THE recent imbroglio in the theater community over ``Miss Saigon'' - the hit London musical bound for Broadway next year - has given rise to an inescapable, looming question: Are people of color being given a fair chance to perform on the nation's stages? That was the issue behind the Actors' Equity Association's short-lived stand last month against having a Caucasian actor play the role of a Eurasian in ``Miss Saigon.'' After producer Cameron Mackintosh angrily canceled the New York engagement, the union relented.
But minority actors feel the issue is important - and has served to energize awareness over their plight in American theater.
``I'm so proud of the fact that Equity felt the way I did after 23 years,'' says long-time Broadway star Rosette Le Noire, referring to the length of time passed since she founded Amas Musical Theatre, a multiracial company in New York. During the controversy, ``I spent nights unable to sleep, in tears,'' laments the black actress.
Miss Le Noire's frustration is echoed by other actors - black, Asian, Hispanic - who say that despite gradual gains in jobs available, the characters they portray pander to stereotypes and lack sophistication and depth.
``We don't need any more chorus roles of Asian-American females as prostitutes,'' says Tisa Chang, artistic producing director and founder of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York, referring to ``Miss Saigon.'' Asian-Americans, she says, are too often used as ``window dressing'' or ``exotic ethnic background'' rather than ``fully fleshed-out characters.''
In California, where Asian-Americans make up about 10 percent of the population, opportunities for Asian-Americans to perform in mainstream theaters are not much better than in film and television. ``In general, we are limited to minor Asian roles,'' says Dennis Dun, a Chinese-American actor living in San Francisco. ``Asians still don't get a lot of respect in this [entertainment] business'' and are typically cast in ``one-dimensional'' parts, he adds.
Though Mr. Dun considers himself ``amazingly fortunate'' to have played significant Asian roles in international films, including ``The Last Emporer,'' he has drawn more inspiration from his recent work in Asian theaters, as when starring in David Henry Hwang's ``FOB'' at the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre last season. ``I had to get back on stage. I felt I was just drying up'' from the Hollywood work, Dun says.
Ethic theaters, in fact, are the richest source of opportunity for minority actors. ``We can't really depend on anyone else,'' says Larry Leon Hamlin, founder and executive artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company in Winston-Salem. His company hosted the first National Black Theatre Festival there last year, which attracted over 250 professional and amateur companies.
In mainstream theaters, black actors and technicians are finding some work, but not a substantial amount. ``It hasn't broken open yet ... but there seems to be a lot of dialogue in that direction,'' Mr. Hamlin says.
Hispanic theater relies heavily on networking within its own community. ``You can find Hispanic theater in Minnesota, Florida, Connecticut - it's really flourishing all over the country,'' says Carlos Carrasco, editor of La Nueva OLA, a newsletter for the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors. ``However, the difference between these companies evolving and having good seasons, ... and any crossover into the mainstream - there's still quite a dichotomy there.''
``Nontraditional casting,'' however, is one way to get talented minority actors onto more mainstream stages. Though far from commonplace, the practice is growing among nonprofit theaters nationwide. The intent is to give minorities a chance to perform roles traditionally denied them because of racism - such as casting a black man as Hamlet, or Asians in Dickens's ``The Christmas Carol.''
Nontraditional casting is a ``response to gross inequities of opportunity out there,'' says Joanna Merlin, co-founder of the Nontraditional Casting Project in New York. In 1986, Equity completed a four-year study which found that over 90 percent of all actors hired in professional theaters were white.
``We're not saying you have to take five actors for every show who are ethnic - you can't legislate art,'' says Ms. Merlin, also a casting director for Asian projects. ``But we're promoting the broadening of the entire pool from which the selection is made.''
But theaters find that adopting nontraditional casting isn't easy.
``For the first couple of years, it can be a torturous thing to go through,'' says Zelda Fichhandler, co-founder and producing director for 40 years at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. ``It can feel like an affirmative action program for a while,'' she says, which is extraneous to the intentions of theater. But after several years, it has become ``really natural,'' she says. ``It's part of your artist freedom, not a limit upon it.''
This fall, Arena Stage has begun offering hands-on, minority training fellowships in acting, design, administration, and playwrighting, as one part of an overall cultural-diversity emphasis. The theater has even hired a sociologist to help staff members adjust.
``Washington is 64 percent black,'' says Ms. Fichhandler, ``so we really should have made this move.'' She feels one can't ``dabble'' in cultural diversity and succeed. ``It has to be a very important plank of your theater.'' The Arena Stage's first show this season, ``The Caucasian Chalk Circle,'' by Bertolt Brecht, includes black, Hispanic, and Asian actors, as well as a culturally varied creative team.
Some directors feel that minority participation is necessary to serve audiences better. ``If you want an audience that reflects the diversity of your community, that audience wants to see people on stage who are like them,'' says Peter Altman, producing director at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston.
In addition to producing plays by black playwrights, such as premi`ere productions of August Wilson's work, the Huntington will offer the Greek classic ``Iphigenia'' next March, using a multicultural cast, and for the first time, employ a black director for a play that has no particularly racial contents.
But one of the major obstacles of minority casting, says Mr. Altman, is the availability of qualified actors. ``Last year, there were 20 productions in resident theater of [Wilson's] `Fences.' ... The theaters had a hard time casting the play. Several decided to pool their productions and some actors played one part in different cities.''
Another stumbling block is skepticism on the part of some ethnic actors who won't come to auditions, thinking any possibility of landing a major role is ludicrous, or ``all for show,'' says Sarah O'Conner, managing director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, which has had a formal policy of nontraditional casting for five years.
``Little by little, we've had to establish a precedent that says we mean business. There's no other way to do it, than to do it.''
The Milwaukee theater opened this season with Sheridan's ``The Rivals,'' the classic English comedy, featuring four African-Americans in major roles. Nontraditional casting ``emphasizes the fact that theater is illusion,'' Ms. O'Conner says. ``The further people can follow the flight of imagination past the conventions, the more exciting it is for them.''
Ms. Merlin at the Nontraditional Casting Project says she's found most audiences will accept nontraditional casting if it is done well.
``If the actor is a great actor, you will be taken into the world of the play, and you won't think of that actor as being anyone but that character.''