KPOP producers Tim Forbes and Joey Parnes are formally requesting an apology from New York Times theatre critic Jesse Green following his review of the new musical, which opened November 27 at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre. In a letter to New York Times Chairman and Publisher A.G. Sulzberger and Theater Editor Nicole Herrington obtained by Playbill, Forbes and Parnes describe the review as "casual racism." The full letter is included below.
The move follows similar responses from members of the KPOP company posted to social media that critique Green's seeming distaste for lines and lyrics performed in Korean and the K-pop music genre that the musical celebrates.
Forbes and Parnes affirm that they "respect Mr. Green's right to be critical of the show," but take issue with Green's word choice (he called Jiyoun Chang's lighting design "squint-inducing," which the producers characterize as playing into "harmful stereotypes" of Asian people) and his assertion that non-Korean speakers won't be able to enjoy the show, which includes some lines and lyrics in Korean and without English supertitles. "Is a Broadway show valid only if it is centered on and catering exclusively to a white, English-speaking audience?" write the producers.
The letter also takes issue with Green's "dismissive and diminishing comment that there are 'only three instrumentalists,'" pointing out that that number—admittedly small for even the most modest of Broadway orchestras and bands—is appropriate for a genre of music that is "overwhelmingly electronic." They also criticize Green for not acknowledging that Helen Park, who co-wrote the musical's music and lyrics with Max Vernon, is "the first ever Asian woman composer on Broadway."
"On behalf of our talented and dedicated cast, crew, and creative team we urge you to acknowledge and apologize for the offensive language and racist implications in Mr. Green's review. By calling this out, we hope to challenge the Times, your writers and readers, and ourselves as well, to think critically about the language we use and to be every mindful of bias, unconscious and otherwise," closes the letter.
Read Forbes and Parnes' full letter below:
Dear Mr. Sulzberger and Ms. Herrington,
We are the producers of the recently opened Broadway musical, KPOP, and we are writing to ask that you issue an apology to the cast and creators of our show for the insensitive and, frankly, offensive review written by Jesse Green.
To be clear, we respect Mr. Green's right to be critical of the show. What we are asking you to address is the cultural insensitivity, underlying ignorance of and distaste for K-pop as a genre, and what comes across as casual racism in his review. That this would be the case in The New York Times is, frankly, astonishing.
Starting with the headline, "(too) cute," Mr. Green‘s choice of words to critique a work created primarily by API artists plays to harmful stereotypes and the historic infantilization of Asian people in media, immediately devaluing and diminishing them. Using "squint-inducing" to describe the work of a Korean lighting designer, whatever the author's intent, is a particularly egregious example.
Beyond specific words, Mr. Green's view that if "you don't understand Korean... (you) will have a harder time enjoying this show" is simply not borne out by the audience reaction he himself witnessed and as demonstrated in several of the comments now appended to the review. In fact, only a small fraction of the dialogue is in Korean, and the meaning is generally comprehensible in the specific context, which surely he knows. The comment smacks of a dog whistle. Is a Broadway show valid only if it is centered on and catering exclusively to a white, English-speaking audience?
Mr. Green's ignorance of and distaste for K-pop as a genre leads to the odd and, again, dismissive and diminishing comment that there are "only three instrumentalists." K-pop music is an overwhelmingly electronic music that takes effort and talent to produce. The score is at one with the genre and brings a new sonic vocabulary to Broadway. Not to mention, the person who produced it is the first ever Asian woman composer on Broadway, and yet Mr. Green offers no acknowledgement of that. Nor, by the way, does he acknowledge that there are 18 API artists making their Broadway debuts.
In fact, Mr. Green does not comment on any of the individual performances at all, almost as if the performers are nameless and faceless. What does that imply? Instead, he characterizes the performance style collectively as "aggressive mimicry"—another ill-chosen, racially insensitive, and ultimately ignorant phrase. Four of the cast members are actual K-pop idols in Korea. They are "mimicking" nothing. To suggest as much denies their lived experience, their professional expertise, and their very individuality.
Mr. Green criticizes the "mostly electronic arrangements" when that is the K-pop genre; he criticizes the "minutely detailed choreography" when that is a hallmark of K-pop; he implicitly criticizes the costume design that embodies the K-pop style. That he doesn't like these elements or this genre is his prerogative as a critic, but he appears to deny their very legitimacy as part of a Broadway musical, an implicit assertion of traditional white cultural supremacy.
The job of theatre critics is to dissect, analyze, and ultimately judge a work. We also contend that they have a responsibility to meet a show on its own terms and to be informed enough to know what that even means. Above all, in these troubled times, they have an obligation to do so with cultural sensitivity and absolutely without the casual racist tropes Mr. Green, wittingly or not, perpetuates.
On behalf of our talented and dedicated cast, crew, and creative team we urge you to acknowledge and apologize for the offensive language and racist implications in Mr. Green's review.
By calling this out, we hope to challenge the Times, your writers and readers, and ourselves as well, to think critically about the language we use and to be ever mindful of bias, unconscious and otherwise.
Tim Forbes and Joey Parnes