This may not look like much, but it actually means a lot to me. This is one of my costumes for The Realistic Joneses at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota.
It started with a graphic t-shirt that the costume designer picked up at a thrift store. It was army green with a picture of a bicycle and some katakana writing underneath. But most of our set is also green, so the costume designer and director decided to look for a shirt in a different color. Something in a red or maroon. And, since they were already going to make a change, according to the costume designer, the director asked, “can we make it a Filipino shirt?” The next day, the costume designer came into our dressing room with a few designs on a website pulled up on his laptop. They could have, just as easily, gone back to the thrift store and found the right color and size. They could have saved money instead of ordering a newly printed shirt online. But they made a choice, albeit a simple one, but a choice that acknowledges and honors my culture, and I’m grateful for that.
In my career I’ve played my fair share of Asian characters. And while I continue to believe in the importance of roles that are written by and for artists of Asian descent, I especially appreciate the rare opportunities when I get to play roles that make no mention of my race; roles that reinforce the notion that my face is an American face, that my experience is an American experience. As Asian American representation on stage and screen has been a topic of much discussion over the last few years, I feel strongly that it’s important to challenge audiences to see us in a strictly American context. Not foreign, or even foreign-born immigrants, but as Americans whose ethnicity has been on North American soil since 1587.
Good plays that have specific roles for Asian Americans, or Filipino Americans, are already pretty rare in the grand scheme of things. But here’s something even more rare: To have a director and costume designer make a choice to acknowledge your heritage even when it’s not called for in the script. There are plenty of plays out there that make no mention of race or ethnicity, but more often than not, people casting those shows make the easier (perhaps lazier) choice to cast white actors, furthering this notion that whiteness is “normal” and other ethnicities are varying deviations from the norm. When I’m onstage, my culture usually exists in a binary; it’s either essential to the story or completely nonexistent. So to know that my culture is not ignored in the world of this play is an example of a true commitment to diversity. Not only am I the first person of color to play John Jones in The Realistic Joneses (fact checkers, please advise!), but in our production the character is Filipino American, too.
Too often, well meaning people say things like, “I don’t see color,” or “I don’t see your race,” or “we’re all just humans…” and the only thing I can think is that if you’re not seeing my culture, you’re not seeing some essential things about my life and my experience. Also, I’d be less inclined to cook for you, so it’s you who’ll be missing out, not me.
I’m a brown-skinned, straight identified, cis-male. I don’t know what it’s like to come out to a family member, close friend, or anyone else whose opinion I value or respect. I have absolutely no idea what it is like to walk through life as a member of the LGBT community. But every June, I’m reminded of the moments in my life where I was told that I was not allowed to love the person I love, to date the person I want to date, to show affection toward someone in public because someone else thought it was icky. I’m reminded of the moments in my life when my affection toward someone else was met with a stream of microaggressions, intimidation, and, yes (though to a lesser degree), violence.
Loving v. Virginia was passed in 1967, making interracial marriage a choice that one could make in all 50 states. But let’s be real: the Supreme Court does not have the power to change minds, hearts, and attitudes. Especially when those attitudes are deeply rooted from one’s childhood, one’s religion, one’s deeply held values. When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, that didn’t mean that things were instantly awesome for black people. When President Roosevelt suspended Exec. Order 9066 in 1944, people didn’t welcome Japanese Americans back into their communities with open arms after years of internment. Next year, it will be 50 years since Loving v. Virginia, and while it’s gotten better, it’s still not great.
I’ve watched self-proclaimed liberal/progressive white parents squirm in their seats at the dinner table. It’s easy to hold socially liberal views until a brown boy who wants to date your daughter is standing at your door or looking at you from across the dinner table. I’ve heard Asian immigrant parents invoke the unwritten hierarchy of Asian cultures in which their culture of origin is always the best. I even learned how to listen for the Vietnamese words for “The Filipino” because that’s how they referred to me. And with the advent of dating apps, I’ve seen the reports that show that Asian men are the least desirable men in online dating. Grindr and others have a well documented trend of people putting “No Asians” in their profiles.
I identify myself as an advocate for equal rights. A friend explained to me that one can’t call one’s self an ally. You can advocate for something, and members of a particular community can call you an ally. So I’ll just be over here advocating my face off. If I can use my straight-cis-privilege to get people to listen and hopefully understand that’s what I’ll do. Because no one should be told that their love is less than someone else’s.
The reason I love Pride is that it’s a great example that openness and acceptance can be a wonderful thing. Every year, the LGBT community holds space for people to be their truest selves; to create safer spaces for people, like me, who might bear a few scars from past attempts at love. Pride asks nothing but full commitment to yourself. It’s an act of bravery in a world that wants to shove people back into the closet, or build walls around their daughters and sons to keep them from knowing and possibly loving someone who might be a little bit different from them.
So with that I say, You Do You, whatever that might be. And I’ll be over here ready to high-five you for it. Happy Pride!
I’ve had prophetic dreams as far back as I can remember; nothing major or particularly life-saving, usually waking down the street or being in a room and getting that intense deja vu feeling that reminds me I’ve dreamt about that moment. They usually help me feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be. But lately I’ve been having revisionist dreams.
Last night took me back to a friend’s birthday party where my X showed up with her boyfriend (now husband). It didn’t help that in real life, the person with whom my X cheated on me was already at the same party, but the sight of my X playing with my goddaughter made that godfathery-protective-reflex kick in, and I nearly got physically violent, which, if you know me well, is very much out of character. Rather than make a scene, I left without saying a word, except to my friends to let them know I was leaving.
But in last night’s dream, I was able to pull my X aside, and say, “Stay the f*ck away from my goddaughter.” Again, nothing huge, and perhaps not as classy a move as my real life choice. Just a moment where I wish that in real life I had honored my feelings rather than swallow them.
2016 has, so far, been a year in which I seem to keep being sent the message to advocate for myself rather than rolling over or quietly leaving the party. My very Minnesotan and very Filipino upbringing tells me to just get along, be nice, other people are more important; that people are watching and I’m a representative of my family, my community, my race. But when I ask myself how that’s been working out for me, I’m torn. So I’m gonna try something else and see what happens.
I don’t know if this is of any value to anyone out there in the webs of inter, but as I was reminded in this morning’s yoga class, sometimes sharing your goals with other people helps you to stay on track. So here it is, summed up by Lin-Manuel Miranda:
“I’d rather be divisive than indecisive. Drop the niceties.” -Hamilton
Also, if I don’t co-sign, stay the f*ck away from my goddaughter.
Dating these days is an act of faith.
Whether you’re looking for the one, or one of the ones, you will eventually be picking yourself up off the mat, dusting yourself off, and heading right back out into the fray, simultaneously wondering what the friggin’ point of all this is.
But you have to hope that you’ll someday have chemistry with someone out there, and that they’ll be cool enough to be able to be rounded up to a one.
And sometimes, you take a moment to pause, look around, and you say to yourself, “That guy? Seriously? THAT GUY has someone in his life who actually likes things about him? Really?”
And other times you walk away from something, and with a shrug of the shoulders, you say, “Well, at least I got a good story out of it.”
For me, the creme de la creme of you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up nuclear relationship disaster stories came a few years ago, when my then-girlfriend snuck off during a joint bachelor/bachelorette party, where I was, to hook up with someone else in the wedding party. Oh, not just someone else, she hooked up with the woman I was partnered with in the wedding party. The woman I would have to escort down the aisle on the day my friends got married. How did I find out? Well, when they came back to the hotel suite where the party was, my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend leaned in to kiss me, and I detected a hint, a soupçon of eau de vagin. The kicker was finding out that in the weeks following, she had joined Match.com while she was begging me to go to couples counseling, to try to work things out.
The really disappointing part of the story is that this story will forever be associated with my friends’ wedding; That every year around my friends’ anniversary, I’m reminded of this. Their happy day will always be connected to one of my saddest.
Well, at least I got a good story out of it.
But I got to wondering: Does her own assholery even cross her mind? While I’m experiencing an albeit mild form of PTSD on an annual basis, does this even register for her? Is this the relationship version of history being written by the victors?
I wish I could bask in the glory of being well rid of her, and celebrate the Neo-esque bullet-dodge of the situation, but I still feel that sinking feeling every year. And while I can’t count on her being remorseful, I hope she is.
I also hope that she gets a papercut while making margaritas. With nothing but citrus and salt around.
And a lifetime of mediocre sex.
And I wish that something happens at her wedding that puts an asterisk on it. Something that she is forced to remember every year on a day that was supposed to have nothing but good memories.
But if I had my druthers, I just wouldn’t want to have this story. Because this is the kind of story that casts a shadow over every possible good memory of her and the relationship. I actually struggle to think of anything good about the time we were together. Just the spectacular, guns-blazing end to it all.
People have criticized me for telling this story, because it casts her in a bad light, and I inevitably come off as bitter. There are only a few people in the world that change the temperature of a room for me when they walk in; people who make me feel like the Highlander, and she’s one of them. And truth be told, I’ve always left certain details out of this story, and this is no exception. Whether it’s regarding her sexual identity or the people involved. But I’ve resolved that it’s no longer my responsibility to protect people from themselves. My commitment is to honesty. When it all comes crashing down, say what you will about me, but at least I’m someone who would never do what she did. And she’s the one who has to live with that.
“If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” – Anne Lamott
Marriage Equality for Interracial Couples was made fully legal in the US in 1967. When I started to date in the 1990s, I was actually surprised to see how many parents had a problem with me dating their daughters, nearly 30 years after that Supreme Court ruling making anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.
I come from a largely conservative family (we’re talking GWB & Bachmann voters), many of whom are in interracial marriages, and have biracial children. And while we don’t talk politics at family gatherings, we all know that I’m the bleeding-heart lefty artist in the family just as they are the religious righties, fiscal and social conservatives in the family. Most of the people who have married into my family are white, so despite their brand of conservatism, they are enjoying the rights to be married that were fought for by the progressives of the 60s, while endorsing candidates who seek to limit those rights for the LGBT community. Of course, the LGBT community and communities of color have had different struggles, but let’s try on some of the arguments against Interracial Marriage and see if they still fit:
The bible condemns it (Genesis 1:27-28, 28:1, Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 7:2-3, 22:9, 23:2, Mark 10:6-7, Jeremiah 13:23, Acts 17:24-26)
It will ruin America
The children! Think about the children!
Members of my family didn’t seem to have a problem with Interracial Dating as long as the person they were dating was white. I was told that I should, “marry a white girl and purify the race.” Yup. Someone actually said that to my face. In high school, the first time I dated a girl who was black, my cousins told me, “don’t let my mom see a picture of her. She’ll freak out.” And now that Aunt has daughters- and sons-in-law that are white, not to mention biracial grandchildren.
One day, in the heat of one of those arguments about who I was dating or who I should be dating (which was really nobody else’s business), I finally said to one of the elders in my family, “You know that’s how people see YOU, right? Some of the girls I’ve dated have parents who say those same things about you and me because we’re darker than they are.” I know that members of my family suffer from the well-documented Conservative Empathy Gap, that they can’t understand what it’s like to live in an America where they wouldn’t be allowed to marry the person they love; We are fortunate enough to have experienced an America where interracial marriage was legal. Those members of my family don’t consider that today the LGBT community is fighting for the freedom to love whomever they want, and marry whomever they want; the same rights that were not afforded to our community until 1967. I honestly wonder how my family would have felt hearing people talk about their relationships/marriages in the late ’60s.
Interracial marriage has been legal for 48 years, and it’s not like the Court ruled and it’s been all parties and drinks with tiny umbrellas since then. The women I’ve dated have sometimes had discrimination focused on them simply because they were seen holding my hand. And I’m not talking about the South, where people imagine all the racism exists, but here in the north. Sure, it might not be the same as people whose lives were threatened for dating outside their race, but people saying racist things can really affect one’s sense of personal safety. And now that Marriage Equality for the LGBT community is the law of the land, this doesn’t mean “the fight is over,” no matter how many articles this week seemed to suggest that it is.
But it does get better. It’s gotten better since 1967, and it’s gotten better since the 90s. It will continue to get better for the LGBT community, now that the anti-gay bigots don’t have the government co-signing their bigotry.
In the last few days, I’ve watched fellow people of color live out George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Citing the “sin” of homosexuality, bible quotes, and their love of Jesus to justify their opposition to Marriage Equality.
As a straight identified guy, I know this is not my fight. I don’t have skin in this particular game. But as a person of color, I choose to honor those who endured hostility and discrimination because of whom they choose to love, and who, despite all that, continued pushing forward for the rights I now enjoy. And if my experience in the dating world has taught me anything, it’s that the fight isn’t over just because Marriage Equality is made legal. There’s more work to do.
For all our communities.
Pastor Niemöller’s famous poem “First They Came…” ends with the phrase,
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. That is why I’m an ally.
I’ve been walking around like a zombie these last few days. Scratch that. I’ve been walking around like I’ve just survived the zombie apocalypse. The difference is that zombies aren’t afraid, and I am. Watching the video of the pool party in McKinney, TX, I’m struck with this debilitating feeling that there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can do to appear equal, harmless, worthy of the benefit of the doubt. And the things I do reflect on not just my family, but on my community, and on everyone who looks like me and shares the same or similar cultural identity.
So I don’t want to do anything.
I don’t want to leave my apartment, because to me, everyone else is a threat. Anyone can decide that I’m “a thug,” “up to no good,” or “suspicious,” and that could literally and figuratively be the end of things. And there’s nothing I can do about that.
When I was in high school, I reacted to this feeling a lot differently. I stopped buying clothes at Dejaiz & Merry-Go-Round, and started shopping at places like Structure and the Gap. Something in the deep recesses of my subconscious saw this as a risk reducing strategy; if only I dressed like white people, maybe people will treat me better. And today, I notice how often people call me “Sir” when I’m business casual versus the “buddy,” “man,” “dude” of my jeans-wearing alter-ego.
There’s nothing I could do when a cop decided to pull me over for driving my parents’ car in the suburbs or when the neighbors called the cops on me because they saw someone “suspicious” in our yard. There’s nothing I could do in high school when I was called into the Principal’s office when a white kid that I didn’t even know brought a gun to school. There’s nothing I can do when the families of women I have dated refused to call me by my name or cautioned their daughters about having to “deal with” potentially having brown children. And there’s nothing I can do now, when people in authority positions decide that I am a threat, that I’m dangerous, that I’m not deserving of their full respect, that I’m not worthy of the same rights afforded to other, lighter, people. There’s nothing I can do, and even fewer things I can do when the people who perceive me as a threat can hide behind a badge and a gun.
I’ve always known the rules are different if you’re darker than a brown paper bag, and maybe that’s why I always tried to do the right thing, be a positive image of a brown man, to speak out against injustices in the hopes of making the world better for the younger people in my community, and for my future kids. Sometimes it does feel like pushing a boulder uphill, but I’m happy to do it if it means that the next kid in line who looks like me has less prejudice and discrimination to deal with.
When I was in China for my study abroad, it was the first time in my life that I felt like I didn’t stick out. The first time that my behavior wasn’t being scrutinized, which, as you can imagine, was a very freeing feeling. One night, we happened to go to a disco that, as it turns out, was a gangster hangout. The lights came on, and a large group of Chinese police came in, blocking the exits and looking suspiciously among the crowd of party-goers. A bunch of people in my study abroad group, being all white except me, decided it was time to leave.
I grabbed a friend, and said, “Can you just please stay here until the cops leave?”
“They’re guarding the door. I don’t think they’ll know I’m American if I try to leave.” I had been mistaken for the group’s Chinese translator enough times to know this was true.
Another person in my group chimed in, “Aw, man. You’re American. Let’s just go.” And he and a few others just bounced.
I watched the cops step aside as this group of white people walked out of the club. Luckily, a few of my friends decided to stay with me. They understood why I was afraid.
That’s all I’m asking of anyone right now. Try to see white privilege. Try to see that all I’m asking for is to be given the benefit of the doubt. Try to understand why incidents like these cut so deeply (maybe even much deeper than you realize). Try to imagine how and why incidents like the pool party in McKinney make me so intensely afraid. And then just sit with me.
I’m sure I’ll be back to pushing the boulder of up the hill again soon. Because one day, I’m going to make it over the apex, and I’ll get to watch in amazement as this boulder rolls down the other side. If you want the world to be a better place, you have to live with that hope. But sometimes, and far too often, that boulder rolls back and crushes you on the way back down, and you have to take a second to walk it off. But I know I’ll have to get back to the work of dealing with this damn boulder. Because the other choice is accepting that shit like this happens and will continue to happen, and just being cool with that. And I, for one, want to be able to look my kids in their beautiful brown faces one day and tell them I did something about it.
The other day, through the miracle of social media, I had one of those moments when you realize that a lot of people who are not you are all getting married. Specifically, people who are not as cool, more insecure, bigger assholes, historically shitty to their partners, and let’s be honest, not as good looking as me. They get to have someone to go to dinner with? They get to know that someone out there besides their mom loves them? They get an in-house Netflix-watching-cuddle-buddy?
And then I realized:
I’m glad I’m not in the wrong relationship.
I’m glad I’m not driven by fear to do what everybody else seems to be doing.
I’m glad I’m not settling.
In 4th grade, I was convinced that I was going to marry the girl I had a crush on, Kate Selden. So I’ve known that I wanted to get married since I was 9 years old. And yet, that desire to be made into an Honest Man isn’t accompanied by a ticking sound; I know I want to find “the one,” or “one of the ones,” before referring to her as the ol’ ball & chain.
Somewhere out there, walking the earth like Caine in Kung Fu (or, the Incredible Hulk, if that’s your thing), is the woman who I’ll eventually end up with. Maybe she’s someplace here in the cities, maybe she’s eating a burger, maybe we’ve crossed paths in an airport somewhere. I wonder if she’s wondering what I’m doing right now.
And if she is, someone let her know: I’m hanging with my one and a half year old niece (who has the hiccups right now) and writing on my blog.
There’s something strangely ironic when a group of people containing no visible minorities jump up and down over being unfairly prejudged based on something race-related. But that seems to be what has happened to the cast of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at Minneapolis Musical Theatre. Full disclosure: I have a couple of friends in the production, and a few more that I would consider acquaintances. These are perfectly fine people, but I have to take issue with the way they’ve reacted on social media to an open letter, penned by yet another friend and fellow playwright, Rhiana Yazzie.
I’m all for supporting my friends and their work. That said, this post wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t been subjected to repeated suggestions, assertions on social media (demands, really) that one must “form your own opinions” or “make up your own mind.” And I have to admit that one of the few reasons I’m even taking the time to write this is that the gauntlet was thrown down repeatedly and so vigorously by members of the cast. So I saw the show, and I have formed an opinion about it. And since the digital ink that’s been used to discredit Rhiana Yazzie and defend MMT’s production, comes from the same barrel the rest of the internet uses, I figured I’d write about it.
I like to cook. And any decent cook worth their salt (see what I did there?) will tell you that you can create a great menu, but if the ingredients are crap, there isn’t much you can do. Even if you have some good ingredients, the crappy ingredients can spoil a dish. And that’s ultimately what happened to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The script is lazy at best, and that’s a pretty essential ingredient.
One defense that I’ve seen in the cast member echo chamber is that Andrew Jackson isn’t portrayed as a hero in the play. Sure, he’s written to be pouty, bratty, and entitled, but we get that in the first 10 minutes of the show and once that’s established we just keep seeing the same thing over and over. Stuff happens to him and around him, and he remains pouty, bratty, and entitled, obviously baffled at the choices others around him are making. He may be portrayed as a charming bad boy manchild, but as a main character, he doesn’t take us on a journey, he doesn’t really change. But MMT’s mission is to produce “works of musical theatre never before – or very rarely – seen by Twin Cities audiences,” so you can assume that sometimes the reason that these works are not being produced is because they’re not particularly good.
I also have to question the decision to change what many, not just Rhiana Yazzie, have deemed to be offensive, disparaging depictions of the Native American community. The central argument that several cast members have made on social media (coupled with the aforementioned forming of our own opinions), is that this production has changed some of the lines in an attempt to be more respectful of Native Americans. While in the same digital breath, explain that the intent of this play is to satirize & distort history. Unfortunately for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, satire needs to be funny. One way to achieve this humor is to be completely over the top, cross the line into the absurd so that there’s no question that it is, in fact, satire. We see that today with SNL at its best, on the Daily Show, and the Colbert Report. We even saw it in the 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival with “Shelly Bachberg Presents…” This is the essence of comedy. This is the role of comedians through history. The court jester was the only person who could openly question the king or queen, and the only thing that kept the jester’s head from rolling was comedy. The choice to make Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson less-offensive waters down the already-not-so-great satire, and leaves the audience unsure if something is meant to be over the top or realistic, and quite honestly, made some moments in the play confusing. The internet has supplied us with Poe’s Law, which states that without a blatant display of humor, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism. Where Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson fails was clearly apparent the night I saw the show. The audience wasn’t laughing.
Personally, I’m not a fan of shock-humor. And unfortunately for me, much of the comedy in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is rooted in “how many times can I say ‘fuck’ until somebody laughs?” There’s even a section on teabagging that made me wonder if they were just going to keep repeating the joke until somebody laughed.
To quote comedy writer Carol Leifer from Aisha Tyler’s Girl on Guy Podcast, “An idea should be funny… I think that’s also a respect for the audience kind of thing. I mean, I’ve been on shows where, and this is where I can tell a comic from a ‘writer’ writer, you know when you do a live taping for a sitcom and a joke doesn’t work, and I’ve been on shows where writers will be like, ‘you know, let’s keep it, it’s a funny joke even though they didn’t get it’… and any [comic] will be like, ‘They’re the last word. They didn’t like it, they didn’t get it for whatever reason, so let’s come up with some other choices.'”
Going back to the cast members on social media, this speaks directly to the idea of Intent vs. Impact, that frankly I feel several cast members on social media have misunderstood. What Rhiana is talking about is impact on herself and her community. No one, from what I’ve read, has talked about the intent of the actors or producers. What has happened is that cast members and their sympathizers have assumed that Rhiana’s open letter is an indictment of their intent, when in actuality it is a woman writing about the impact on her community through her own cultural lens. Yet, some members of the cast have insinuated that they are being victimized, their production is being disparaged, or worse, they are being called racists, simply because someone is speaking from their own standpoint about the impact of a lazy-at-best script on their community.
As the cast members took the stage to start the show, there’s a moment where the cast walks out into the aisles of the house and engages with the audience. One of my friends in the cast pointed at me from the aisle and, with a smile on his face, said, “You better laugh.” This was odd to me. Was I supposed to laugh, or is the show supposed to be funny? From my standpoint, both as a performer and as an audience member, the audience’s role is simple: be honest. They have no other responsibility than that. If something is delightful, be honest. If something is funny, be honest. If something is disturbing, be honest. If something is sad, be honest. Honesty is the only role of the audience. And unfortunately, there was an honest member of the audience sitting somewhere near me, and during a particularly quiet moment in the show, she presumably turned to someone she was with and said, “I’m bored,” at least loud enough for me to hear a few seats away. That, I found funny.
It’s clear, again via social media, that the script changes were intentional. But if this were an issue that was actually discussed at length in the rehearsal room, I would think the response from members of the cast to Rhiana’s letter might sound more like, “we talked about that in rehearsal, and we agree, so this is the action we’ve taken…” Unfortunately, the defensiveness, indignation, and contempt with which I have seen cast members respond tells me that they were taken aback by Rhiana’s criticism, and leads me to wonder if there actually was a substantive discussion in the rehearsal room regarding the documented criticism of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson from the Native American community, something that has existed 4 years prior to Rhiana Yazzie’s open letter.
In my career, I realized early on that there would be times where I was going to be asked to do certain things that I didn’t believe in. And I have participated in projects that, frankly, I’m not proud of. I’m guided by the following speech from Yankee Dawg You Die by Philip Kan Gotanda:
“I figure once I get there I can change it. I can sit down with the producers and writers and explain the situation. Look if I don’t take it, then what happens? Some other jerk takes it and plays it like some goddamn geek… And even if they don’t change it, they’ll at least know how we feel and next time, maybe next time… And in that sense. In a small way. It’s a victory.”
What people might not see on the surface, is that I’ve had those difficult conversations with directors, producers, and artistic directors. And sometimes I felt like I won, sometimes I felt like I lost. Either way, I’ve always felt that it’s important to have those discussions with people who are empowered to create change. I also recognize that there have been projects where my role in the cast is to blunt the response of critics, especially those who want to say a production is offensive or racist. My involvement is sometimes construed, correctly or incorrectly, as a member of the Asian American artist community co-signing the production on behalf of the community.
And here’s where satire works. When a member of one’s own community is satirizing their own community. When Dave Chappelle does a sketch about African American reparations, or when a character in MMT’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is played “swishy” and effeminate by an openly gay actor (a friend of mine). In this case, one can use their identity not to co-sign, but to make a strong commentary through humor and juxtaposition.
I’ve always aimed for (not always achieved) work that moves people. I’ve always said that I’d rather have people walking out after a show, passionately arguing against what they had just seen on stage, than people turning to their friends, shrugging their shoulders and asking if they want to grab another drink before heading home. Based on how “tired of it…” members of the cast have expressed on social media, it seems as though they, in stereotypical musical theater fashion, would rather have had audiences stroke their egos with applause, and go home.
Well, it happened again. I went to see a show this weekend. A show that starred, was directed, and was produced by friends of mine.
Speaking of Friends, if the TV show Friends taught us anything in the 90s, it’s that New York is not a very diverse place. Luckily, that version of NYC is exactly where this show was set. And even though I like my friends (I also happen to like Friends), I feel compelled to call bullshit on an all-white cast of Stop Kiss. Well, I’ll be honest, it’s mostly because of this:
Didja catch it? No? Well, then, here:
They decided to honor exactly half of the playwright’s notes regarding the play. There was, in fact, no intermission. What they failed to do is honor the playwright’s wishes for an ethnically diverse cast. What we have here is a play in which none of the characters are related to one another, set in New York City, and yet (somewhat miraculously), every person who happens to be involved in this story, including a cop, a bartender, and a neighbor, and a nurse, is white.
It’s one thing to set a play in New York City. It’s another thing altogether for there to be an explicit note from the playwright reminding the production staff that there is more than one race of people in New York City. I’d like to think that a note like this wouldn’t be necessary. Anyone who’s been to New York, or even seen pictures of a New York City street, should be able to attest to the fact that people of color live and work there. And yet, the playwright clearly felt that this was worth mentioning. Personally, I think that’s a sign of the kind of bias that’s so prevalent in the industry. Unless the race of a character is a plot point in the show, most producers default to white actors simply because white people are regarded as neutral or universal. It’s either laziness or it’s ignorance. Either way, it’s not good.
I know these people. And I would be absolutely comfortable using the terms “activist” and “social justice” in describing them. In this regard, I’d note that most of their activism centers around issues of gender and LGBT equality, but I wouldn’t say they’re indifferent to issues of race. I would, however, say that they dropped the ball on this one. It was a opportunity to be inclusive of a larger audience, not only along the LGBT themes of the play, but to also demonstrate ethnic diversity onstage and within the LGBT community. Unfortunately, and despite the playwright’s best efforts, it was a missed opportunity.
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