Artist Activist

Institutional Racism Made Me A Better Artist

  • Freshman Year: Art As Therapy aka The Grid
  • Sophomore Year: Being Present with Process
  • Junior Year: I <3 THEATER THEORY
  • Senior Year: What's the Deal with White People?
  • 1st Year Out: WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE
  • 2nd Year Out: Oh Look...Other Angry Artists of Color
  • 3rd Year Out: Destroyer of the Patriarchy

Behold, my simplified listicle for my undergrad experience and the ensuing years after! Each day I move farther away from college is an opportunity to see more clearly the effects it had on my sense of identity and artistic process. If anyone were to ask me what the greatest thing I learned in college was, I would unequivocally say, “Institutional Racism”. Without it, I wouldn’t be the proud artist I am today.

***

It’s my senior year at Cornish and I’m sitting across from my solo performance professor, discussing ideas for the class's end of the year showcase. Rifling through my mind rolodex, none of the ideas appeal. She senses my lack of enthusiasm, and, like an astute actor, changes tactics. She asks me,

“How is senior year going? How are you?”

This is a loaded question. Do I tell her how I really feel or do I offer the non-committal, “Oh...it’s good, I’m so busy” shtick? I look up, her eyes are expectant. Of all my professors, her opinion has always mattered most. And I can’t lie to her anyway, her bullshit meter is on point. I blurt out,

“I hate everyone.”

Her silence is not a condemnation but an encouragement.

“No one told me what it would be like to be the brown girl in the white theater world. I’m so pissed all the time and I don’t know why or even how to talk about it.”

It feels so good to finally say it. The anger and confusion I’ve bottled up for the last three years finally spills out, manifesting as nervous laughter then as silent tears. She let’s me cry because she’s cool like that. Then, she proceeds to drop some of the realest truth bombs I’ve ever heard about the white institution of theater and how difficult it is to be a female artist. She then leans forward and says,

“Stay angry, it will help you get shit done. But, you also need to find ways to be happy. What makes you happy, what inspires you?”

The answer comes readily to my lips,

“My family.”

“Then, you should write about them.”

Thus, DRAGON LADY was born. 

***

During my four years in a conservatory theater program disguised as a liberal arts college, the curriculum focused mostly on white male playwrights who wrote about white male protagonists. The few times we learned about non-white playwrights and non-white plays, there was little discussion about the bigger implications that race or gender have in theater and subsequently, the role race and gender play in the world. For example, during our freshman year of Text Analysis, we were assigned scenes from Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, a play about a black family in the 1950s. There was no discussion as to what it meant for us, non-black actors, to play black people. Within an educational institution, what are the social implications of assigning your non-black students to play black roles? If ‘blackness’ is being utilized as a teaching mechanism, a conversation about our society’s participation in the systemic oppression of black people is necessary. Consideration of this racial dynamic is essential, to ignore it or omit it from an educational environment is socially and artistically irresponsible-it creates socially irresponsible artists. 

My classes would take on a similar pattern for the following three years. College became an idealistic cage, where “universal themes” and “being present” were the be-all-end-all objectives. Learning and application occurred within a bubble of privilege. Intellectual discourse on race, gender, oppression, dominant social ideologies and power constructs was hardly had. We were rarely encouraged to consider theater in any broader social context than the white, male-centric worldview implicit in our studies. I found myself, a colored woman, confused and angry. 

Senior year, I felt ill-prepared to enter the real world of theater now knowing that my race and gender would be the prime determining factors for me getting or not getting work. I would have to wait for when the big theaters needed an Asian or ethnically ambiguous girl. Plus, every audition call would be a conundrum; white American playwrights tend to portray people of color as stereotypes and as secondary characters. I would have to decide: was I willing to compromise my artistic morals and my entire sense of self for a paycheck? The whitewashing of my artistic education presented me a bleak outlook on my future. It seemed that no matter how hard I acted, how many plays I directed, because I was a colored woman, I would always be an outsider. It hurt, this knowledge. What hurt even more was the fact that I would have to tell my family about my failure. The first one to attend a four year college, I had received unanimous support from them to follow my passion. Growing up poor, going to college wasn’t the expected norm in my family, it was the ultimate privilege. They had no doubt that I would one day be a famous actress on Broadway, a role model for little Asian girls all over the country. How could I tell them that the white dominated world of Seattle theater, let alone Broadway (Great White Way, anyone?), had no place for me? How could I tell my family that institutional racism would always dictate how I ‘succeeded’ and that my fame, if it came at all, would most likely come in the form of playing a fetishized Oriental martyr, á là Miss Saigon’s Kim or Madame Butterfly’s Cio Cio San? No matter what I did, “Asian” and “female” would always be my qualifiers and in the world of white, male-centric American theater those qualifiers labeled me as “less than”, “other” and “abject”.

But, the day I sat down with my solo-performance professor, she advised me to write about what made me happy. It seemed like such a small thing. She didn’t tell me to stop being angry, she didn’t invalidate my feelings. She gave me some simple advice. I sat down at my computer and automatically went to Youtube--finding the right music for writing was part of my artistic process. Most of the time it led to procrastination...but not this time. For inspiration, I pulled up “House of the Rising Sun”, my Grandma’s favorite karaoke song. Before I knew it, I had the first three pages of DRAGON LADY. Starting as a ten minute short and three years evolving into a unique two act play, DRAGON LADY is one part feminist manifesto, one part attempt to destroy the patriarchy, one part artistic license and all parts an act of love. Each act is a complete solo piece, meaning an individual act can be performed as an independent solo-performance show. The first act of DRAGON LADY focuses on my Grandmother's version of our family creation story:

It is the year of the Water Dragon and the eve of Grandma Maria's 60th birthday. By the light of the karaoke machine, fueled by pork dumplings and diet Pepsi, she shares a dark secret from her Filipino gangster past with one lucky grandchild. Traveling back and forth through 40 years of faulty memories, Sara Porkalob embodies the women of her family to weave a tale about their past that seems too grandiose to be true.

3 generations, 6 women, 1 Dragon Lady.

The second act is my new solo show, DRAGON LADY II: I’m Going to Kill You (premiering in 2016 at Seattle Fringe Festival!) DRAGON LADY II is my family’s creation story told through the eyes of my Grandmother's children. Separately, the pieces are exercises in the importance of the ‘subject’: who gets to tell the story? My Grandmother is the storyteller of the 1st piece, her children are the leaders for the 2nd piece while I, the third generation of my family, interpret and synthesize it into one, big shebang.  I'm not interested in presenting a universal 'truth' to my audience about families or Filipino culture.  My objective is to highlight the value of which stories get chosen to be told and who gets to tell them-perspective as empowerment. AmericanTheater.Org's article, "From Orientalism to Authenticity: Broadway's Yellow Fever"  uses new Japanese American musical Allegiance as an example of perspective as empowerment:

...It happens to be the first musical created by Asian Americans, directed by an Asian American (Stafford Arima), with a predominantly Asian cast, to grace the Broadway stage. For the creators of Allegiance, it’s a moment that has been a long time coming for the Great White Way, which has come under scrutiny in recent years for living up all too well to its nickname. With this change in viewpoint—what Kuo describes as “writing from the inside out and not the outside in”—comes a sense of ownership of the material. The story is told from the point of view of Japanese Americans, and a number of the cast are Japanese American, including Takei, who were either interned themselves or had family members who were.

“This is the one show that does have an Asian perspective behind it, besides the Asian actors onstage,” Salonga says. “I don’t think it’s something that Broadway has seen before, but it’s certainly something that Broadway actually needs.”

Preach, Lea Salonga, preach. I can be the subject of my own story. I don't have to wait for people to give me roles, I can write one for myself. I can write about what makes me happy and what makes me sad, I can do anything. The institutional racism of my college experience was the best thing that could have happened to me! It made me painfully aware of power constructs that dominate our everyday lives: I learned that where there is power, there is oppression and where there is oppression, there needs to be change. I wanted to be a part of that change. I thought I went to college to learn how to be an artist but I realized- I've always been an artist, going to college merely turned me into an activist.  As an Asian American artist activist, the white male-centric paradigm of theater is not a death sentence for my career; it is merely the kindling for my fierce, feminist fire.

DRAGON LADY is always changing. In tracking the different drafts, I realize that this show has been a vehicle for the evolution of my artistic process, my understanding of self as a woman of color, and my understanding of performance as a means for social change. By simply writing and performing DRAGON LADY, I am asserting my place in the world of theater and in the world. I belong here because I say I do.

Now, come see my show.