Post image for Towards a Hyphen-Nation

(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–South Asian American Theatre series

JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.

SHISHIR KURUP: I am a playwright, actor, director and songwriter and have been an ensemble member of Cornerstone Theater Company for almost 20 years. I was here near the beginning of the Highways Performance Space era and made a couple of solo pieces that took me to many Universities and theaters around the country. Also was a part of the Great Leap roster of Artists where we would take pieces to the grass roots of the country. In fact I’ve given most of my adult life to the work of making art with communities. I started at LATC back when it was a regional theatre and the primary rival to the Mark Taper Forum. Ironically, in terms of what we’re exploring in this online conference, I took over and ran the Asian American Theatre Project there after Dom Magwili the first Director left over a controversy with the Miss Saigon debacle back in 1990 based on something the Managing Director, Diane White, said in support of Cameron Macintosh’s decision to use a white actor to play the newly changed role of an Asian character to an Eurasian character. After the original LATC went under, The Asian American Theatre Project tried to keep the building alive by forming a coalition with other entities to form The Artist’s Collective (TAC). We made productions at the LATC for about two years, and then, with little to no support from Cultural Affairs, TAC disbanded at LATC and went off to other places. Soon after I joined Cornerstone Theater Company. I’m also an actor and do a lot of television to support my theater habit. Recently however due to a large Mellon Grant our company got I have been given a commission with a healthy stipend. Although the closest thing I have to an identity from the last 20 years of making theater throughout this city is that of being a Cornerstone veteran and  an Angeleno.

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

SK: I call myself an Indo-African-American because I was born in India, emigrated when I was 5 to Kenya and migrated again to the US when I was 12. So my formative years were in East Africa and the most profound aspect of my life experience was influenced by Africa. Although as I mentioned I feel my true identity has become that of an Angeleno. And that has myriad meanings. And of course I use the hyphenation as a disruption in the conversations and consciousness about race and identity. There are many Indian identities, many African identities and many North American ones as well. And so self-identification is an important part of how we ought to be moving forward. I am a big believer in perpetually hyphenating myself, (Indo-African-American-actor-writer-director-musician-composer-father-son-teacher-activist-humanist and so on) so that easy categorization is constantly challenged. But this is a country that rewards specialization and eschews Jack-of-all-trades hyphenation. We are not a Hypen-Nation even though to be a human is to be naturally hyphenated. But we value and reward that which can be isolated, codified and collated.

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?

SK: I am quite aware that the visual is both political and problematic (in that I can’t escape what I look like) with exoticism having the benefits and liabilities of a double-edged sword. I know that exoticism allows access but also creates a sense of not truly belonging and that the validity of that designation can readily be revoked by the powers-that-be as long as those self-same powers continue to maintain control over the agenda. In other words self-selecting identity is a personal and often liminal space; a kind of phantasm, or, the ever popular chimera. It’s the ability to declare who we are and what home is for us that feels crucial but with those declarations we have to be keenly aware whose consent is required for us to name ourselves as such.  And that of course seems like a contradiction in terms. So home is a big part of how I define how I feel, in terms of designation. And home can be wherever I stand. But lest I delude myself there are always sweeping forces that will threaten what that sense of security is and can be. Because real power lies in the ability to bestow and the countermanding power to revoke. So the immigrant citizen (which is a major designation) always lives with that revocation in mind and thus never actually stands on solid earth. All this to say, ultimately, that we don’t own the means of our own self-determination or production (which has always been a radical idea) or have a lot of say in how regional theatres operate. In most cities, theatre and opera and the symphony are marks of a cultured society and often also like taking Chinese herbs. It’s not how you’d like to spend the time but it’s good for you. When I was at the NNPN convening at the Arena Stage Theatre I suggested in the heavily live-blogged and tweeted proceedings that the regional theaters had been going about it all wrong. Rather than being a destination for Broadway plays and musicals to have a places to tour to, their function should instead be on focusing on stories of the region. Support great playwrights, actors, director and authors of the region to create fresh and exciting work that represents the stories of that region that the LORT company produced in its tenure and that if we did that it would end up also being a holder and compendium of the stories of that region of that particular time. And what a beautiful tapestry of life and history would that be? And if it were truly practiced by telling those stories via the prism of the various cultures that exist in that time and through the lens of those specific communities, we’d have innovative and hybridized art making and rich documentation of life at that time of the early 21st century. Also inviting the artists of the various communities into these regional theaters and make it their home and let them tell the tales via the mix of cultural references will help to radicalize the art form and ideally create a conversation between the art makers and their constituency.

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?

SK: This is a hard one because on the one hand there has been a benefit to the specific theaters across the United States. But the challenge has always been about recognizing that the goal wasn’t to continue that specificity in perpetuity. In terms of artists of a certain community having agency over telling their own story, this is central to what I believe should be the model. That doesn’t mean we can’t have debate and have hard conversations about aesthetics, in fact it is crucial that we do. And that leads to better conversations and more adventurous art making. And that has to be the root of what we’re trying to achieve. Creative ways to talk about the issues of the day (timely) and the exploration of the human condition (timeless). That said, we now have specific theaters that have a long history in the communities they serve but still only cater to specific work. Perhaps that is good, like having many kinds of restaurants and the choice for people to go off to whatever their tastes seem to be drawing them to on their various outings. I, however, am a big fan of fusion. And even on an atomic level the metaphors abound. When we split the atom we have the capacity to blow ourselves and everything we know out of the water. But when we fuse we make new possibilities of identity, of self evaluation, of evolving creativity and most importantly bridging the various Americas that exist at this time. So while the specific theaters were a direct response to the ghettoization of art, what is the next phase of these theaters to respond to the ever increasing multiplicity and complication this country has become in terms of identity and choosing that identity? When an American looks at herself in the mirror does she continue to see Iowa or is the image of the North American reflected back now a high cheek boned, almond eyed, black haired, olive skinned being–the more accurate representation of who we’re becoming. And that being has brimming within herself so many cultures that just thinking of race, ethnicity, gender and experience as fixed would be missing the mark monumentally. Specificity in art making is often a universalizing force. Specificity is demarcating the focus of a theatre to mainly gender, identity or race can often prove to be marginalizing and self segregating and at the very least pigeonholes itself and thus limits itself and runs counter to making the best art possible; ironically, less than what is best for the constituency your agenda is serving.

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

It seems like the health and wealth of the state rests on the shoulders of Rajiv Joseph who has made it to Broadway, the yardstick for all that means success. But I’d also say that it rests on the shoulders of Aditi Kapil who is about to go into a trilogy of plays being produced by Mixed Blood, Lina Patel who in the last 6 years has had an incredible output of plays written and is slowly getting the recognition she deserves. Also there seems to be movement between the disciplines. South Asian America doesn’t seem to feel limited by the canvas and slips between live theatre, movie theater (Ravi Kapoor’s short films, Bann Roy’s Award winning short, Shonali Bose’s feature Amu,  Bedabrata Pain’s Chittgong; dance theater Sheetal Gandhi’s sublime work Bahu, Beti, Biwi (Daughter-in Law, Daughter, Wife talk about fusion) and Shyamala Moorty and Sandra Chatterjee’s Post Natyam collective to Janaki Ranpura’s marrionette and puppet theatrics.

If I may be so bold or arrogant to add my work to this list I’d say that by doing the work I have with Cornerstone these past 20 years I have made work outside of specific South Asian contexts but they have always been informed by my Indian-African and American sensibilities. They are not any one of the perspectives but all three and none. My play Merchant on Venice, according to Chicago Tribune head critic Chris Jones, helped raise Silk Road Rising’s visibility, and that play is a fairly accurate amalgam of what I’ve been referring to as the all three and none theory.

If all these artistic entities could or would come together (and sometimes they do) to work intra-disciplinarily, the work would be illuminating. South Asians are purveyors of Masala in that it’s a rich mix of spices and as such the work that can come out of it will have many flavors and subtleties and thus hard to pigeonhole and market other than as exotic and Bollywood-y but really what it can reveal is the new face, mind, thinking and temperature of the 21st Century U.S., as well as what the future might look and sound like.

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

Stop being afraid of plays with many, Black, Latino, South Asian characters, as they have been with my play Merchant and many other “ethnic” plays (but that could be endemic to the American Theatre problem in terms of larger cast play–anything beyond a 4-hander.) Be curious about the cultures that surround the theatre and be humble enough to know that you may not know what is brewing under the percolation of all these immigrant communities that you need to be connected to; and that these communities can be the new life blood of your theater. Leave your Palaces on the Hills and go down and hang with those folk and see where and how the many stories that abound in these neighborhood can be supported to make it to a stage near you. We don’t fear the people whose stories we know.

Theatres need to dedicate a decent portion of their funding to build stronger outreach into those communities and commission plays for South Asian and other writers of color with a genuine intention to produce the play in the near future. I’m proud of the fact that of the nearly hundred plays that Cornerstone has commissioned only one has not been produced. Basically they need to take chances and go out on a limb in supporting more artists and to create a pipeline of plays that would allow people to see and hear stories that might make their experience as a sentient being in the early years of the new century more sublime. Like when you first got good Indian takeout or your favorite Thai place, and how that opened up your perspective and heightened the possibilities.

ShishirKurupSHISHIR KURUP (Writer, Director, Actor, Composer) Born in Bombay, India and raised in Mombasa, Kenya, Shishir holds an MFA in acting from The Conservatory at University of California at San Diego. He has studied the Suzuki actor training method in Japan with the internationally acclaimed Tadashi Suzuki and was a student of Anne Bogart’s. Shishir wrote and directed Ghurba, Cornerstone’s Arab residency production, as part of the 1993 Los Angeles Festival. His Merchant on Venice, premiered at Silk Road Rising to rave reviews and an extended run. He is one of only six people nationally to win the A.S.K. TIME grant for body of theater work; Princess Grace Fellow, two time Herb Alpert nominee and was one of the three finalists for the Alan Schneider Directing Award from TCG. Wrote the Medea songs for Bill Rauch and Tracy Young’s production of MedeaMacbethCinderella at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012. Extensive film and television credits include: Bones, Cold Case, Lost, Sleeper Cell, Alias, NYPD Blue, Monk, Surface, Heroes… His most profound and instructive creation is his daughter Tala.

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.