Normalize the Rainbow

by Kimiye Corwin

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Normalize the Rainbow

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

Diversity & Inclusion:--Mixed Race/Culture Theatre

JACQUELINE LAWTON: In your work as a theatre artist, do you self-identify closer to one race/culture over another? If so, why do you think that is? If not, how are you able to live in both worlds?

KIMIYE CORWIN: I am half Japanese (my mom is Japanese American, born and raised in Hawaii) and half Caucasian (my dad is a mix of Irish, German, and Dutch).  I look more Asian then Caucasian, so therefore, the industry would probably categorize me as Asian. I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut and Texas, and had mostly white friends. I had a very Eurocentric education, I learned French (not Japanese) in school, took ballet (not karate), and read books not by Haruki Murakami but by E.B. White, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, and John Steinbeck (one of my favorite authors).  My interaction with my mom’s side of the family and my Japanese roots was limited to family visits to Hawaii once a year until those visits stopped when I was about 13 years old.  My Japanese American relatives are pretty “Americanized” in Hawaii.

All of this is to say that I identify more with being a Caucasian American.  In my MFA acting program, I learned from works by mostly American and European playwrights. I grew to love Tennessee Williams and can only dream of ever being hired to play a character in one of his plays.  As a professional actor, I have so far performed a few Shakespearean leading roles and two Asian American characters at different regional theaters. I am not good at doing Asian dialects, nor do I feel comfortable playing roles that require them. I am much more proficient in British and Southern dialects.

Much like President Obama has said about his own ethnicity, I have difficulty feeling like I belong 100% in either the Asian American world or the Caucasian American world.

On the inside, I identify completely with an American (typically Causcasian) experience, but I am very aware that the world — particularly the world of casting — sees me as Asian and must go through greater lengths to cast me in roles that have been traditionally played by Caucasians.

JL: As image makers and creators of narrative, theatre artists are in a position to define, influence and change what it means to be of mixed race in America. How do you feel the mixed race/culture experience has been presented in the American Theatre so far? (Have you experienced plays that are enlightening? Damaging? Or is there a complete absence of stories?)

KC: In most plays that I have seen or read, whenever there are a number of actors of color on stage, most of the time, the play is explicitly about race. It is rare when I see a play in which a character just happens to be Asian American or African American or Whatever American. In plays with multiple actors of color, ethnicity then becomes the focus of the play. In many cases, it’s as if there is some difficulty accepting that diverse casting is a fair representation of the world as we see it on New York City streets.

As far as mixed race plays, the fact that I cannot think of any plays that deal with the topic of mixed race is dismaying to me. Ok, I guess Ragtime?  Or Showboat?  But I have not seen any contemporary plays dealing with mixed race.  At least nothing in the prominent theaters of New York City.

JL: Do we need theatre organizations devoted to producing work by and about the mixed raced experience? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?

KC: I think that there would be great value in seeing plays dealing with the topic of being mixed race.  There are a lot of people who would relate to those stories and would want to experience them.

I also value casting roles that have been historically played by Caucasian actors with actors of color — and not having it be about race.  I am strongly in favor of normalizing actors of color on stage in plays that are about human experiences that have little to do with race or culture.  Theaters tend to cast that way only with Shakespeare.  Why do plays like Proof by David Auburn or Completeness by Itamar Moses have to be cast 100% Caucasian?  There are too many interracial couples and adopted children of different races in America to say that it would be odd to put people of different colors on stage together and say they are a family.

In some sense, defining plays as “about race” or “about the mixed-race experience” also robs mixed race actors of their essential identity as Americans living right now. Actors of all colors belong in all types of plays. In an inclusive theater, we wouldn’t need separate literatures for each group.

JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies who are interested in creating opportunities that reflect the experience/challenge perceptions of mixed race people in America?

KC: I think it would be smart, innovative and a great selling point if a theater would make it their mission to cast a rainbow of people in as many of their shows as possible.  I am not in favor of doing August Wilson’s Fences or David Henry Hwang’s Golden Child with this idea in mind, but for plays that have nothing to do with the social struggle of a people’s race or a specific region in the Far East, why not make the effort to see as many different cultures and colors on stage, which would represent an America that is as diverse as it truly is?  There are so many theater companies in NYC, and no one is making this their mission.  If a theater company were to do this, it would get acclaim AND people in the seats.

To my knowledge, there is no theater company in New York City that really wants to do this; some have openly talked about it, but the results are limited. I do see regional theaters making an effort to cast diversely, which is encouraging. Why can’t NYC theaters do the same?

We artists have to keep talking about this.  The newer generation of audience members,  theater subscribers, experienced critics, and passionate board members who want to keep moving forward need to talk about diversity and multicultural casting. Everyone should express his thoughts to the creative entities (artistic directors, playwrights, directors), and let them know that this is something they would like to see.  If theaters could hear that there is a demand for this, then they might do something about it. There’s a good chance that attendance would actually increase.

JL: As an advocate of mixed race theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?

KC: I cannot think of any recent plays that are about the mixed race experience, but I can recommend a play that is multiculturally cast: After by Chad Beckim.  I, personally, need to be attending more readings at places like The Lark or Naked Angels and be more on the lookout for plays that deal with the topic about the mixed race experience.

Kimiye Corwin was born in Stamford, CT and never stayed put for too long while growing up. She’s lived in the Philippines, Houston, TX, Dallas, TX, New Hampshire, San Francisco, Providence, RI, New York City…Now she happily resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, Jesse Liebman.

She began performing at age three, dancing in her living room. In high school she got very serious about ballet and then headed to NYC to major in Dance at the Juilliard School. Her first professional work was dancing with the Jose Limon Dance Company, touring nationally and internationally to venues such as the Kennedy Center in D.C. and dance festivals in Italy and Poland. After five years of touring, performing, and teaching dance, Kimiye decided to dedicate herself to studying acting (“jumping out of the pan and into the fire”, as her mother would say). She started taking classes in NYC and then did a nine-month conservatory at the Actors Center, studying with Jed Diamond as her main acting teacher. It was a life-changing nine months for Kimiye!

But nine months was not enough. She decided to get her MFA in Acting at Brown/Trinity in Providence, RI where she immersed herself in the craft of acting and directing. She experienced the joy of collaboration working and creating theatrical magic with her fellow classmates, new playwrights, and guest directors. After graduating, Kimiye headed back to NYC to see how she could put all her skills together (and is still continuing to do do).

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.