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(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.

ANGEL DESAI: I’m an actor in theater, TV, commercials and film with an MFA from NYU’s Graduate Acting Program.  I’m also a singer/musician; I play the violin and piano and have done some arranging and composing.  And I’ve started to write non-musical stuff, too.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

AD: I identify as Asian American when asked. :)  It really only started happening in grad school; I think I must’ve thought of myself as white growing up, if only because most of the people I saw around me were white.  Aside from the occasional racist or ignorant comment, I didn’t think about how my ethnicity or appearance was perceived by others until I was forced to – and that’s because of how I would end up getting slotted for auditions.

My father is Indian and my mother is Filipina, but I was born in this country, so I’m either 1st generation or 2nd, depending on who you ask.  Since I didn’t think of myself as “Asian American” until I was older, and hadn’t had an acting class until my senior year of college, I didn’t realize until grad school that some of the things I’d been encouraged to be as a child – obedient, a rule follower, “perfect” etc., which are often associated with Asian parenting – were actually things standing in the way of my growth as an actor.

However, now that I think I’ve come a long way since school, I feel that the richness of having three different cultures influencing my worldview, and therefore my choices, makes me singular.  I can travel fluently between the worlds of Western and Asian American writing, which is a wonderful thing. The times I’m afforded the opportunity to play someone of a race/ethnicity/heritage close to my own, it feels like both an honor and a responsibility, in a great way.  Mostly, though, in the work, I don’t think about it unless it’s specific to the character.  I mostly think about the background of the character, and try to build her using the tools I learned within the artistic rubric under which I was taught, which is Western theater.

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?

AD:  That’s another thing entirely.  On the one hand, yes – there have been roles for which my ethnicity was appropriate that I’m so happy I got to play, and I hope there will be many more.  On the other…  I was trained in Shakespeare, Chekov, Williams, Stoppard, Odets, Kushner, Coward, Shaw.  I grew up idolizing Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Judi Dench.  I wanted to BE Princess Leia for most of my childhood.  But the only author of those mentioned that I’ve even auditioned for in New York is Shakespeare.  Oh right – there was one audition for Chekov here, and that was over a decade ago.  Of the Shakespearean parts I’ve played in the city, two were tiny, but one was magnificent – Ariel in “The Tempest”.  However, it was originally cast with an African American actress, actually a friend of mine, who had to drop out.  On the first day of rehearsal, I realized that all of the “island creatures” had been cast with actors of dark skin color, wearing the same costumes with the same skin tattoos, even though it’s abundantly clear in the script that Ariel and Caliban are two totally different beings.  In that case I think I wasn’t cast initially, at least partly, because I wasn’t dark enough.  Not that that’s the only reason the other actress was cast, but looking at the concept realistically, it clearly factored into the creative team’s thinking.  And I felt I was now there as part of some tired idea of post-colonial commentary that’s so overdone with that play that it puts me to SLEEP.

 There are so many roles I would love to play, and that I’m right for – Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, some of Tom Stoppard’s characters – that I’ve never been considered for in New York.  For that matter, I’ve only auditioned once for Juliet, and that was a regional production.  And when I see the final productions, with not an Asian actor among them (except, perhaps one or two in small ensemble parts), I see at least one of the reasons why.  Actors become better the more they get a chance to exercise their craft in the great roles – and I’m tired of being denied my chance to learn on the job.

In modern plays, where the ethnicity/race of a character isn’t specified, the default race that gets cast is usually Caucasian – most of the time we aren’t even seen for the audition.  If the creative teams decide they want someone of color, they usually cast someone African American.  On top of that, most of the new plays getting produced on the major Off-Broadway and Broadway stages are about white families and their friends, so Asian Americans barely factor into that equation.

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?

AD:  When in conversation with other non-Asian American people, in response to the points of view I’ve mentioned, so many of them say, “Why not produce your own work?”  The question is overwhelmingly infuriating.  I grit my teeth and want to say, “For one thing, why is that the only option anyone seems to be able to think of?  Why don’t you expand your minds?  For another thing, we DO.  It’s what we’ve BEEN doing for DECADES.  And apparently, it’s as ineffective as we feared, because clearly you have never bothered to SEE our work, or else you wouldn’t ask the goddamned question.”  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m absolutely all for homes where Asian artists’ work can thrive and be celebrated.  There is no validity or specificity without authenticity, and if no one can tell one’s personal stories better than the person living them, then the Asian American community – and its art – is enriched and empowered by mutual collaboration and support.

The problem is, what ends up happening is a kind of segregation:  most of the time, the only place an Asian American writer can get their work produced is within our community’s theaters, because the supposedly non-race-specific Off Broadway theaters seem only to be interested in producing one Asian American writer every couple of years.  And to date, David Henry Hwang is the only Asian American playwright I can think of whose straight plays have been produced on Broadway.  Don’t get me wrong, David’s a talented guy :) – I just know he’s not the only one.  There is one Asian musical produced on Broadway every 5 -7 years, but most of those were written at least 30 years ago, and all of them tell stories of Asians across the water; NONE to date are about regular old Asian American citizens grown and raised here in the States, with plot lines that don’t have to do with being immigrants or being foreign.  And no regular old musical has yet to cast lots of Asian American performers just because it’s great to represent the multi-cultural rainbow that is New York.  55 years after Flower Drum Song, we’re still (mostly) either the foreigners or the tokens.  Fifty.  Five.  Years.  Nations have been formed in less time than that.

JL: What is the current state of Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)

AD:  Well, on the plus side, there are larger numbers of Asian American theater artists being given voice than ever before, and the voices are increasingly diverse.  More cultures, histories and perspectives are being captured by this art form, and more companies exist to support them, than ever before.

On the other hand, well – see above re: segregation and lack of Asian American plays getting produced by most theaters.  Also, there seems to be no slowdown to the number of white producing teams who find it perfectly acceptable to cast actors of any other race but Asian (and usually it ends up being Caucasian) to play Asian characters.  Our community takes two steps forward, only to be forced fourteen steps back to where the rest of the larger theatrical community stands.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

AD: What I would LOVE, more than anything, is for there not to be a need for “Asian American” theater.  I would love for American theater to just be American theater. For it to automatically include and reflect the growing diversity of this country, instead of begrudgingly “allow” us slots in which we feel compelled to squeeze our one shot a year at getting represented and heard.   I want there to be Asian American theater if we want it, but not because we need it.

What can they do? Theaters can triple their efforts to find more Asian American artists – more writers to produce (especially those writing about American characters and not simply about our ancestors), more directors (to direct plays by writers of all races), more actors to play not only Asian American characters, but characters in any play whose race is not specified.  That great line from The Iron Lady about thought leading to action, action leading to behavior, behavior leading to habit, and habit leading to character, is exactly how it must begin.  I know it isn’t germane to most Caucasian folks to think outside their racial box – I get it, I really do.  But habits begin with a thought.  And if enough of us keep planting the thought, eventually it will take root, and grow, and blossom within more and more people of all races, in all aspects of theater.

If theaters resist because they think Asian stories and faces are not “relevant” to their audiences, because their audiences are mostly white, we can remind them of these two things: 1) there are literally thousands of audience members out there that actually do show up when shows about their specific cultural heritage or whose casts have many actors with faces like their own are produced – and there are hard numbers to prove it, so producers are missing out on money-making opportunities by NOT expanding their programming choices, and 2) this country’s population will no longer be majority Caucasian by the year 2043.  That’s not very far away.  And there are a lot more colors in the American rainbow besides white and black.  If American theater desires to be relevant, to grow and keep its audience, and to represent the people who actually live here, it needs to start changing its thoughts – and everything that follows.

Angel Desai: Broadway: Company (2006 Tony® Award, Best Revival). Off-Broadway includes: The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale (CSC), Manic Flight Reaction and The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (Playwrights Horizons), The Architecture of Loss (NYTW), The Antigone Project and Gum (Women’s Project), This End Up: A User’s Manual for Lovers of Asians (Ma-Yi), Stop Kiss (u/s) and Henry VIII (Public/NYSF), and Angelique (MCC). Regional includes: Company (Cincinnati Playhouse), the world premieres of Riceboy (Yale Repertory) and An Infinite Ache (Long Wharf), Uncle Vanya (Arena Stage), Phaedra Backwards and A Christmas Carol (McCarter), The Tempest (Playmakers Repertory), Sundance Festival, NY Stage and Film, O’Neill Theater Center, Cape Cod Theater Project. 52nd Street Project volunteer. TV credits include recurring roles on “Damages”, “The Event”, “Kings”, “Dollhouse”, and all three “Law and Order”s; guest spots on “Being Mary Jane” (upcoming), “Do No Harm”, “The Good Wife”, “The Eleventh Hour” others. Film: The Clique, The War Within, Heights, Black Knight, Robot Stories. MFA in Acting from NYU.

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.

  • Angel Desai

    I have to say, reading my own interview… it lacks a sense of gratitude I have for the roles I have been fortunate to play, and doesn’t take into account how much luckier I am than some actors who’ve been working very hard for years and haven’t had my opportunities, regardless of their race. I’m very grateful for what I’ve been able to do in my career, just FYI… 12 months of unemployment (except for two 1-day jobs and readings), plus a regular flow of incidents where Asian characters are being played by Caucasian actors around the country in the past year, will skew one’s perspective a bit. :-)