Post image for Owning the Canon

(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.

TUYET THI PHAM: I am an actor and teaching artist.

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

TTP: I am an immigrant. I was born in Vung Tua, Vietnam. My father fought with the Americans and after the fall of Saigon, we lived in a refugee camp until my family immigrated to the United States. I grew up in the Midwest but was definitely raised in a traditional Vietnamese household; which I guess means we spoke Vietnamese at home, retained many of the cultural traditions, and mostly ate Vietnamese food. All the while, I attended public school in what was a very conservative, white town. I have always been aware that I was straddling between two worlds, but I never felt like I was an outsider or didn’t belong. I really had no problems code switching between the two vastly different cultures. In some ways, I have benefited from the understanding and experience of both. So I suppose that Asian American is a pretty accurate description of me.

I feel the same now in my work as an actor. I approach each role the same, whether it is Asian specific or not; I pull from the training I have had as an actor and from my life experiences. However, that being said, I realize that my presence on stage as an Asian female will carry certain connotations with the audience. I can’t control that.

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?

TTP: I suppose I have been lucky that I haven’t really been locked into playing only Asian specific roles. I have had the opportunity to play roles in my career that could have gone to persons of any race. I give the theatres in Washington DC much credit for recognizing that and being open to nontraditional casting. However, I may be in the minority. In speaking with many other Asian actors, many of them don’t feel that is the case and are only called in to audition for Asian specific roles.

As a whole, concerns arise when producers and theatres interpret characters in plays that are not race specific or neutral as “white.” I still think there is less willingness to cast Asians as leads or major characters. Even more concerning is the fact that theatre producers are simply ignorant that Asian actors are even available.

In terms of Asian specific roles, I know that I have lost out on possible employment because I am an equity Asian actor. The Asian characters are often minor or supporting so they are often given to non-equity actors. That might explain why I have not been locked in Asian specific roles. Equity or leading roles are more likely to be non-Asian specific.

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?

TTP: Stories from diverse voices are obviously a benefit to a community. Knowledge and understanding of others and what shapes their values fights fear and hate. But I contend that it can be done at any theatre.

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

TTP: I would like to reframe the question as “what is the state of the Asian American artist in the American theatre?” I think this is the more relevant and succinct question. As an Asian American actor raised on the Western Canon, I wonder if everyone believes that I have as much ownership to the canon. I realize it is fluid and growing, but there are classics that endure, that are retold and produced consistently across the country at all levels of theatre. Would those theatre producers see me as acceptable as these characters in these plays?

I was once told that I was “the other white meat.” I sounded like a white person. I am educated like a white person, and white people like me. The ruling majority no longer saw me as different, and for that, I have traded in my culture and a part of my identity for ultimate acceptance.

The idea of casting a white actor in an Asian role and believing that the Asian community would feel no offense gives credence that some theatre producers no longer believe that Asian Americans experience life any differently than Caucasian Americans do. Maybe that is the price of successful assimilation. But the differences are there even if they reveal themselves in quiet and subtle ways. Asian Americans who work in theatre often play a balancing act between appreciating that many of the experiences do overlap while insisting that differences still remain.

What happened with the casting in The Nightingale brings up very strong emotions for me about whether or not color blind casting works both ways. If a minority actor can play a part that is traditionally played by a white actor, then why can’t a white actor portray a minority character if they have cultural understand and experience? The answer is simple; lack of opportunity. There are simply more roles written for “neutral” aka white actors. So when that argument is presented to an Asian or any other minority actor, it’s like watching someone eating a steak, and he turns to you and asks if he can have a bite of your hot dog.

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

TTP: Let me first state that I have always believed that ANY good theatre serves ALL communities.

That being said, I sincerely believe that if theatres hire people of different creeds and color at every level of the artistic process, they will never have to worry about how to make their theatre more inclusive. It will organically arise.

Tuyet Thi Pham: Washington DC-Baltimore credits include Oshima in Kafka on the Shore at Spooky Action Theatre, Player 1 in Shipwrecked at Everyman Theatre, Penguins, Donuts, and Thievery at Centerstage, Actor 4 in Around the World in 80 Days and Anne Bonney in Treasure Island at Roundhouse Theatre, portrayed Lue Ming In the Heart of America at Rep Stage, Morgause in The Light of Excalibur at The Kennedy Center, Master Teacher in Liang and the Magic Paintbrush and Sky God in Zomo the Rabbit at Imagination Stage, and Linh in An American Daughter and Bloody Mary’s Assistant in South Pacific at Arena Stage. She did the Alaskan Tour of the Vagina Monologues for Perseverance Theatre and was the Allen Lee Hughes Artistic Fellow at the Living Stage Theatre Company. She also portrayed Sylvia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Desdemona in Othello and Thaisa in Pericles, Prince of Tyre at the Nebraska Shakespeare Festival.

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.