Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How to Solve the Yellowface Problem

It’s great that everyone is making noise about Scarlett Johanssen being cast in Ghost in the Shell and #whitewashing in Hollywood and in major regional theaters. I'm totally with you all but excuse me while I chime in with a thought.

Yes, actors are the recognizable face of the business and everyone else is behind the scenes. But it’s the producers, directors, and writers who are really the driving force of a project. If we really want things to change, we can’t just bang on the door of the gatekeepers. We’ve got to support our own producers and directors and writers. And we’re not doing it.

I’m going to keep this short. I’m not going to dwell. And perhaps a few sour grapes are in the mix. But I’m in Berlin because I don’t feel any support for my work in New York. And it’s not like I’ve been dilettanting around and just threw in the towel after being a little miffed. I’m a lifer who has about ten ideas for Asian-American pieces that can’t get a start. (Yes, go ahead, ask me.) The sad thing to me after nearly a year here in Berlin is that my stories will probably continue to be Asian-American and New York. Even though it hurts to write and hurts more to produce these theater pieces that can’t seem to find a home anywhere.

#MyYellowFaceStory is probably not one that you want to hear. Because it’s about how the odds are stacked against you even in your own community. One of the final straws that led me to pack up my bags? A theater company that I adore had a residency with a bunch of Chinese-speaking writers from Asia that culminated in a series of readings. I didn’t find out about this until they sent out the newsletter even though I’d been volunteering there for over three years. They know my work, they know I speak Chinese, but they didn’t think to call me. The two Asian-Americans that were involved in the program were Filipino and Korean. And male, if that makes a difference. I think they’re both fantastic, but they certainly don’t speak Chinese. And to be blunt, what they know about Chinese culture could fit in a thimble. I sent a note to the Artistic Director expressing my chagrin. He apologized and connected me with the woman who was running the program, whom I slightly know. She never emailed me at all.

I felt very slighted by the whole thing. I still do. Okay, fine, maybe they don’t like the work I do. Maybe they don’t think I’m that talented. But sheesh, you would think that I’d at least get a stab at a program simply because I can sort of talk with the writers. And this is just one of the examples I’ve had that no one really wants an Asian story with depth. They want a sanitized middle-class version of Asian-America, which is not the Asian-America that exists in my writing or my work.

Like I said, I don’t want to dwell. But I see so much energy being put into storming the gate of the lord up the hill and not any at all in sowing the field. There are plenty of fantastic Asian-American actors and a healthy growing group of Asian-American writers. But where is there support or mentoring for Asian-American theater producers or directors? Where is there funding for Asian-American theater or film? I already wrote about this years ago. And it’s still the elephant in the room. We can’t expect writers, directors, and producers who aren’t Asian-American to put our stories on the screen or on the stage. Why the hell would they? It’s just not their story. So the most they can do is add Asian-Americans to their consideration. Which is quite significant, but it will largely be tokenism and window dressing. If we want things to really change, we have to support our own. And how are we doing this?  

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