Sunday, May 1, 2016

Footlights

Finding Diversity in "Maple and Vine."

Posted By on Sun, May 1, 2016 at 6:00 AM

click to enlarge Xander H. Wong as Ryu and McLean Jesse as Katha in the play “Maple and Vine,” about an unfulfilled New York couple who flees to a gated community that feels more like the 1950s.
  • Xander H. Wong as Ryu and McLean Jesse as Katha in the play “Maple and Vine,” about an unfulfilled New York couple who flees to a gated community that feels more like the 1950s.

Finding Diversity

Before last month, I could count on one hand the number of prominent roles that had been played by Asian actors in major Richmond productions over the past decade, and two of them were in last year’s “South Pacific” at Virginia Repertory Theatre.

But Xander H. Wong costars in “Maple and Vine,” running at the Firehouse Theatre, and Anne Michelle Forbes plays a pivotal role as the Chinese-American college student, Amanda, in Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles,” offered by Cadence Theatre in partnership with Virginia Rep.

This small boom in diversity doesn’t exactly surprise Forbes, whose mother is Filipino and who has been the beneficiary of some nontraditional casting choices during her time as a Virginia Commonwealth University theater student. “I played one of the Bennet sisters in TheatreVCU’s ‘Pride and Prejudice,’” she says, “and our production of ‘Hairspray’ had a very multicultural cast.”

Though laudable, the ‘Hairspray’ choices generated their share of controversy.

“I know some people felt certain roles should have gone to white actors,” Forbes says. “There were discussions in our department about whether decisions should be made as a point of history -- that in the 1950s, Asian-Americans weren’t likely to be doing these things -- or as an artistic choice for the director to choose who she thought would be best for the role.”

Such situations “demonstrate how we are facing these issues head-on,” Forbes says. “A show like ‘Hamilton’ puts the issue front and center. I think it’s equally exciting and terrifying. I’d love to reach a point where it really is the best person for the role that is getting it.” Forbes notes that Asian actors are still significantly underrepresented on stage but that opportunities are starting to develop.

“There are many emerging Asian-American playwrights, but most of them haven’t gained popularity yet,” she says. “That’s why I really appreciate someone like Amy Herzog, who is using her platform to create significant roles for minorities. Amanda in “4000 Miles” isn’t a caricature -- she’s a fully fleshed-out character.”

Forbes graduates later this month but will stick around Richmond for at least a little while thanks to another step toward greater diversity on local stages being made by Virginia Rep. Forbes will have the lead role in the spring 2017 iteration of “Hugs and Kisses,” which will tour schools across the region. The show about sexual abuse has been the cornerstone of Virginia Rep’s educational offerings for more than 30 years.

“I’m just thrilled to be in their baby,” Forbes says. “4000 Miles” runs through May 21.

By the way:

A rare opportunity to see “Extremities,” an intense drama on sexual assault, closes at John Tyler Community College at 2 p.m. today. But don’t fret if you really want to see it: The same production will be at the Firehouse over Memorial Day weekend.

Running: No new professional productions open during the next two weeks, so it’s the perfect time to catch up on the wide variety of shows out there. The TheatreLab-Yes, And Entertainment coproduction “Venus in Fur” closes next weekend. Also still running are Triangle Players’ “Body Awareness” and Swift Creek Mill’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” And Firehouse’s “Maple and Vine” has been extended though Saturday, May 21.

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