The American Theatre

I moved to New York three weeks ago. Since then, I have seen a few plays, auditioned for many, and submitted work for consideration all over. But one thing I have noticed in seeing theatre and in auditions is this: that the majority of plays being produced are not the ones we should be paying attention to. Why is it that of the plays I have seen, I have only seen two people of colour on stage? Why is it that as I watched one of these productions end, the spotlight faded on a young, white man as the two women in the play swept up the broken glass on stage? Or that the only hispanic man in a production was relegated to the role of “person of colour” and given a “backstory” to justify his presence on stage? Why is it so hard to find good theatre that isn’t masquerading as “important” by throwing in buzzword themes: race, diversity, immigration, building walls, joining communities? Why are there not more female playwrights, directors, and playwrights and directors of colour being asked to lead projects? Instead, we are relegated to seeing productions written, produced, and directed by mostly white men, and which dress themselves in complex progressiveness by using actors of colour but without actually addressing the underlying realities.

As I sit at my table at home, reading another script for yet another audition, my jaw falls open. The script follows an Asian female lead character whose story begins with an auction. She is a prostitute. She sells her body to customers, white men who pay for the company of an Asian woman. Her story, however, is not one of inverting the norm, or of peeling back the layers of this true history, but rather it is one of how this Asian prostitute enjoys her work in serving white men. It is a story of how she persevered as a prostitute, and with the help of her customers, was able to westernise herself. This is the kind of work that is being produced and that hundreds of Asian actresses in this city are being asked to audition for?

I’ve come to see how much of a privilege it is to be able to self-identify as “just an actor,” as Chris Reyes so gracefully put. To be “just an actor” is to know that there are roles out there for you, that there are opportunities you are able to take. To be “just an actor” is to either be incredibly lucky and to have worked hard at stereotypical roles for years until you are able to choose not to, or to have a market so wide open you have the choice of complex human characters whose shoes you can fill. In other words, to be “just an actor” is to be the majority. Do not be mistaken, I have met and known countless actors of color and women who are incredible at what they do and adhere to what they believe in, but to be an actor with responsibility is so much more difficult than it is to be “just an actor.” And to be a minority (a word so tainted in minimizing, of being “minor”) is to be shrunken, to be diminished, and unable to be “just” so. And so I am beginning to see where the hard work comes in. I am beginning to see that in order to make the theatre I want to see, I have to be more than an actor. I have to be an artist, a writer, an advocate for myself and the work I want to see. Because I do not want to be standing on stage giving a backstory on how my family travelled to America on boat all the time. I do not want to be giving a story about how I was adopted, which is why I look nothing like my siblings. I do not want to justify my face in any narrative, because being human means more than that and I am tired of seeing “professional” theatre that denies the human experience so many of us know so well, especially in New York City.

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