Name me any prominent Asian American playwright out there today, and I will quickly be able to point out their “identity” play. We have at least one. For Asian American artists, our ethnicity still bleeds into our work sooner or later. Even Young Jean Lee, an auteur who explodes the boundaries of theater, dealt heavily with Korean American identity in The Songs of Dragons Flying to Heaven.
Yet, as artists, we don’t want to be “that talented Asian American writer” or “that great Asian American actor.” We want to be great artists. Period. Despite an inherent expectation that all my plays will relate to being Asian American in some way, as if it’s the most worthwhile aspect of my identity, I simply could not sustain a whole career doing this. As a playwright, I just don’t have it inside of me. I don’t like to repeat projects, and I cannot speak for Asian Americans as a whole. But erasing the impact of our identity on our work seems impossible, and what’s more, it seems undesirable to some extent.
As someone who writes plays that frequently call for ethnic-specific actors, I’ve often asked myself what responsibility I have to the Asian American acting community. The answer is probably close to none. I’m not a producer, I’m not a community leader. There’s nothing that says we need to write that seemingly inescapable identity play. And yet, I’m a writer with control over the world that my work lives in.
Kristoffer Diaz embraces this power in his play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. It’s a fantastic play that’s enjoyed a number of productions across the country, but if you want to produce it, you’ll have to find actors of South Asian, African American, and Latino descent first. The play has most likely pushed theaters to go outside their typical pools to find actors who can believably play these roles, and instantly created work for a more diverse acting pool.
While the text and character descriptions are very occasionally ignored (see TheatreWorks’s infamously whitewashed production of The Motherfucker with the Hat), most theaters will honor the playwright’s vision. August Wilson created so many opportunities for African American actors and directors. While his unofficial requirement that major productions be directed by African Americans takes a stronger stance than most, I wish more writers today would be as bold. As writers, we have a responsibility to the artists we want to see in the business. Directors and designers will do their best to fill things in, but the bones of it are forged by us. What kinds of worlds are we presenting to the public and who are we employing? We hold immense power, and I believe writers don’t wield it as often as they should, for fear that their plays will become difficult to produce.
I had the very same fear when I embarked on my very first major play Ching Chong Chinaman. My goal was to write a play about the economic relationship between China and the United States, as seen through the lens of gold farmers (basically workers from developing countries who played video games for wealthy westerners too busy to schlag through early levels of the game themselves). I knew that in order to get it produced anywhere, it needed to have a largely white with and one (maybe two) Asian American actors. By the time I was finishing up the play, however, I realized how wrong I’d been. The play become much more interesting and dangerous to me once the family morphed into Asian Americans, and while rounding up six Asian American actors for certain cities has been tricky, the play has been very generously received.
Sure, writing roles for any actor of “difference” does make it more difficult to cast. In some cases, a less-than-perfect match is all that is available, and I’m sure the play is simply not doable in certain markets, but that’s a perfectly acceptable tradeoff to me. I can’t simply expect there to be Asian American actors out there when I want them if I’m not writing roles that they can play (ethnic-specific or otherwise).
Issues over race are sometimes so fraught that we would rather cast a “blank slate” (read: white actor) than examine how a specific actor might change the text or how it’s received based on their ethnicity. From my perspective, if what the actor looks like changes things, embrace the change. Use who the actors are in compelling ways. Everything about theater is specific. The sets, the costumes, the lighting: it’s all designed for that specific space and those specific actors. Why shouldn’t the actors cast the play in different lights?
Working with Boston’s Company One recently reminded me of our innate tendencies to gravitate towards these “blank slates.” We were casting five young women for my play Hookman. The script specifically calls for one Asian American actress, and naturally, I imagined the remaining four young women as white, despite the fact that nothing in the script really supported this. Company One’s desire to create a diverse world onstage prompted me to check my own narrow assumptions about what a “neutral character” looks like.
So while I can’t dictate who stays in the business and for how long, I recognize my influence on the face of theater. If I want to see someone who looks like me on stage, I need to support that vision. It may seem ludicrous to label casting a diverse world on stage “radical,” but I believe that it’s not done often enough, and part of this rests on the shoulders of playwrights. We have the privilege of committing some of the most radical acts on stage. For me, that means remembering that how I choose to tell a story and who I put on stage is just as important as the story itself.
Lauren Yee is a San Francisco-born playwright whose work includes Ching Chong Chinaman; Crevice; Hookman; in a word; A Man, his Wife, and his Hat; and Samsara. This June, she will complete her MFA at UC San Diego. www.laurenyee.com