(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.)
Diversity & Inclusion:--Mixed Race/Culture Theatre
Theatre has always been the fabled “Mirror Up to Nature”. Our art is the intended mirror, wherein we hope to reflect and show the world how we see it. As artists, it is our job to carefully sculpt and mold our individual worlds, and find the connections wherein art meets reality in a way that is beautiful, poignant, or relevant. Another mirror exists, one which we focus very little of our energy towards, simply because it’s carried subconsciously. Our very community stands as a microcosm to the greater society of our areas. While we find that we, as artists, have the closest semblance of control over our various artistic fields (even when it doesn’t seem that way), we also have an incredible amount of control over our community and how we choose to represent it.
The problem posed is “Diversity in Theatre”. It comes to no surprise to anyone that the theatre community is largely made up of white artists. However, thanks to the census information provided by Michael Dove and Forum Theatre, the racial make-up of DC as a district does not line up with the racial make-up of the DC Theatre Community. I understand that we have actors coming in from Maryland and Virginia as well, but, to my personal experience, they are also mostly white. This Brain-Trust is a perfect example of that: 96 ‘members’, 3 are people of colour. Some members are not even people. There are more members that aren’t people than there are people of colour.
At the very base of the problem, the culture of the entire nation is to blame. I would like to point out the idea of ‘role models’. Think for a moment about Famous Hollywood Actors. How many can you name that are White? Black? Hispanic? Asian? Native American? I’m sure you could prattle off any list of white actors. There are even a strong showing of African American actors. However, when I try to think of any prominent Hispanic actors, I can still think up a decent sized list without resorting to IMDB. However, when you think of Asian Actors in Films…try to name one that didn’t get famous through Martial Arts films. I can really only think of John Cho and George Takei, but that’s also because I saw Star Trek very recently. Now tell me the last time an Asian Actor was in a lead role? Ken Jeong in the Hangover? Daniel Dae Kim in Crash? Ken Watanabe in Inception?
I’d make a case for Freida Pinto and Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire, or Sandra Oh in Sideways. That guy from Hawaii Five-O maybe, but he’s not a lead character. There’s James Hong, but he makes his money by being the stereotypical asian. I’ll touch that point later. The remainder of Asian actors you can recall: Zhiyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Jay Chou and many others, are all wrapped up in Martial Arts films.
Steering back to the concept of role models, what does this tell us? Basically, do martial arts or get out of acting. There are very few roles for you. Young white children looking at the film can see people that look like their own kind on television. White people are often protagonists of stories. Almost every movie I’ve seen, recently, has featured a white protagonist (Male or Female). Hell. AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER, which takes place in what is decidedly ASIA, had a WHITE AVATAR and his sidekicks played by some white girl and the guy who was a southern vampire in Twilight. We don’t get role models other than Asian gangsters, silly accountants, doctors, and martial artists. What exactly does this tell young people who might even consider acting? It’s not overt, but the subtle overtones still resonate. It takes a tenacious person of colour to break into the white world of acting.
Even then, it’s either get rid of the Asian parts of you and whitewash yourself, or play up your stereotypical side, like in the case of James Hong. If you want to get work as an actor, you’d better be a stereotype, or you’d better act white. Then, even if you act white, you will still never be treated like a white actor will.
How is that not incredibly discouraging? That’s just film.
Take a moment and consider the shows recently in DC. Over the last five or so years, how many Asian-American or Asian Actors have been in Lead Roles? Kafka on the Shore? Anime Momotaro? Theatre J’s upcoming “Yellowface”? I should hope so. Those are all Asian-specific shows. Unless you include Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, who probably does not identify as “Asian-American”, due to the term being pointed primarily at the Far and South East Asian population. What does that say to young, potential actors who are coming in to DC to see the professional productions? The message is the same: “This is not the field for you.”
In terms of role-models, there are almost none. Young people look to the big stars, and I believe that they inherently associate with their race. Who was more popular in 1995. Michael Jordan or Morgan Freeman? We Asian-Americans don’t even have role-models to look for in sports in America. Our most famous people are artists of other disciplines. Yo-Yo Ma. Vanessa Mae. Kyung Wa Chung. Classical Musicians. The stereotype that Asians are good at Piano or Violin is because we have the most role models in that field. It’s an ever perpetuating cycle.
Now kindly look at ticket pricing. Many of the young African American, Latino and Asian population tend to come from lower-income househoulds. The ticket price for a show at Arena is what? “Tickets starting at $40-$80″. It’s outrageous, even for us adults who don’t have families. How many young people of colour can afford that on their own, especially when they can see a movie for $12 (or $15). How many families can afford to drop at minimum $80 on a show? I could see THREE MOVIES for the price of ONE PLAY.
I certainly never attended them when I was a child. Theatre would never have even been on my radar if someone hadn’t convinced me to come audition for “Pippin” my freshman year of High School. I was up for the lead, but lost to a white guy. It wasn’t because I was Asian, it was because I was a freshman. Charlemagne was Indian, the Mother Iranian, and the Brother was from Afghanistan; race was not an issue back in High School. However, I had to wonder if that was because it was a smaller casting pool?
Even entering college, I was putting it aside to focus on violin. Through sheer dumb luck, I wound up back in theatre. It was luck, and then my stubbornness to continue in a field that was not favourable to people of my ethnicity, that brought me to where I am today.
* * *
I deal with ‘racial stereotype’ more often than I care to admit. For instance, speaking to my mother on the phone in our native language. While doing so, ignorant teenagers walk by, and one says something to the effect of: “Ching Ching Chong Chong”. And his friends laugh. I’ve learned to simply ignore it, but that does nothing to indicate to these children that what they’ve done is wrong. If I get offended and say something, they’ve gotten a rise out of me. Their response is to laugh and keep walking. Either way, I have not won. The power is inexorably stripped from me in the situation.
I encounter people, on a daily basis, due to working in a restaurant, that are genuinely surprised that I can speak English clearly and coherently. I practice martial arts. Baguazhang, to be precise. I was accused, by a white friend, of ‘pandering to whitey’ by doing something so stereotypical. This deeply upset me, and my response was a very calm: “I’m sorry, but it’s not your place to tell me how to behave. Martial arts is a proud part of my culture and my childhood that I carry with me. Who are you to tell me what to do with my own culture?”
I encounter people who ask me “Where are you from?” Which constantly throws me off. What does it matter where I’m from? I’m American. But because I’m not white or black, and don’t have a thick accent, I’m some sort of mystery. I understand that people who ask that of me do so because their curiosity is piqued and are trying to understand…but a part of me is still quite annoyed that despite my attempts to ‘blend in’ to American Culture are for naught. People are still asking me “Where I’m from, originally.” To be honest, I was born in Arlington, so doesn’t that mean I’m originally from the US, just like the people asking? American Citizenship was mine upon birth, I’m inherently American, but there is no American in my blood. This makes me an ‘anomaly’, and a ‘curiosity’. Any white person can answer “I’m American”, and people don’t ask “Where you’re from, originally”.
Now, as an artist of colour, I feel a different sense of powerlessness.
I’m not saying that it is expected that I fall into stereotypes, but there’s a certain disconnect with the way things ‘need to be performed’ in order to read to an audience. With a predominantly white audience, things need to be clear to their ‘White’ style of thinking. You can bring Abraham Lincoln on stage, and as long as he has the beard and stovepipe hat, he can behave in any way he wants. You bring in Chairman Mao, like in Longacre-Lea’s Goldfish Thinking, and he has to have a thick Chinese accent, and be overly militaristic in his movements, and very ‘asian’ in his thinking, otherwise an audience won’t ‘get’ that he’s Chairman Mao. “Since the predominantly white audiences understand stereotypes, it is ‘easiest’ for them to relate to the character.” While this may not be the overt thinking, I’m quite convinced that it’s subconscious. It’s happened enough to prove to me that the way of thinking needs to change.
So, for some reason, in Theatre we’re convinced that we need to cast the people who are most appropriate for the role. We have people thinking that: The audience will never believe that Gertrude is Black and Prince Hamlet is Hispanic when King Hamlet’s Ghost is Asian. They’ll never believe that Hispanic Prince Hamlet would even go for a White Ophelia.
But they do. They’re more than happy to suspend their disbelief more often than not. If they don’t, then, in my opinion, they’re allowing their own sense of subtle racism to be paraded as artistic opinion.
I did a production of “The Game of Love and Chance”. I played an old man, and no matter how you try to disguise me, I still have an ‘ethnic look’. My children were both as white as you can get. To my knowledge, no one batted an eyelash. Especially in DC, we have a rather progressive audience that has already been trained and conditioned to believe. They will not be protesting a theatre over racial choices, like the people who protested the Cheerios commercial with a mixed-race family. No, from what I’ve seen, they’re quite understanding and quite kind.
I understand that changing race around can influence the sort of political statement or artistic statement you’re trying to make…but sometimes that’s much more interesting. I tend to prefer it to the typical “White people having white problems” sort of plays. It goes back to association; if I can see that some of my issues are being dealt with on the stage, then I have role models, and I have characters to aspire to, whose lessons mirror my own, not just in the universal level, but on a cultural level and on a personal level.
So the mirror up to nature needs to go. We can’t control nature, society, or any of the things happening around us. We no longer need to reflect that same racial disparity that occurs in the world. Many of you are the leaders of your organizations. Many of you are very influential and respected in the DC Community. The ability to move towards parity for non-whites and for women lies entirely with us. History is made by the people who act; if no one else is doing it, then it is our responsibility to make sure that things begin to change. I don’t foresee an overnight overhaul, of course. All change takes time. Let’s begin slowly, making the changes that we can, and begin to lead by example. Who knows, maybe there’s a chance that society will mirror us for once.
Jon Jon Johnson is a Bisexual Buddhist of mixed descent. He is currently working as a theatre professional as a director, producer and actor. He’s also a violinist of 17 years experience, and is an aspiring playwright. He loves freely and openly, and has recently mastered the art of awkward elevator conversation.