I just returned from the Beyond Orientalism panel discussion at Asian Arts Initiative, co-hosted by Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists and InterAct Theatre Company. It’s a timely conversation when South Pacific, The King and I, and Turandot are all on offer in our city this season. With a few notable exceptions, like InterAct’s Caught (2014), there are not many opportunities for Asian-American performers to play roles that speak to their own experience, let alone avoid Turandot's orientalist othering.
But it’s not my place to speak to what it’s like being an Asian-American artist or theatergoer in Philadelphia, there are plenty of people living it who can. I experienced tonight’s events as a white person, and it was embarrassing.
The blame game
After a panel discussion about the challenging role of Asian Americans in our theater community, the floor was opened, and immediately, our city’s white gatekeepers began to speak. I understand how an artistic director at a small theater in Philadelphia, answerable to funders and subscribers and a board, might not feel like they have much power. But these community leaders seemed unable to step outside themselves and see that in the context of Monday night’s discussion, they are in a position of relative privilege.
In tonight’s conversation, I heard white artistic directors blame actors of color for the fact that they are not more visible on our stages. Why? These actors are somehow not tenacious enough, they don’t reach out and make a case for themselves, their resumes are not professional enough. I do not understand how anyone who has a passing familiarity with race in the United States could say these things to a room full of people of color.
I heard a white artistic director actually commandeer the floor to whitesplain to a room full of Asian people that the Asian race is a construct, helpfully pointing out that the Asian experience is varied. What was the purpose of this public musing? To explain why he, himself, did not produce Asian work. To do so would be tokenism.
I heard a white artistic director put the onus on the people of color in the room to provide her with the hard data she would need to be convinced that white audiences could be counted on to turn up for plays featuring Asian stories. She also asked them to understand that because her theater was small, producing a play that might not make the money she needed to pay her staff was too risky. If you aren’t willing to take a risk on behalf of the people who are struggling, why would you make a point of walking into their space, taking the microphone, and telling them so? It’s one thing to wrestle with your complicity. It’s another thing to expect the affected people to publicly let you off the hook.
I heard an Asian woman in the audience who tried to challenge this idea silenced. I watched another sit with her hand up throughout, and never get a chance to speak. Why can’t we, as white people, understand when it is our turn to listen? There is just no excuse for entering a forum that is explicitly about someone else’s experience and demanding answers, asking for absolution, or claiming expertise.
Nobody should participate in a discussion about race without some basic self-awareness around privilege; information is so readily available. If we, as white people want to consider ourselves part of the conversation, then the bare minimum of our responsibility is to make ourselves aware of its context. If you don’t want to do that, if you can’t do the homework, don’t speak. Don’t hold forth. Don’t advise. Don’t ask to be educated and don’t attempt to educate. A forum designed so Asian Americans may express their frustration about the theater community today and their hopes for the future is not the place for us to elbow in and say, “What about me?”
If we don’t make a lot of money in theater, it still doesn’t wipe away the privileges white people enjoy, and it doesn’t absolve us of moral responsibility. I can write this because I don’t have to worry that one of these artistic directors won’t cast me. I don’t have to safeguard my professional network. I don’t have to worry that someone will think I’m too political or difficult to work with. A lot of Asian-American people who were at the forum tonight can’t even enjoy the privilege of speaking out.
Reflection and relevance
Do we really want Philadelphia theater to reflect our city? Do we actually want people of color to be comfortable enough in our spaces that we’re willing to risk offending our white base or changing the way we welcome our audiences? Do we truly want to engage in conversations that force us to look at how our success, however meager, comes at the expense of others?
When we face moral questions from positions of power, we can choose to sacrifice something, or choose not to take the risk. When you choose not to take the risk, the only decent thing to do is to own your choice. You don’t get to be comforted because the choice was difficult.
Unexamined privilege is what I saw on display at the forum. We can and must do better, not just because it’s right, but also because a white theater with no sense of responsibility to people of color is not sustainable. If we don’t start listening more than we talk, theater in one of the most diverse places on earth will remain shamefully exclusive until it is merely irrelevant.
To read Lucas Nguyen's account of the Beyond Orientalism forum, click here.
To read Bi Jean Ngo's account of the Beyond Orientalism forum, click here.