Tuesday, June 18, 2013

colorblind casting

My friend, Mahalia, a wonderful actress who student-taught one of my high school drama classes in Tallahassee, Florida many years ago, recently shared this article on Facebook: 3 Things Actors Should Know About Race on Stage. Mahalia's posting comment suggested that she was sharing the article because of the race-based limitations she faces in her acting career. Here's how she introduced it:
I wish that directors did cast with "absence of color". As a black stage actress....I know that I will NEVER be allowed to play Katarina, Maggie the Cat, Glenda, or any other of my dream roles, unless it's an all-black version of the play. Just the simple reality. Color hinders me....but I try and navigate this crazy theatre world nevertheless.
Certainly, any actor or actress's work prospects are limited by thousands of talent, personality, and physical characteristic factors, but race is a special and particularly tricky barrier for many actors, because in the U.S. most film, theater, and television productions are white people stories, produced mostly by white people, mostly for white people. Yes, they find ways of adding in racial diversity, but whiteness tends to be the original ingredient.

Even when screen writers and playwrights attempt to "take race out" of their stories, or create stories without race at all, this easily lends itself to more race inequality in casting, as the 3 Things Actor Should Know articles explains in the form of a warning to actors, and a little chastisement to directors and writers:
Absenting characters of color, absents artists of color. Aspiring playwrights and screenwriters are generally taught not to specify the race of their characters—unless a character’s race is consequential to the dramatic narrative. The aim is to create the greatest flexibility in casting and to increase the odds of the work being produced.
Since it’s impossible to imagine a person as being race-less, the default assumption is that most unspecified characters are white. Although producers, directors, and casting agents have discretion in the person who they hire to work on a production, they frequently begin with a script that absents people of color.
For the past couple of years, I've been thinking about this topic, especially since, as a playwright in Utah, my current interest is creating works about LDS (Mormon) Pioneer history--there are very few characters of color in that segment of history, and very little written by them or about them. This has been a bit of an internal conflict for me, as I am interested in putting both early LDS Church stories and racial diversity on stage. Last year, while writing the play I produced about Wilford Woodruff, I considered including a scene based on his journal's detailed description of a conversation he had with a Ute chief, but then I realized that it didn't really fit into the rest of the story and that I was only trying to squeeze it in, because I was bothered by the prospect of creating a show with an all-white cast. I decided not to include the scene. But then when I held auditions, I discovered that a friend of mine, David, a Columbian with a dark complexion, was clearly the best actor for the supporting role of Wilford's brother. 
In the facebook discussion below Mahalia's posting of the 3 Things Actors Should Know article, someone commented that a little progress has been made where racial diversity in casting is concerned in New York, in particular,
classical Greek and Shakespearean plays are cast with broader racial diversity, including casting members of a family with actors of different races. I've often seen that casting philosophy used in local Shakespeare, and Fairy-Tale themed plays here in Utah. For example,  two weeks ago, I attended a Grassroots Shakespeare production outdoors at Salt Lake City's Liberty Park in which a mixed-race man played a romantic lead, Bianca's wealthy suitor, Lucentio. But I think it's easy for directors to make less-traditional casting choices for classical plays, because the stories are so well-known. Whereas, for most post-renaissance pieces, directors prefer casting with historical accuracy and realism in mind. There are many historical or fictional plays in which race is a significant part of character identity or expression of the historical setting. There's also the obligatory logic that says characters in the same biological families should be of the same race. And let's face it, directors are afraid of getting the audience confused about the setting and characters.

Before I cast David as Wilford's brother, I considered my own concern about confusing the audience. My main objective was to teach my audience about some historical events--but I reminded myself that as the author and director I can communicate with the audience any way I want. It was easy, I simply made sure that in the dialogue, David's character was introduced clearly as Wilford's brother, and POOF! disbelief suspended!

As an afterthought, I have to remark to myself that David was one of only 2 actors of color who auditioned. Why were there so few auditioning actors of color? Probably because of the topic of the play. There are many pioneer history plays and film productions here in Utah, and it may be that actors of color commonly don't bother auditioning for shows like that because they suspect all the roles are white.

I would never suggest that out-of-historical-context colorblind casting is right for every production, but I'd love to see it done more often in mainstream theater.

Here's my list of progressive changes I hope to see in the future of theater, film, and television:
  • more people of color creating scripts,
  • more producers using those scripts, 
  • more producers of color becoming influential leaders in theater and media arts,
  • greater variety of racial perspectives represented in stories told on screen and stage no matter who writes it (too often"racial diversity" looks like this: a white protagonist with white-person problems, he or she has one or more "side-kick" friends of color, but they are relatively flat characters.)  
  • more directors willing to take out-of-historical-context casting risks, and
  • fewer directors assuming a character's race is white if race is not mentioned in the script.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A new perspective on Chinese child-rearing strategies

There were four of us in the car, driving back to Salt Lake City from Summerhays Music store in Murray, Utah. My husband, Justin, was driving, I was in the passenger seat, and in the back were my two-year-old daughter, Lydia, and one of Justin's friends, Sunny. That evening, we were helping Sunny with a little violin shopping.

Here's the socio-cultural backdrop for the scene: Justin and Sunny are both students in the physics graduate program at University of Utah. Justin and I (and Lydia) are white with mostly British heritage, our families have been American for many generations. Sunny and her parents are of Chinese heritage, although she was born and raised in Malaysia. She came to the states on her own last year when she started the graduate program at UU. Her first language is English, which she says is typical for those who grow up in "British-occupied" Malaysia.

We were chatting about Meyer's Brigg's personality types, when Lydia became the topic of conversion. Here's my best attempt at paraphrase:

"You can tell there's something different about her," said Sunny.

"You mean, because she's so extroverted?" I said.

"Well," Sunny continued, "she has a kind of victorian grace, but she let's you know that she's in charge. She reminds me of Queen Elizabeth." People often comment on Lydia's character. She's a friendly, bossy, charming, loud, wide-eyed, unbridled, curious busy-body who happens to say "thank you" when you hand something to her.

Sunny added more, "Lydia really fills up the room." I mentally reflected on how Lydia had just filled a large musical instrument store with all her Lydia-ness. She ran here and there, squealing like a little pig while I chased her, calling, "No, no, no, don't touch the harps!" "Pick up those reeds and put them back, Baby!" "Okay, fine, you can play that piano, but not with your feet, please!"

"Asian babies are much different" Sunny said a moment later. "They are very passive." I immediately tried to think of an exception, but I couldn't.

"I'm going through my head trying to picture the Asian babies I know," I said, "And all of them are like what you're saying, very reserved. Why is that, do you think? I mean, in your opinion, would you say that's genetics or upbringing?"

"It's because of the way they are raised," she replied.

"What do Asian parents do differently?" I asked.

"They purposely disconnect themselves from their children. They don't show affection. They don't interact much with them, even when they are babies. They don't even use baby-talk with them, they speak to them like they're adults." She went into more detail, but this was the essence. I had heard of Asian parents demanding great discipline and excellence from their children, and the strain this must inevitably put on the child-parent relationship, but I had never imagined these scenarios within the context of growing up sans affection, and with limited interaction.

I was overcome by how backward it sounded to me. How can an entire culture of people, generation after generation, live without familial closeness and emotional dependence? The idea was contrary to everything I believe and value about life. I wanted to know what Sunny thought about it.

"When you have children some day," I asked, "do you think you will raise them the same way you were brought up, or will you do it the way Americans do?"

She hesitated, thinking about it, then answered, "I think I will do it the Asian way . . . Yes, I will."

I was surprised, so of course I had to ask (trying to give up my bias), "And why do you want to do it that way? What would you say are the benefits?"

I loved Sunny's response. Without a hint of defensiveness, she replied, "The way my parents raised me taught me independence. Even as a child, I knew that I could take care of myself, that I didn't need them--this was a great gift that they gave me." She also explained that while her parents didn't put an emphasis on closeness, they were not neglectful. "To them, being a good parent was about being responsible, following through on your duty." She spoke of them with consistent admiration.

I asked her if she felt like her parents loved her. She said that the first time she really felt their love, was last year when she was new in the U.S. and was in a situation of desperation. "I just asked for their help, and they were so generous--I couldn't believe it."

I thought of an episode of Glee I had seen in which an student begs his father to accept his choice to become a professional dancer. The student expresses a longing for his father's approval and love. He suddenly becomes aware of his father's disconnectedness, and finds it tragic. Maybe this kind of conflict only makes sense because it's in a mixed Eastern/Western context, an Asian-American student and his first-generation immigrant father.

The last time I blogged on Asian child-rearing was when I described a book club response to Adeline Yeh Mah's, Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter. The book is the story of a Chinese woman who suffers life-long disconnection and rejection from her step-mother. Just as in the television example above, the author sees her conflict from a Western perspective, as a woman who was raised in China, but received her higher education in England, and chooses to adopt Western ways of thinking.

I remember reading a translation of an old Chinese play in a college world literature class, The Peach Blossom Fan written in the 1600s. It's about a couple in love who were married, and then tragically separated from each other for several years. Day after day they pine for each other. Then, finally, fate sees fit to bring them near each other, and just as they are about to be reunited, a Daoist teacher encourages them to give up their passion, forgo the union, and go their separate ways, to live lives of meditation and moderation. Surprisingly, they do exactly as he advises. In class, my professor laughed at our response, explaining that Americans usually find the story appalling or confusing, while to the intended audience, the ending is very satisfying, because to them it would be clear from the beginning that the conflict that needed to be resolved was not the lovers' separation, but their childish response to the separation, their reckless emotional state. (This reminds me of the contrast between how I used to read Romeo and Juliet, and how I read it now. When I was young, it was a poignant story about love so true that without the one you love, life is not worth living. But now I see it as a cautionary tale about what happens when teens get too carried away with infatuation.)

The point is, your own culture's values are not as universal as you think. Most Americans and other Westerners are in constant search of deep emotional connectivity, affection, and individuality. People of other cultures live life with completely different objectives.

Next time I see Sunny, I think I will ask, "What, for you, is the purpose of life?"  I can't wait to hear her perspective.