by Ming Peiffer
Nearly four years ago, as a fresh face on New York’s cultural and theatrical scene, I attended the
first meeting of the Asian American Performer’s Action Coalition at Fordham University with over 500 people, Asians and non-Asians, to discuss the severe lack of representation in both quantity and quality of stage roles available to actors and performers of Asian descent.
At the time, I was relatively green with regards to my understanding and ability to discuss the
many troubling realities concerning the diversity onstage. However, I was young and passionate and increasingly hopeful about the clear strides I was witnessing being made towards a more inclusive theater.
After all, how could we fill a venue this large and with so many diverse voices if the issue at
hand was not one of extreme importance? Why would so many artists spend an evening discussing race representation over precious art-making unless real change seemed possible?
Immersed in the eclectic buzz of impassioned monologues streaming from all directions, I
remember thinking: Boy! How amazing is this!? That we are FINALLY having a conversation? That things are CHANGING? What an exciting time to be diverse! To be an artist! To be Asian!
Boy, oh boy….Was I superbly mistaken.
I thought of umpteen various ways of beginning this article.
I thought about being funny.
I thought about trying to come off well-read, eloquent, intelligent.
I thought about falling back on my usual sarcasm (a preferred method of discussing race) exploiting the inherent racism in The Mikado with (what I imagine to be) a palatable yet scythe-like wit.
I thought about writing really ridiculous image laden sentences (like the many strewn throughout) in an attempt to lyrically brainwash you into understanding everything that I was saying was legit.
But sometime, halfway through the 18th rearranging of the same topic sentence, I finally gave up.
I literally said F**K IT.
I threw my fingers in the air and unleashed a wide range of expletives. An activity which, for me, has now trumped engaging in any sort of meaningful conversation with like-minded colleagues or friends.
Because honestly…I don’t know what to say anymore that hasn’t been said.
And I no longer derive comfort from the dozens of private conversations I’ve had about race with those who “get it”, when I know that these conversations should be made public.
As a current MFA Playwriting candidate at Columbia University, I am consistently floored by the
amount of times I have been either actively or passively silenced with regards to discussing the issue of race and representation, and often question my decision about entering this program with such naivete, actually entering thinking I would learn something.
In retrospect, I guess I did learn something.
I learned that since attending that AAPAC meeting 4 years ago, there has been no significant change for Asians.
At the drop of a hat, I am able rattle off scrolls-worths of well-known names and prestigious venues and award-winning ensembles that have mounted productions where I felt morally compelled to leave the performance venue (far from the show’s ending point) due to the amount of racism being enacted on the few bodies onstage that attempted to reflect a genuine Asian experience.
I add the moral element, because I am usually the only Asian person in the audience (and I’m only half) and often one of the few Women Of Color, and I don’t feel okay sitting in an audience comprised of a majority of (if not all) White people, throwing their heads back with the ease of Pez dispensers, cackling out sugar-laden racist laughs, without showing my physical discomfort. (Since my lack of laughter and exaggerated
sighing seems to be doing the opposite of the trick).
But before we begin a séance and start conjuring up nightmare worthy ghosts of racist theatre past…Let’s focus on the ever evolved present day New York stage (!) where plays like The Mikado can still be performed with an almost entirely White cast, complete with actors donning Yellow face, at a prestigious university that prides itself on educating and invigorating the city it supposedly reflects.
Where I have to spend my Monday night drafting this article, the content of which I feel should be
down right obvious as unacceptable, only to learn that I must go (again!) through the slug slow
trudge of racial discussions to explain why [INSERT OUTDATED ASIAN MUSICAL HERE] is
offensive. Is incorrect. Is racist*.
*Notice I use the word “Racist” here, and not “problematic”. (Or the P-word as one of my more
hilarious classmates at Columbia dubbed it.)
I use the word RACIST, because I’m done p**sy-footing around this.
I am done having conversations with my professors in private when my classmates are the ones who should be hearing this.
I am done with attending shows simply so I can justify my frustrations with this industry and this
country, by going and seeing shows where the few people of color are killed onstage as a means of moving towards an act break, or a joke is made at the expense of the colored persons identity, and being like “See! I was right! These people are all racist!”
I am done monitoring my own language when others are allowed to spit racial slurs out like coins, (ex.the use of “coolie”* in The Mikado) under the false guise of “satire” or “exploiting” or “revealing” the mental patterns that preclude racist acts.
*(Also, “Coolie” is a derogatory name for Chinese people…At least get your slurs straight!)
I don’t need you to “show me” racism. I get enough of that real representation in my daily life.
I don’t need to watch you indulge your White Guilt in an attempt to display your “awareness” of it.
I really don’t need to watch an entire play, set in a fictitious Japan (when there is an infinitely more
interesting REAL Japan to be explored and unearthed in our social consciousness), that exploits an entire race of people simply to highlight, or “make fun” of the hilarious hilariousness of those silly Brits!
After a friend shared my post regarding The Mikado, an unknown Facebook user commented on the post and his (a White guy’s) response was:
“Yellow face is THE WHOLE POINT of The Mikado. Call it dumb, call it racist, but if you’re going to tolerate the show AT ALL it makes no sense to demand an Asian cast. It’s almost literally a minstrel show (the hero sings a “Wandr’ing Minstrel I”) [where the] British are lampooning the British while playing childish dress-up–they knew basically nothing about Japan at the time.
Personally I think the show should be retired for a while.”
I disagree with two points in this comment. One, I personally believe that the only way this show could possibly be staged without (with less) offense, is to follow in the footsteps of Mu Performing Arts’ production directed by Rick Shiomi, who cast the show with all Asians. (Though I still would find that staging problematic due to the sheer backwardness of the entire script.)
Secondly, I don’t think the show should be retired for awhile. I think it should be retired indefinitely.
The saddest part about all of this is that this is the second article I’ve written in the recent past where I’ve put my own creative writing aside to criticize the programming of some of the most well-respected theatrical venues in New York’s theatre mecca. As an Asian artist, who strives to be seen as an artist, as a person, and yes, also at times, as Asian, I cannot shake the feeling that this is yet another all-nighter.
I’ve spent fruitlessly arranging my thoughts in attempt that someone (anyone) would hear them.
I don’t know what to do anymore.
At that AAPAC meeting years ago, one moment in particular continues to shine out brighter than the rest of the memories my mind recorded that night.
Halfway through the evening, a question was asked:
What do we need to do to gain recognition in theatre?
A very notable White person (Artistic Director of one of the most well-respected New York theaters) serving on the Asian American panel (see? It just gets more and more hilarious) offered the fact that years ago, African Americans, in response to Black face, used to picket outside the theaters holding signs and protesting. This comment was met with a certain amount of skepticism in the form of chuckles rippling throughout the audience. Not at the idea of African Americans protesting, but at the idea that the same method must be used here, today, in this society where the term “post-race” has been used to death in an attempt to describe it. I remember thinking: Surely we are beyond this.
But my sad, slow realization has brought me to this juncture. To this very sentence where I don’t know where to go or what keys to press. Let alone fathom the composition of a satisfying end to this rant.
Because it is now painfully obvious that we are so far from being “beyond this”. Whatever “this”
means. Be it Racism. Inequality. Misogyny. Homophobia, Class Discrimination. Or any of the social mores imbedded in our culture that we have only yet to begin dismantling.
We are so far from moving beyond this, that I don’t know what this means anymore. Evidenced when a top-notch education center like NYU-Skirball, that should know better, doesn’t share my definition of what is an obviously flagrant display of Racism. Or worse, that culture centers like these don’t view the donning of Yellow face, regardless of a play’s content, as the inherently racist practice that it is and has been.
I don’t know what to do. So instead, I ask you, Dear Reader:
How can I be seen as real? As idiosyncratic? As a person? Instead of being asked to feel content
towards a White artist’s attempt at portraying me, or those like me, with the lazy additions of
stereotypical costume, stylized giggles, a certain application of eye make-up, and maybe an accent plus some broken English thrown in for laughs.
How can I, a biracial female artist of Asian descent, finally be considered human?
For more thoughts on this issue please read the think pieces below: