|"I can't understand you, are you speaking Chinglish?"|
It was only a matter of time before I addressed this. I actually wanted to avoid this topic because I hate bringing my racial background into a conversation where it doesn't belong. But I figured it was time...
But before I do, let's go back to what first inspired this strand of thought.
It started with going to Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond, which was playing on Broadway back in January. Typically, when I'm sitting in the audience, I'm used to being the only Asian in the room (not including the token Asian on stage in the ensemble). Well, maybe I'm not the only Asian in the room, there's probably a small handful of Asian sprinkled in a 1,000-plus person house of white people. So there I was sitting at Stick Fly and among the chorus of "Yeah, that's one good brotha" and "Mmm...hmmm" that I realized, there are a lot of African-American faces in the audience. I looked around, colored faces in every row, probably about half of the house.
And standing outside of Chinglish the next week, I noticed that Asians and Asian-Americans were entering the theater in groups of twos and threes. I noticed a Chinese man in front of me who had a headpiece in his ear, to help him hear the Mandarin dialogue better. I was sitting with my sister and brother-in-law. And the selling point I used to convince them to go see the show was "It's by the guy who wrote M. Butterfly." Asian identity and lost translations on stage, instantly relateable to us as Asian-Americans. It's how I made my sister, who (like me) did not grow up attending theatrical productions, start going to the theater. Because there were people like us, in color, writing and on stage. It was worth supporting. And unlike me, she was never forced to read plays during English class and never listened to cast albums on repeat like I did. She's a lawyer while I'm a starving writer.
Which brought me back to a thought that circulates often during TCG meetings, which is, "How can we diversify the audience?" Here's a simple concept that seems to get lost in the folds. Tell our stories or, at the very least, put faces on the stage that are familiar to us (as was the point of a blog post I recently wrote for TCG about the lack of Asians-Americans in New York theater).
It's how Jeremy Lin inspired a whole drove of Asians and Asian-Americans to be interested in basketball. Theater, like basketball, is not just for white people. And in full disclosure, when that conclusion was asserted, my head hit the table and I wanted to shout at the virtual people saying "Why are we still talking about this?!" and "This helps nobody!" (sarcasm) It's not because Broadway prices are unreasonable for most middle-class income, or the lack of diverse playwrights and actors on Broadway. No, the problem must be that audiences of color don't enjoy theater... (sarcasm ends)
Here's a thought, when an institution or a commercial production is unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly) excluding certain members of certain races from the stage, why should those colored faces patron such an institution? Open it up (for playwrights and for principal roles, not just nameless ensemble faces) and people will come, it's not difficult to understand.