Down the Silk Road

by Fin Coe

What I’m about to say may get me in trouble. But it’s true.

Last night I went to Silk Road Rising, looking for a fight. They were hosting a panel discussion called Building a Theatre of Inclusion, with Eliza Shin, Jamil Khoury, Danny Bernardo, David Henry Hwang, and Chay Yew1. The discussion was to focus on challenges faced in building a diverse community in Chicago and in the US, recent controversies in casting, and issues faced in the casting of Asian stories and Asian-American actors.

My upbringing has ingrained in me a stubborn, do-it-yourself, don’t-ask-for-help attitude. As I’ve followed the recent controversies in “multi-culti” casting, I’ve had extremely mixed feelings. Perhaps the most shocking of those feelings is, “Ah, stop whining”. I haven’t always felt accepted by the Chinese or Asian communities (a distinction I sharply draw, by the by), and there have been times in my life and in my career where I’ve felt that if I wasn’t seen as a member of a community, it was my prerogative to not care about that community’s problems. And if Asian-American actors had a hard time getting roles, I thought, maybe they could imagine what it was like being told you weren’t Asian enough. They could damn well make their own opportunities, as I had always struggled to. And on and on.

This was not the ideal headspace to be in, as I settled in to a seat in the front row at a discussion on diversity and casting.

The discussion took a while to get started, as additional seating needed to be rustled up, latecomers were made room for, and the omnipresent technological hurdles had to be navigated. I took out my ubiquitous little moleskine book and scribbled down things I’d thought about in the days leading up to the event. “Inclusion as Exclusion”. “No Chinese advertising for Chinglish”. “Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s conscious decision to alienate”.

I craned my neck constantly, appraising the audience, the ethnic breakdown, the friendly chatter, the camaraderie, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. There were friends and acquaintances and collaborators there, and I smiled, but part of me dreaded the beginning of a discussion on Inclusion, wherein I feared I would feel more of an Outsider than ever.

The discussion and filming began a few minutes later. Malik Gillani introduced Danny Bernardo, who would be leading the discussion. One of the first talking points was the most recent series of casting controversies that the Asian theatre community in Chicago has been talking about; the trifecta of La Jolla’sNightingale, Circle Theatre’s Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Orphan of Zhao. Danny got the ball rolling by going down the line and asking each panel member to say a word about each controversy.

My heart sank. “Arrogant.” “Wrong.” “Irresponsible.” It seemed as though my fears were to be concerned. Everyone onstage in lockstep, a united Asian front that was out for revenge. A discussion of anger.

And then: “Heartbreaking,” said Eliza, the actress on the panel, in response to the RSC’s Orphan casting. She spoke about living in Europe, and about the difficult reality that it is another world on that other continent, and the kind of racism faced there in the most mundane and idyllic settings. David was asked to talk about the casting controversy of Miss Saigon that happened “So long ago”, and he said something that hit me. “It was just one week. But it was kind of a big week. It scared me.”

And the discussion really began. When you ask people to give a one-word reaction to something that’s insulting, yeah, you get a wall of angry or dismissive words. But that’s just an icebreaker. Once Chay started talking about the importance of a theatre that is truly American, an idea which Jamil talked about as being “polycultural” rather than “multi-cultural”, and Eliza was open about the double-edged sword of racial casting on film – “I have absolutely benefited from my color when it comes to casting on film” – I began to believe that this was a dialogue. That this was not a rally like the ones I have known, of us versus them, but a rally of us altogether.

Danny and Chay both spoke about not understanding themselves as anything but American. Danny didn’t categorize himself until, at age 10, his agent told him that he didn’t get a part based on his look. Chay thought nothing of his decision to write a play where all the characters were Caucasian; until he saw David speak at Brandeis after a production of M. Butterfly. David talked frankly about his big break coming from a political maneuver of affirmative action, and his being in the right place at the right time, and about hearing, years after the Miss Saigoncontroversy, that the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer came down, not to racism, but to nepotism. “’He was our friend, we wanted him to come with us’. You go to Broadway, you want to bring your friends, you all know each other from college and you want to help each other out.”

I can’t deny that that one hit home, considering I co-founded and run a theatre company with my college friends. As the panel speakers told their stories, it became personal for me. This was about progress, not recompense. My major takeaway was this: GET A DRAMATURG. Invest in your communities. Honor the text. Do the work, show your work, prove that you made the best effort you could to cast as responsibly as possible, because as David says, “the burden of proof is on the theater, and most of the time they’re just lying.” Another controversy of sorts was discussed, the decision by Lifeline Theatre to make their production of Bridge of Birds, which was based on another Chinese story, “multi-culti”. And how the theatre was willing to deal with the Asian community’s response to that, and open up communication, and work to make it right. Members of the Lifeline theatre were there that night, in the audience. It wasn’t a rant. It really was a dialogue.

It was honest, too. Danny said, “It’s tough when we spend so much time just being thankful we have work.” Jamil talked about investing in your community, your polycultural community, even when you speak to the Philippino and Chinese communities about polyculturalism and they say, “You do know we hate the Japanese, right?” Chay talked about that, saying that the theatres need to mingle their DNA, and that we all know what happens when you only stay in your own corner of the gene pool. Eliza spoke about the reality of tokenism, where Asian-American actors will be used for minor roles, but the protagonists are invariably Caucasian. “Realize what you’re doing when you do that. I’m sorry. You guys get the basketball like… 90% of the time,” she said, and it was exactly the kind of statement I’d been scared to hear, but it was real, it was true, and there is no reasoned argument against the feeling of being heartbroken.

As the panel wound down, I listened, rapt. This wasn’t about the jilted minority, clamouring to get privileges for Asians, it was about people who were in a position to make change, getting rights for Americans. It was about being authentic to more than just the mythology of Asian stories, but to the reality of an American theatre scene. Danny opened the discussion up to the audience, and the responses were equally frank, provocative, and insightful. I looked at the things I had written in my book, before the discussion began, and I looked at everything I had frantically scribbled down during the last hour and a half. I kept my hand down.

I had my concerns still. I’m wary of the dangers presented by the ubiquity of “Asian-ness” as a concept. I’m still thinking about Inclusion as Exclusion. I still wonder about my place in all this. But what I had taken away from the discussion was positivity, and a measure of peace. I’ll pester them with contentious emails a-plenty in the future (and I daresay that this piece itself, if read, may encounter some mixed responses) but at the end of last night, I wanted to give back the good things that I had taken away for myself. I listened more, and wrote down more, and after the event ended, I shook hands, and thanked the speakers for what they had shared, and for being there. I spoke to the people I knew, and I thought about the future.

You can sit alone and have your thoughts, they can be well-reasoned thoughts, they can be shocking, earnest thoughts, you can lecture and argue and rage in your own mind. And then you can walk into a room, sit down, and have your mind changed. I’m embarrassed by what I brought with me when I walked in to the theatre last night, but I’m willing to share those dark thoughts and feelings so that you understand what a 180 last night was for me. And to the people who showed me that, I should maybe apologize, but I’m not going to apologize for who I am and how I feel.

Instead I will say, Thank you.


Update: Video from the panel is now up