I was going to start this reflection with the very typical “For my project, I…” but it felt a little too cliché, like some kind of science fair project. I quickly realized that such thoughts were strange because my project was in no way a typical activist project. And I want this reflection to accurately represent the nature of my project. So, I feel the need to explain who I am, and why I came to do this particular project as my own brand of activism.
I’m an actor. I have to note that I regularly try to disidentify with this label, because I went through an internal upheaval (and still am) with a consequent rejection of all labels that I did not feel are necessary or core to my being (because labels can be destructive at times — sometimes there’s this feeling of permanence, or worse, obligation, to follow through with the types of actions expected by those who identify with a certain label). But, to many, I would be defined as an actor. I act and/or sing in productions regularly, and have invested much of my finances and energies into acting. Rather than claim I am an actor, I would rather say that I enjoy trying to understand people and telling stories. I want to change people’s perception of the world, including my own. That is why I act.
My opening monologue in the show.
This past year has been my last year of college, and thus, I have also been considering my endeavors more seriously, and whether or not I would want to pursue them – and acting has been one of the biggest things for me to consider. With all of the time and money and labor spent, acting is one of those activities where you ask yourself quite often, “Is it worth it?” And when you start thinking about a craft that is so based on image and perception and interpretation of a body, with people constantly wondering if you are right for the role (what does ‘right’ even mean?), it becomes a difficult decision. Because before I can even identify as an actor, I absolutely identify as a person of color, and I am marked by race the moment I walk into the room.
The lack of actors of color in the theatre industry (and we’re not even talking about the lack of stories about people of color in general) is prevalent and a problem. Sure, there’s Miss Saigon, Madame Butterfly, Book of Mormon; a bunch of shows cast people of color as characters now. But, in general, actors of color are not being cast. According to a study done recently (one that I actually learned of in the midst of my project), Asian American actors have only been cast in 1.5% of all roles on Broadway in the last five years. (AAPAC 5)
So, for my project, I decided to do something that I was already doing — theatre. I took a show that I had been cast in, a one-act play entitled Empress Mei Li Lotus Blossom, by Asian American playwright and actress Christine Toy Johnson. We rehearsed regularly, four to five nights a week, for about four hours at a time. Our rehearsals were held in various empty spaces on campus, but mainly within the area of the UCSB Theater Department, with performances at the UCSB Studio Theater. It’s funny; when our instructor Carly initially described her expectations for the project assignment, she had told us to do our best to not make extra labor for ourselves and, instead, to utilize course readings to approach our current engagements as if they already are forms of activism. I still ended up doing a lot of labor, but in a way I could not have anticipated. Having to think through how I could make my current labor applicable to this project made me reconceptualize how I would approach performing in a show. This was rewarding, but also very difficult. And through this process, I realized that, like power, definitions of labor can be shifting too.
I made this show my unconventional activist project (unconventional in the sense that it is very rare that participating in theatre is pushed to be seen as an actual form of activism, and not just possessing the potential to influence audience members. For a long time, I have wanted to see how my theatrical endeavors and the very personal self-discovery that has accompanied it could ever align with the broad and challenging theoretical concepts with which I have been engaging in my Feminist Studies classes. The simultaneity of this class and my being cast in a new show made me realize I could, I was the lead, and because of that, the show followed much of my own personal journey, as an actor, activist, and person. Susan, my character, had so many things she wanted to say, and I was her vehicle to help her say those things. And in those beginning moments of my project, I was able to tap into my own experience and essence and individuality that made me who I was, pushing against the labels that society has attempted to push onto me.
Me as Susan playing Lo-An, the fabricated personality that Susan takes on.
I should back up and explain a bit more about the show itself Empress Mei Li Lotus Blossom follows Susan Lee, an all-American Asian American 30-something actress with an MFA in Acting from Yale under her belt, struggling to make it in the theatre business. But Susan feels like she is only seen for her race and not her talent, and thus not being considered for the parts that she wants, such as the parts that white actresses would normally be cast in.. Most of the roles that she has gotten so far in her career have been as doctors or reporters, small parts in television shows that are quickly forgotten. She concocts an outlandish plan with her publicist best friend to take on the identity of an exotic Chinese film star being heralded over to America to star in a leading role on Broadway – a role that is very racist and problematic. She struggles a lot with her own oppression, but also with how she could find agency and happiness in the midst of it all.
So, it was a difficult role to play.
One of the hardest things was bringing the play to life, to take these words on paper and create a character with them — after all, you’re telling a story about these people. You have to make these characters real for the audience, so they can understand the play, and what you were saying. Being the lead of the cast made the telling of this story particularly difficult. There were so many things I wanted to say, so many things I wanted to physically do and express regarding being an Asian American actress. The racism in the industry! The sexism! Why can’t people see me for who I am?! IT’S SO PERSONAL! But we, the actors and crew, didn’t have enough time to really dive into all of the nuances and complexities of a marginalized experience. Not enough plot to really flesh out and show audiences what it meant to be an Asian American in today’s world, because we all wanted to share so much. I personally had a lifetime’s worth of stories to tell, because I had never had an opportunity like this in theatre, to share what it meant to be in this racialized body. I felt like having only just this short, one-act play to share my entire experience was so limiting in all of the things I wanted to say. But, the lack of time really became an opportunity for me to learn that sometimes just one story is enough for one pocket of time. That sometimes that one story is the one that needs to be told. And that story will inspire other stories, other people, other art, other life.
My experience with my fellow castmates was interesting, to say the least. I felt like I was the only actor that had a rooted connection with my racial identity. Two of the other girls were white, and the third one was Asian, but was raised by a white family who had adopted her . The show explored what it meant to be an Asian American, in our specific bodies with our specific experiences in this world. I felt like I had to give so much, to make the passion and frustration and hope “authentic,” to make it feel real. To make Susan’s struggle real in order to show my struggle was real, too. I invested a lot of emotional labor into the show, into reflecting on what this show tells me about me, into connecting with the other actors. Yet, it was still hard to connect. I was often frustrated with the other white actors that did not seem to acknowledge their white privilege. We struggled to understand each other, our respective privileges and oppressions, and how they affected our life experiences. We had countless conversations in the beginning stages of rehearsals about race and culture, and how deeply rooted a lot of these stereotypes were. Most of the time, the experiences of oppression that I shared with my white castmates were extremely difficult to fathom for them, that we didn’t leave in this beautiful world free of racism. One of the lines in the show references the popular modern idea of living in a “post-racial society”, speaking to the neoliberal attitude that many people today have adopted. My white castmates seemed to believe that. They didn’t seem to understand that I have experienced racism my entire life, and still do to this day. It was a difficult process. However, I learned that our struggle to understand ourselves and one another fueled the show. We did not come away with a perfect understanding of each other, but in our trying to, we were able to deconstruct the ways in which the industry and authority and man favored one of us over the other.
Me as Susan, conflicted when offered yet another racist role, despite going to such ends.
My costume provided yet another challenge—both physically and intellectually. In the second half of the show, in my disguise as an exotic Chinese film star secretly trying to land a role on Broadway, the script called for me to be dressed in an elegant cheongsam (Cantonese for “long dress”), a very form-fitting and, honestly, incredibly restricting dress that speaks to modern-day interpretations of a Chinese woman: the long, satin dress with the high collar and forced prim and proper posture. I had never worn one in my life. I had such a personal dissonance with it, and initially viewed it as an extension of the racialization and orientalism that people already were projecting onto me. However, I challenged myself to view and use the dress as a form of resistance, with my body as the vehicle. I wondered if the playwright’s construction of the character Susan as pretending to be Lo-An Li (Susan’s exotic Chinese film star creation) wearing the dress, not Susan, provided an opportunity to view the dress and the body wearing it as tools for subversion. I was reclaiming the cheongsam, this inanimate object that I had held in so much contempt my entire life. Susan, my character, allowed me to reclaim it as a way to challenge preconceptions about Asians. I could see that the playwright was taking the stereotypes that she has experienced in her life, and used them in a way that disrupted our idea of the Chinese woman. The dress, in combination with Susan creating the Lo-An character in order to get what she wanted out of the entertainment system showed just how flawed and malleable the system was. I learned that I can deploy stereotypes in ways that make clear that I am cognizant of their problems and in order to provoke a reaction. It was all a very cathartic experience, as I never thought I could think of that dress as something that couldn’t be viewed as problematic. I never thought that I could break out of the ideas that I had held for years. That simple act of trying to see the potential in the cheongsam, to try and see it as a way that could not just create a different conversation, but maybe even empower myself opened up a different world for me. I attempted to embrace this way of thinking, of reimagining myself and what I could do and how I could perceive the world. As Robin Kelley so eloquently states in the opening chapter of Freedom Dreams, ‘“When History Sleeps”: A Beginning’ “The most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.” (Kelley 11) (It’s an awesome text, I highly recommend you check it out.) I wanted to take this mentality to explore the limitless potential that is activism, and be able to bring this to theatre, a performing art that is valued for expanding human imagination, and connect with audiences at the same time.
Doing this show allowed me to grow as an activist in many ways. I grew up. I didn’t want to see myself as a victim anymore. I had already known that the system of the entertainment industry, in which I often participated in, was fucked up. But after learning about Jose Munoz’s theory of disidentification that we had studied in this class, I was able to utilize that concept in my work. I learned to view this particular system as one that can hold multiple, seemingly paradoxical ideas in tension – theatre can be both a system of oppression, but also as a site for resistance. Simply, my existence is my resistance. I cannot stress this point enough, especially for aspiring actors, or people aspiring to make a living in the entertainment industry. Our bodies and voices are a challenge to the oppressions inflicted upon us. After seeing my show, friends and peers often commented that it was a story about an issue that never gets talked about. Many of my classmates were touched, that I was able to help provide insight to such an important issue. And that my struggle was real. And that made all of the internal struggle and conflict that I had in doing this show worth it. I wanted to show that activism could occur anywhere and everywhere, especially in the most unconventional places.
Asian American Performers Action Coalition. “Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages 2006/07-2010/11 Seasons.” February 2012. < http://www.aapacnyc.org/uploads/1/1/9/4/11949532/ethnic_representation_nyc.pdf >
Kelley, Robin. “When History Sleeps: A Beginning.” Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. p. 1-12.
Munoz, Jose. “Preface: Jack’s Plunger,” “Introduction: Performing Disidentifications.” Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. p. ix-xvii, 1-34.