Absence of Representation

by Dominique Brillon

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Absence of Representation

(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.)

TCG Blog Salon
Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc
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?

DOMINIQUE BRILLON: I identify with being both Caucasian and Asian in my work as a theater artist. Both are inextricably part of my past, present, and future.

My parents raised me as a Californian who is of mixed race and mixed culture. I grew up going to Obon festivals every summer, and visiting Japan to see my mother’s relatives. Just last year my parents and I visited northern France, where my father’s ancestors originated. Interestingly enough, these experiences have helped me to embrace my “mix” as being part of my individual identity.

Being multi-ethnic also means that I have grown up with the echoing question of, “So what are you, really?” The guesses vary from, “Hawaiian?” “Maybe a little Brazilian?” “Filipino?” “Sorta Icelandic? Because you look like Bjork.” When I answer that I’m Japanese on my mother’s side, and French/Irish/English on my father’s, reactions vary from disbelief, to vague suspicion, to bemused satisfaction. Often I just say that I’m Hapa.

Add into this mix the fact that I am an actor and you have another facet of how I identify with my ethnicity. As an actor, my work and focus is to further elucidate a story by the portrayal of honest and clear character objectives and tactics in relationship to other characters. In addition to the action, I understand that my physical aesthetic is crucial to my work in this visual medium that is theater.

I have been cast both traditionally and non-traditionally, and this has informed me to perceive my racial identity as something quite liminal. Roles I have played have varied from Rosie Alvarez, to Yente, to the Baker’s Wife. In my past, I have also played a Chinese woman (Afong Moy) and an English man (William Charles Macready).

This liminality has allowed me to play varied parts, but has also inhibited me from playing very “American” or “classical” roles. Which presents a challenge as I exist as an American. Yet I am not ignorant of the fact that I am an identifiable minority, that I do not look fully Caucasian. It has also proven difficult for me when I have tried to type my work in efforts to be marketable in the acting world. More and more I have felt that my physical type is not expectedly and identifiably American in comparison to what mainstream theater portrays such a type to be.  And so I find that I am called in for roles that are “exotic,” “ambiguous,” and “quirky.”

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?)

DB: In most entertainment and literature, I find that the “mixed” experience is represented by means of a conflicted character who doesn’t fit in, is constantly questioned, or is a tool to mediate a single race’s experience. Mixed race characters represent the taboo, the unknown, the results of (gasp!) sexual experimentation. But we’re at such a point in time that (in my opinion) we really shouldn’t be that surprised that someone is of a mixed background.

And where do we see most representation of mixed race? Old-school musicals.

You look at West Side Story where the whole premise is based on the fear of cultures mixing. In Showboat, Julie is ostracized for being of mixed race and for “passing” as Caucasian. In South Pacific, Nellie is horrified to learn that Emile’s children are evidence of his past interracial romance.

This “otherness” quality has also come to stereotype and mainstream the idea that multi-ethnicity is “exotic” and “ambiguous” (two key words often used in character descriptions in AEA casting listings). Both terms imply something that is not fully understood. Neither term is what would commonly be associated with being “all-American.”

I can’t think of any contemporary musical that features characters of mixed race, let alone any popular plays that specifically feature such characters. In reality, there still is an absence of representation. Even on television, featuring “the mixed race story” seems to be a recent phenomenon with the debut of TBS’s Sullivan and Son.

JL: Do we need theatre organizations devoted to producing work by and about the mixed raced experience?

DB: Yes. Such organizations will give exposure to the multi-ethnic narrative that most big name theaters would neither have the time, money, or inclination to do so.

The mixed race community will be allowed to develop its own voice, to tell its story and to share its unique perspective. To provide a forum through artistic excellence that allows this community to realize its uniqueness will help it to develop its identity, no longer torn between multiple races, or viewed as a dilution of one or others, but a representation of “diverse experience” unto itself. But this race identity will not be divisive as some are today, because there will be elements presented that will harmonize the constituent races represented. In order to not become obsolete, American theater must reflect, interpret, and share the stories of this country’s changing demographic. It will inspire more artists to make work and assure them that their stories are worth being told. It will inspire more audience members to pay and to sit in a theater for two hours (or more), of their own free will. Mixed race representation can help to break stereotypes and expectations of visual aesthetic. These stories will help to promote awareness of the mixed race community while bringing other races together with common themes, experiences, and understanding.

America is slowly trying to embrace this reality, but we have a long way to go. Obama is often identified as our first African-American president, not as our first mixed race president. I especially think it’s important to focus on the mixed race experience when, in this day and age, a Cheerios commercial featuring an interracial family can cause an uproar of furious protest. The mixed race reality and presence should not be offensive simply because it exists. It is important for all of America to see such examples of these families existing in love, sorrow, struggle, and hope.

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?

DB: Look at who you are hiring in each of your departments. From Development, to Literary, to Casting, to the Executive Office, to Front of House. The more diverse your company is, the more diverse your choice of work will be. People often tend to support the work that best reflects themes that resonate more personally with themselves. Look at who you allow to tell the story. Look at the writers and directors who are producing works these days. Look at the designers and actors. Who is visually representing the voice of your company?

I wish it wasn’t the case that companies felt they had to fulfill a quota of diversity. While trying to hire many different types of people, I think for the sake of relaying good, quality, emotionally-gripping, intellectually-stimulating works, companies need to hire people who also share the same goals for theater.

Also, why not cast Hamlet as mixed race? Can’t Gertrude be of one race and papa Ghost be of another? I think it could go a long way if play-families were just cast as multi-racial without having to explain their race. They could just be.

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

DB: I would recommend looking into Sarah Rutherford’s, Adult Supervision. It just premiered at London’s Park Theatre this fall and features a cast of four mothers who have interracial families.

Maija Garcia and Armando Batista of Organic Magnetics (based in New York) are currently working on writing I Am New York: Juan Rodriguez. The play aims to bring to life the forgotten history of mixed-race Juan Rodriguez, New York’s first documented immigrant and merchant.

David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, inspired by the infamous Miss Saigon casting scandal of 1990, examines how race is represented and to what end it is the theater’s responsibility to honor the character’s background versus the actor’s background.

A few other non-play resources include NPR’s program called, “The Race Card Project.” Michele Elam, professor at Stanford University, wrote The Souls of Mixed Folk, a fascinating study on the mixed race in this millennium, especially as it is represented in art and literature. In especially recent news, National Geographic ran a cover story on “The Changing Face of America” for its November 2013 issue.

Theaters to look into are both the Public Theater in New York and the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. Both of these companies make it their mission to support and employ artists of different backgrounds and to challenge the normative of theatrical narrative format.

Dominique Brillon is an actor and writer from California. She received her B.A. from UC Berkeley, where she studied English Literature and Theater and Performance Studies, and was the recipient of the Grace Sprague Pillsbury and Josephine Park Pillsbury Award for an Actress of Excellence. She has interned with the Public Theater, currently is a member of the Bats acting company at the Flea Theater, and lives in a pocket of Brooklyn where they have the best egg-on-roll and coffee combo for under $5.

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. jacquelinelawton.com