(L to R) Manna Nichols as Eliza Doolittle and Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater's production of My Fair Lady November 2, 2012-January 6, 2013. Photo by Scott Suchman.

When the curtains open on Arena Stage’s production of My Fair Lady tomorrow, the spotlight will be on a distinctly different leading lady: The role of Eliza Doolittle, the unrefined street hawker who sneaks her way into the elite upper class in turn-of-the-century London, will be played by Chinese-American actress Manna Nichols.

Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith made the casting choice, which is a departure from the white Eliza made famous by Julie Andrews in the original Broadway production and Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film.

But while casting a Chinese-American lead (and James Saito as her father, Alfred Doolittle) could be cynically perceived as a mere hat-tip to multiculturalism, it’s actually reflective of the play’s historical context. The setting is London at the turn of the 20th century, during a time when waves of Chinese immigrants were arriving to work in the port city. “London was very much a melting pot of different cultures,” Nichols says. “In that respect, it was very similar to Manhattan right now.” Though, Eliza’s ethnic background isn’t addressed in the dialogue; Nichols says race isn’t mentioned in Arena’s staging of the classic musical.

This is not the first time Arena Stage has employed “nontraditional casting.” In 1989, it produced Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie with an all-black cast, and in 2010, Smith directed a multiethnic production of Oklahoma! that was revived a year later.

Nichols’ mother is from Hong Kong, and her father is half Native-American and half white. She says she’s been cast in a combination of Asian-specific roles and more race-neutral ones. In 2009, she came to the D.C. area to play the title character in Mulan at Bethesda’s Imagination Stage; last year, she was cast in The King and I at Massachusetts’ North Shore Music Theatre. “As a mixed-race actress, I have done a lot of Asian roles,” she says. “But I have also done Caucasian roles. I audition for anything and everything I think is appropriate for me.”

Though, she is pointed about the double standard that rises to the surface when traditionally white roles are played by minority actors. “No one ever questions the logic or the reality of a group of people singing and tap-dancing in the rain,” she says, “but if a director casts an Asian person in a [typically white] role, people automatically question that choice.”

As for My Fair Lady, plausibility probably won’t be a weak point. Nichols said that once she was cast, she immediately began researching the time period and poring over George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion script, upon which the play is based. Arena’s take will stay true to the story and spirit of the original play, but will incorporate modernized touches—-like steampunky scenery and Alexander McQueen-inspired Edwardian gowns in asymmetrical cuts—-devised to keep audiences engaged.

“It’s still going to be the traditional, beloved My Fair Lady,” says Nichols. “But it’s also going to be a little bit avant-garde. It’s going to take a few risks.”

The play runs Nov. 3 to Jan. 6 at Arena Stage.

Photo by Scott Suchman

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