Words by Samantha Pak
Update: On Tuesday, Dec. 6, it was announced that KPOP’s final show will be Dec. 11.
According to Playbill, by the end of its run, the musical will have played 44 previews and 17 performances. The final performance will be dedicated to the AA+PI community and feature a panel discussion to celebrate and reflect on AA+PI representation on Broadway. Panelists include David Henry Hwang, the first Asian American playwright to win a Tony; KPOP composer (and first Asian female composer on Broadway) Helen Park; Korean playwright Hansol Jung; and Pun Bandhu of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. There will be 200 complimentary tickets available for community members for this final show, which is supported by The Asian American Foundation with Gold House, Asian American Performers Action Coalition, and Ma-Yi Theater Company (which co-produced the premiere of KPOP Off Broadway), according to Playbill.
While the show will come to a close, the Playbill article states that a KPOP Broadway cast recording album will be dropping Feb. 24, 2023.
There could be a number of reasons for KPOP’s short run and abrupt closing date. But Jesse Green’s review of the musical in The New York Times, could be a contributing factor. While critiques and criticism of any piece of art is expected, KPOP producers Tim Forbes and Joey Parnes described parts of Green’s review as “casual racism” and wrote an open letter to the publication’s higher ups demanding an apology.
In response to this letter, The Times released a statement to The Daily Beast, which reads: “We saw the open letter written about The Times’s review of KPOP and quickly convened a discussion among editors and members of our standards department. This group was in agreement that Jesse’s review was fair. More importantly, we wholly disagree with the argument that Jesse’s criticism is somehow racist. We always welcome feedback and reaction to our journalism, and have conveyed a similar reply to the producers who wrote the open letter.”
So, not even a “sorry, if you were offended,” apology. Instead, gaslighting, telling the KPOP cast and crew that they didn’t experience racism (who are they to tell other people how they feel and what they experience?!).
When asked for a comment, The Daily Beast wrote that Green declined and referred them to the publication’s statement.
This is the second open letter written about one of Green’s reviews in less than a month, according to The Daily Beast. The previous letter was written by Tonya Pinkins, star of A Raisin in the Sun. She argued that Green disregarded the lived Black experience and reviewed the play based on his views of Black women as a white man.“Jesse, you did not bring to the theater an open mind and respect for our artistry,” she wrote. “You came to compare our work to what you like, imagine or have seen of Black women in your past. I am so much greater than your limited imagination. All Black women are.”
The same could be said about Green’s approach to his review for KPOP. The fact that both shows—featuring BIPOC casts and stories—had and will have a short run is not lost on us. It’s not a coincidence.
This is why having more BIPOC critics in an overwhelmingly white space such as theater is so important. When someone from a minority group experiences a piece of work from someone with a similar background, they are able to bring their own lived experiences to their critique. They understand the nuances that a white person would miss.
Producers Tim Forbes and Joey Parnes of the new Broadway musical KPOP are asking for a formal apology from New York Times critic Jesse Green, for what they describe as “casual racism” in his Nov. 27 review.
The show follows a cadre of K-pop stars in their attempt to crossover to the United States, and the sacrifices they make in order to be successful. It opened at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre on the same day the review was published.
In a letter to New York Times chairman and publisher A.G. Sulzberger and theater editor Nicole Herrington—obtained by Playbill—Forbes and Parnes wrote that while they respect Green’s right to be critical of the show, his review was offensive. The producers pointed out specific examples they found to be culturally insensitive and displayed an “underlying ignorance of and distaste for K-pop as a genre.”
One “particularly egregious” example was Green describing the show’s lighting as “squint-inducing.” Being teased for having “squinty” or slanted eyes is a horrible rite of passage many of us have had to endure. So this phrase in a review of a show with a predominantly Asian cast looks like poor word choice at best, and lazy racism, at worst, on Green’s part.
Other examples include the “(too) cute” in the review headline—which Frobes and Parnes wrote perpetuates “harmful stereotypes and the historic infantilization of Asian people in the media.” They also pointed out Green’s insinuation that anyone who doesn’t understand Korean won’t enjoy the show because a portion of the dialogue is in Korean (“only a small fraction,” according to the producers).
KPOP cast members have also taken to social media to address Green’s review. Abraham Lim, who plays a member of the fictional boy band, F8, posted a video on his Instagram, stating “if you don’t know anything about the subject matter that is the DNA of a show, when you self-admittedly don’t know anything about it, and it’s very clear that you have not done your research, then you are not qualified to critique our show.” Lim’s cast mate and fellow F8 band member John Yi posted similar sentiments on his Instagram, writing, “KPOP is as much for English speaking theatergoers” as “an Italian opera is at the MET.” Both actors also pointed out how racism and specific word choices led to the spike in anti-AA+PI hate and violence against our community since the beginning of the pandemic.
There are some obviously problematic parts to Green’s review, but everyone’s entitled to their opinion, especially when it comes to something as subjective as art. As much as we at JoySauce love and celebrate AA+PI representation, we’ve also got to acknowledge and normalize critiquing BIPOC-created works (how else can we improve?). The bigger issue here is that increasingly more diverse stories are being told (yay!) and the folks critiquing them should reflect this shift as well. We’re doing our part to elevate these voices at JoySauce, but we need to see more of it—especially at major media outlets like the New York Times, as those voices have the ability to make or break a show.
As of Monday afternoon, Green’s review still includes the racist phrase “squint-inducing,” but small changes have since been made—such as crediting composer Helen Park, the first-ever Asian woman composer on Broadway, by name (which Forbes and Parnes criticized him for not doing initially). Neither Green nor the Times have issued an apology.
Published on December 6, 2022
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.