Tuesday, July 24, 2012

No More Nice Nightingale

The Nightingale is about a nondescript little grey bird who wows the Chinese court with its song but is replaced by a bejeweled mechanical wonder that can only sing waltzes. It's actually pretty fitting that the controversy at La Jolla Playhouse should be over the casting of a musical based on this fairytale.

In case you've somehow missed hearing about it, out of twelve actors, only two are Asian. The Emperor of China is being played by a white guy; there are no Asian men. It's supposed to be 'multicultural' and set in a mythical not-necessarily Asian land. It's also supposed to be a workshop production. But let's face it, for a play set somewhere vaguely Oriental, all the people in power are white guys. Instead of taking on the real deal - Asian actors for a musical set in China - La Jolla Playhouse has opted for the artificial bird. And it sings the old familiar tune. I mean, can we say The Good Earth?

I'm a little late on the bandwagon for this because it's really depressing to me. As if being in the arts isn't hard enough, if you're Asian-American apparently you can't even get cast in a musical set in China.

What's worse is that this play is in San Diego - home to over 400,000 Asians. I think it's the 10th largest population of Asians in the country. UC San Diego, which is in La Jolla, has a student body that is 44% Asian and only 24% Caucasian. Has La Jolla Playhouse never had a discussion as to how it might appeal to this demographic? Do they just assume that Asians aren't interested in theater? Or maybe they think Asians would be too meek to complain?

And the play is directed by Moises Kaufman, a director I really like. I remember him way back in like 1988. He directed one of his first plays in New York at Theater for the New City, back when I lived in cage in the basement. You would think a Jewish, Romanian-Ukrainian maricón from Venezuela would be a little more sensitive and inclusive.

Plus this comes right on the heels of the Knicks giving up Jeremy Lin. I mean, jeez, this kid plays on a level that electrifies the entire world, makes the cover of Sports Illustrated twice, instigates a rush on tickets at Madison Square, gets the most unlikely people to watch sports (including me, yes I confess), and even with that much game, he doesn't rate more than one offer.

So yeah, I've been pretty discouraged, with these events corroborating what I've been feeling about the deck being stacked. I mean it's hard enough being poor and a woman, but being Asian-American too, I'm a triple nightingale. An overlooked bird, an outsider to the palace. It doesn't matter how well we sing. Or play ball.

So with all that, I drank a glass of wine tonight and watched the entire hour-long panel discussion at La Jolla Playhouse that took place yesterday. I swear, in my curmudgeonly old age, I'm turning into a wino. And a cat lady. But the panel was actually a lot more hopeful than I expected.

After a brief upset when it seemed the creative team might not even attend, Moises Kaufman and writer Steven Sater were indeed present, as were casting director Tara Rubin, and Christopher Ashley, the Artistic Director of La Jolla Playhouse. On the other side of the room were the angry Asian-Americans: Cindy Cheung and Christine Toy Johnson, both of them representing AAPAC, and Andy Lowe, founder and producer of Chinese Pirate Productions.

The moderator started things off by asking the Asians what they thought about the play. Christine struggled with emotions as she said, "To see this production....which clearly to me looks like it was set China...with so few Asian-American faces... reminds me how invisible we still are and how we are so often not invited to sit at the table. And to not be invited to sit at the table in a play that takes place in an Asian country, is like a knife to the heart."

Cindy added, "I'm still getting over the shock of seeing it and having so many people being okay with this. It was disturbing."

This made me think of a strange experience I had two years ago when I went to Governor's Island on a balmy night with one of my closest friends. There was something Dutch going on that day and we stayed late and danced to a band from Holland. Then the singer announced that it was the last song of the night and launched into something that went (I kid you not), "There was an old man from Hong Kong and he once said something very wise... ching chong ching chong chong ching chong." Not only was everyone expected to dance to this, but they were encouraged to sing along to ching chong ching chong, which the entire crowd of over a hundred people did. Gleefully. Even my friend, who is one of the smartest guys I know, obliviously enjoyed himself while I tried not to be horrified. I am still flabbergasted by this experience.

But I digress. There was a previous panel that was instigated by AAPAC, which I didn't manage to attend, partly because I had a bit of an issue with how it seemed they were knocking at the gate of the elites, can we come in pretty please? But I guess that was my curmudgeon talking, because after watching the entire panel, it did seem that something crystallized.

First, the Artistic Director, Christopher Ashley, conducted the discussion with grace, unlike Guthrie Theater's Artistic Director Joe Dowling, whose televised response to a question about the lack of women and minorities in the theater's 50th season was, "This is a self-serving argument that doesn't hold water." In contrast, Ashley apologized, "We did not intend to offend fellow artists or the Asian-American community. We did so and we are sorry."

But change doesn't just come from the ones in power - it has to come from the ground too. And there did seem to be a rumble of something shifting during the (mostly unfortunate) audience comments, which began inauspiciously with an old lady who wondered if there were enough talented Asians out there and also what did it matter. Sigh.

After she spoke, the audience seemed to be sharply divided between angry Asian people who shouted and had to be shut up, and non-Asians who rambled in circular platitudes that only illuminated their confusion at why everyone was so upset. Why can't we all get along? I really liked what one angry (Asian, male) audience member said before he was shouted down for going on too long, "When the Asian play comes along, it's suddenly 'mythical' and 'multicultural'... It's incredibly irritating to hear terms like 'multicultural' and 'color-blind' used to reduce the number of minority roles."

But Cindy had already laid it all out on the table and it was a royal flush, "There was a point in history when it was acceptable to have a white person play Othello... and at some point, the community stepped up and said this is no longer acceptable.... The Asian-American community is saying it now. That we find it unacceptable as well."

She was even bad-ass enough to throw down an extra ace in her sleeve, "We know [the play is] not a finished product and it's why we are here, to influence. We don't want to see this anymore. If it were a finished product, we would be outside with pickets. And we will be if it keeps going." 

So maybe a sea change really is occurring. As both Cindy and Christine said, it's no longer the way it used to be back in the prehistoric age like twenty years ago, when the Asian-American theater community really was like a small high school. Now it's like a dozen high schools who have play-offs and debates and dances together. After which they get on the Staten Island Ferry and make out. While I go home to my cat and a glass of wine.

But okay, Asian-American theater community, now in addition to prying open the gentry's gates a little, how about some support for Asian-American producers so we can survive and come up with more work for everyone? I might even make out with you on the Staten Island Ferry then.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Rating the Dating Game

I don’t date. I find the whole concept ludicrous and rather unsavory. Yet two weeks ago, I suddenly decided to put up a profile on OK Cupid. 

What precipitated this strange impulse was my shocked realization that it’s been nearly twenty years since I was last alone. And everything I used to do twenty years ago no longer exists. The new East Village doesn’t have any more second-hand bookstores and vintage shops to hang out in. That scene is long gone and I’m gone too – transplanted to Brooklyn, where I don’t know any shopkeepers by name, where I never run into people I know on the street. 

So it’s been lonely. And I sort of fell for a guy who isn’t available or that interested in me. Maybe so I could stop being so angry with the guy whom I had been with for ten years and also finally get over another ridiculous infatuation. For nearly a year, I’ve been trying to stamp out every pesky smoldering flame in my badly charred heart. I suppose OK Cupid was my next line of attack. 

Not that I'm sure that I am cut out for another long-term relationships or god forbid, marriage. For so many women, success in life is contingent upon landing a guy like a giant floppy six-foot fish. “Don’t worry, you’ll be married one day,” my friend’s mother said to her once, as if she was to be pitied for being single. And that’s the attitude of many women who are otherwise so independent. Researchers were surprised that in a national study of 1,000 female college students, 91% agreed to the statement, “Being married is a very important goal for me.” [1]

Of course it's not just women. Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin theorizes in his book The Marriage-Go-Round that Americans idealize marriage because of their deep-seated religious heritage, but they also have a contradictory belief in individual freedom and the right to self-fulfillment, which results in Americans getting married and divorced at twice the rate of other countries. [2]

I can’t think of anything more horrifying than a big church wedding with six women wearing the same dress. It always makes me think of the phrase “a fate worse than death.” I suppose I’m more European in this regard. The World Values Survey, a study of sixty countries in 2000, reported that 26% of the British and 36% of the French think that marriage is an outdated institution, compared with just 10% of Americans. [3]

But love? I can’t seem to help it. Love strikes me like lightning. I remember once being in an acting class and a guy whom I had known for three years and hardly ever noticed turned in my direction and BAM. We both made some lame excuse to leave early and once out on the street, we got as far the corner before making out by the mailbox.

He was my second big love (my first love also happened instantaneously) but he was weirded out by my lack of rules or expectations. “It feels like I could just walk all over you,” he once said to me in disgust. I had a nervous breakdown getting over him. Mysterious red blotches erupted on my face and I couldn’t get out of bed for weeks, not that I would have wanted to even if I could have, since I looked pretty mortifying. Maybe love doesn’t strike me like lightning; it's more like a recurring case of bubonic plague. 

The only time I had ever been on a date was when I was fifteen. Every time I pass by the 8th Street subway station, I see my teenage self leaning against the pizza shop in a way that I hoped would look nonchalant, wearing a slit satin skirt and slouchy grey sweater that I had borrowed from my best friend. But even that wasn’t really a date since we both knew perfectly well that we would find our way to some corner where we could make out. His message was clear – he had been flipping rubber bands at me in math class for weeks. 

I know I’m a pretty strange phenomenon, like a time traveler, or someone who came from an alien planet. I basically make up all my own rules, since I didn’t grow up with any. Or rather, shuttled in between New York City and Taiwan, I grew up with two sets of rules that sort of cancelled each other out. I learned social conduct not from my absentee immigrant workaholic parents or even from television and magazines, but from the classic novels that I devoured. Dating was consequently not part of my understanding of the world. Heathcliff and Cathy definitely did not go on dates. Daisy and Gatsby didn’t either. Not even the odiously plebian Elizabeth Bennet and stuffy Mr. Darcy went on dates. 

Dating is mostly a post-war American phenomenon. Teenagers in bobby socks sipping Coca Cola together at a soda fountain. Groping one another in a movie theater. Exchanging school rings. There is something very juvenile and Norman Rockwell about dating. 

For those who can't picture life otherwise, dating as we know it came about from the rise of both youth culture and the entertainment industry after the first World War. For the previous hundred or so years, courtship had taken place at home, with men coming over to have some tea and listen to women play piano. [4] That's what Tennessee Williams was writing about with the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie. But in the 1910s, courtship started to become a public event, relocated to movie theaters, dance halls, and restaurants. Dating became marked by competition and consumption, fueled by new magazines that advised sorority girls who didn’t have a date to turn off the lights in their rooms and pretend that they did.

The new online dating scene also taps into latent voyeurism. I confess that I rather like being able to secretly check out what people are interested in, how they write about themselves, what they think is hip and sexy and hot. But with the shoe on the other foot, I'm not so comfortable. I guess having been exposed to the public for half of my life, I'm pretty cagey about what I am ready to reveal to perfect strangers. I tried to write something about my age and the kid, but I finally just ended up saying, maybe I'll tell you if we meet in person. 

But privacy issue of online profiles aside, what really bothers me about dating itself is that it's intrinsically calculating.  Underneath dating culture, sociologist Martin Whyte sees a “marketplace learning scenario,” in which “people date a large number and variety of others to acquire experience that will enable them, it is hoped, to make prudent choices.”  Paul Hollander notes in his book Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Love in America, “American-style dating … incorporates two not entirely consonant goals: the pursuit of romance and intense emotional involvement on the one hand, and on the other a deliberate, self-conscious rational, trial-and-error procedure of sampling potentially available partners.”[5]

It’s very strange to me, this notion of being so prosaic about forming a partnership. One sociologist said in a July 1953 New York Times Magazine article that ideally, everyone should date 25 to 50 people before deciding who to marry. That kind of assembly-line dating sounds like another fate worse than death.

But I’ve given it a go and so far, I’ve been on four dates. The first was a jazz musician. We ate at a Thai restaurant, after which we went back to the jazz club where he was tuning a piano. The second was to a bicyclist and photographer recovering from his own ten-year relationship. We had dinner and walked around a little. I brought the third guy, a writer who teaches creative writing at NYU, to a party where he knew a few people. I met the fourth guy for tapas and we talked about his animal rescue work. 

They're all quite nice and maybe in other situations, if we had met at a party or on the subway, we would be friends. But with the OK Cupid set-up, this seems somewhat unlikely.  And I don't know if I like the position it puts me in. Maybe other people who are used to this sort of set-up know what to say or do, but it just feels like I'm inviting random guys to hit on me over drinks or dinner. This already happens to me plenty enough without me needing to go looking for it. Do other women like this? I find it rather uncomfortable and I never know how to react to it.  I would much rather be struck by lightning. Or wait around for the next bout of the plague. 

But maybe my attitude is rather childish. Maybe I would be more likely to aggressively pursue a relationship if I wasn’t so ambivalent about it all. But what is this need to have a mate? Why isn't it a group of friends enough? I mean besides the sex issue, which does get pretty difficult at times.  Maybe I am from some other planet after all.

The whole thing is making me feel that it's not fair of me to have a profile up on OK Cupid since everyone on it has a set of expectations that I don't know if I share. So I’ve been thinking I will shut down my profile after this brief sociological experiment. But, just to keep an open mind, I'll finish go on dates with the guys I've already been corresponding with: an actor, two artists, a random guy from Kentucky whose picture I like, and an Italian doctor who wrote me twice, the second time in Italian begging me to write him back, so I did. While we don't have much in common, he did mention that in the Italian language, there is no equivalent to the word “dating” – it’s not a concept they have there. 

Hilariously, the day after I set up my profile, OK Cupid sent me an exultant message about a great match. It turned out to be my ex-boyfriend of ten years, who unbeknownst to me had also put up a profile on OK Cupid a few months previously.  “We're a 96% match!" he messaged me, "Will you go out on a date with me?” I laughed until I cried. 

Maybe I should move to Europe.

[1] Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt. “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Dating and Mating Today.” Institute for American Values, 2001.
[2] Andrew J. Cherlin. The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (New York: Knopf, 2009).
[3] Ronald Inglehart, Human Beliefs and Values: A Cross Cultureal Sourcebook Based on the 1999-2002 Values Surveys (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 2004), 158.
[4] Beth L. Bailey. From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989).
[5] Paul Hollander. Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America (United Kingdom: Ivan R. Dee, 2011), 25.