  This action against the innocent students at a rural university is an example of extremism that completely ignores common sense.