(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Asian American Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
CHRISTINE TOY JOHNSON: I am an Actor, Playwright, Librettist, Lyricist, Filmmaker and Advocate for Inclusion in the Arts.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
CTJ: I identify as being Asian American, specifically Chinese American. When I have to fill in the census, because they only offer “Asian”, I check “other” and write in “Chinese American”. When I was younger, I was intent on only being looked at as “American”, but through time, I’ve grown to embrace my cultural heritage as a part of who I am. It doesn’t define me, but it certainly is a large part of who I am and how I’m perceived, which in turn influences how I navigate my way through those perceptions.
Early discrimination in my career led to being inspired to forge a creative response, starting with going after non-traditionally cast roles with a vengeance (in the early 1990’s, when it was hardly ever done), speaking out and highlighting some of the triumphs that ensued, then writing. As a playwright/librettist/lyricist, I am conscious of always either including an Asian American actor in my work or telling an aspect of an Asian American character’s story. It’s very important to me to get Asian American stories out there through as many venues of storytelling as I can.
I made a documentary film (with my husband Bruce Johnson) about Japanese American basketball player Wat Misaka of the 1947 Knicks, the first person of color to play pro-basketball. I’m so proud that this film turned a lot of heads (including the Knicks), as this was 3 years before the first African-American players joined the NBA and previously had been a very under-told story.
Another initiative I’ve been working on is the Asian American Composers and Lyricists Project (presenting works created and sung by Asian American theatre artists), which I founded this year as a response to hearing one too many questions as to whether or not we existed. We had our debut concert on May 19 here in NYC.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
CTJ: I consider myself to be extremely lucky to have been a working Actor for my entire adult life. Certainly some opportunities have come to me because of “who” I am, but also some have come to me in spite of it. The truth is, this industry is so based on how we look, physically – and until we can expand the perception of what Asian American means and looks like and can do – the Asian American community will continue to battle the perpetual foreigner image, and have to beat down the doors that so often keep us from participating in the theatrical portrayal of the American landscape. I have found that beating down these doors can take many forms (advocacy, writing, participating in non-traditionally cast shows, producing my own opportunities, nurturing relationships with artistic staffs/writers/directors of theatres to encourage dialogue about the issues, etc). It’s encouraging that this conversation is happening more and more now, and that there is movement. But it’s slow movement, and very hard won, to be sure.
We must also talk about inclusion in the form of universal access. Of course everyone wants “the best actor” for the part. But how do you know that an Asian American actor isn’t that best actor, if we’re not even let into the audition room to begin with?
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
CTJ: I think there’s room for all of the storytellers in our world and the various venues that we are inspired to create. There definitely is a vital feeling of community that gets nurtured and cultivated in the racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theatres out there. And those theatres create a space for stories to be told that might not be getting told in more “mainstream” commercial theatres – which I believe is absolutely imperative to our growth as both audience and artists. We need to see more windows into cultures we don’t know about and/or that we most identify with – not less. And authenticity brings a unique specificity, which we need more of, as well.
JL: What is the current state of Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
CTJ: There are two parts to this: casting and programming. As for casting, there is a comprehensive report that AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition, of which I am a founding steering committee member) has done on the NYC hiring stats and “yellow face” battles we have been fighting from La Jolla to Chicago to Great Britain. Basically, the numbers are sad (1.5% of all new roles on Broadway over the past 5 years have gone to Asian American actors, with many of the major non-profit Off-Broadway houses showing equally if not worse hiring stats), but as I mentioned earlier, I am very glad that the dialogue is starting to happen. I have been doing advocacy for inclusion in the arts for over 15 years (as part of the elected leadership at AEA, I am co-chair of the union’s Equal Employment Opportunity Committee, sit on various committees with the Broadway League, and am also an officer of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts), and up until AAPAC started collating and releasing these reports, the diversity dialogue has often been limited to being a discussion about African-American actors only. AAPAC is now engaging in conversations with artistic staffs at some great, influential theatres here in NYC, and we hope that the more we can forge relationships with the decision makers in this industry, the more we can collaborate on making the NYC theatre scene more inclusive. We’re surprised at the number of times we have had to make our point against yellow face by posing the question: “What if this were an African-American character? Would you even think about casting it with a non-Black actor?”
As for programming, there has never been an Asian American female playwright produced on Broadway. Ever. With the exception of my brilliant friend and colleague, David Henry Hwang, and the wonderfully talented Rajiv Joseph, there have actually been very few Asian American male playwrights produced on Broadway as well. One of my theories is that many producers seem more interested in hearing “Asian from Asia” stories (more comfortable with keeping us in view as the perpetual foreigner, subconsciously or not) – and the many plays I have read/seen/discussed by the Asian American playwrights out there (and we exist, I assure you) might not be fitting that (again, conscious or sub-conscious) bill. As an interesting companion note, most Asian American actors who are employed on our NYC stages are not non-traditionally cast (there are exceptions, of course), and almost every reading and audition I’ve ever done for a major NYC theatre has been for an Asian character from Asia, not from America. I find this very telling, as to how we continue to be perceived.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
CTJ: The answer, to me, is both in casting and programming. The power of the theatre has always been in its ability to hold a mirror up to society – and as a result, to educate, enlighten and entertain by what we see. And society looks much different from how it’s being portrayed on stage, both as reflected by the actors up there, and by the stories being told. I feel certain that if theatres worked more towards increasing the diversity on their stages, they would see more diversity in their audiences – and we all win with that.
BIO: CHRISTINE TOY JOHNSON is an award winning actor, writer and filmmaker. Highlights include Broadway’s THE MUSIC MAN, GREASE!, and CHU CHEM, Off Broadway’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, PACIFIC OVERTURES, BALANCING ACT, CRANE STORY and FALSETTOLAND, the national tours of CATS, FLOWER DRUM SONG and BOMBAY DREAMS, New York City Opera, Minnesota Opera, and leading roles at the Public Theatre, Williamstown, the Huntington, the Ogunquit Playhouse, the Weston Playhouse, Indiana Rep etc. Nearly 100 television appearances include two years as “Lisa West” on ONE LIFE TO LIVE, SMASH, 666 PARK AVENUE, 30 ROCK, UGLY BETTY, THE BIG C, FRINGE, ROYAL PAINS, CROSSING JORDAN, many episodes of various LAW AND ORDERS, NUNSENSE and NUNSENSE 2.
An anthology of her written work was included in the Library of Congress Asian Pacific American Performing Arts Collection in 2010, and her plays have been developed at The Roundabout Theatre Company, The Barrow Group, Crossroads Theatre, Leviathan Lab, Diverse City Theatre Company, Queens Theatre in the Park, The Weston Playhouse, and Gorilla Rep. She co-directed/executive produced the award-winning documentary feature, TRANSCENDING – THE WAT MISAKA STORY and is currently writing book and lyrics to BARCELONA, with composer/lyricist Jason Ma. Christine is a proud member of AEA, SAG-AFTRA, The Dramatists Guild, The BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop and is the founder of the Asian American Composer and Lyricists Project, presenting works created and sung by Asian American theatre artists.
An avid advocate for inclusion in the arts, she is part of the elected leadership of Actors’ Equity Association (and co-chair of the union’s EEOC), on the board of Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, and a founding member of AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition). Christine was honored by the Japanese American Citizens League for “exemplary leadership and dedication” in 2010, the Asian American Arts Alliance for “outstanding service in the arts” in 2012, and received the 2013 Rosetta LeNoire Award from Actors’ Equity Association for “outstanding artistic contributions to the universality of the human experience in the American theatre”. For details, please visit www.christinetoyjohnson.com.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com