There’s Something About Marlene Forte: An Artist Who Brings Light Into Our Lives

There are times in life when you see an actor at work, and her power and ethereal earthiness confirms for you what you already know: that organic talent in living color doesn’t always find its way to leading articles in mainstream media or to global celebrity. Even when it sorely deserves to.

Marlene Forte today

When an artist is a person of color and a female carving out her career in a period of time in the United States when gender and racial bias (and marginalization) create overwhelming challenges, the fact the artist can rise above conventional male vanilla hurdles, and have the opportunity to be seen and heard is miraculous.

How often have you stated the name of an artist of color and had a White person say, “Why didn’t she try to be like Meryl Streep?” You know while there may be many other reasons at play in the vagaries of such an equation, one of the issues is that mainstream arts and entertainment hasn’t made much space for actors, directors, or narratives about women and/or about people of color.  Historically, it hasn’t been a part of the vocabulary.  It’s getting lip service now and hopefully those lips are gateways to true social change. So, this is the name I state in this moment: Marlene Forte.

Marlene with middle sister Ivette, and twin cousins Elizabeth and William

She is a standout actress.

She is an intelligent, no-nonsense, spirited human being.

She is a wonderful mother and wife.

She is female.

She is Cuban American.

She is a good human being.

Watching her work is like drinking a truly good cup of tea.

Born in Santiago De Las Vegas (near Havana), Cuba, Marlene was raised right outside of New York City in West New York, New Jersey.

Lightheartedly calling herself a true “bridge and tunnel gal,” Marlene is a creature of the urban landscape.

“I have never been interested in living in the country or too far away from a city,” she mused.  She grew up on the Hudson River with the New York skyline beckoning and “never yearned for the chirping of the birds, even though Jersey is The Garden State.”  Blithely referring to herself as a “river rat,” she mentioned two urban landscapes that are home to her – New York and the city to which she moved, Los Angeles.

“I watched the World Trade Center go up and witnessed in horror its destruction from Los Angeles decades later,” she said.  She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, playwright and professor Oliver Mayer.  Like many actors, she thought about working on Broadway, but instead found greater flexibility and opportunity in arts and entertainment in Los Angeles.  Her first television credit was on the show, “Judging Amy.”

As an infant, Marlene arrived in the United States from Cuba with her parents.

“My parents packed a paper bag and headed to the USA,” she said.  For her, there was a bit of luck in her immigration because she has no memory of that day – a day when her parents were separated at the airport by Cuban authorities when her mother was denied exit from Cuba.

“My mom had not properly resigned her teaching post in Havana, so she was denied exit,” Marlene explained.  “The authorities told my dad he could leave and I could leave with him, but my mom needed to stay and properly resign her claim to her country.”  The fact that she hadn’t done so caused her officially to be labeled as a “deserter of the revolution… a traitor to her home.”

That day, Marlene stayed with her mother because her father was “scared to leave with a nine-month infant who was barely walking.”  Two weeks later, her mother was given permission to leave, and both she and her mother were labeled “qusanos” – worms, she remembered.

“That’s what we got called us as we left the island never to return,” Marlene said.  She noted that, at the time, they were not allowed to return, so departure was “quite final.”

Marlene in high school years, and two photographs with middle sister Ivette

Eighteen years later, Marlene’s life experienced another forever kind of change when she gave birth to her daughter, Giselle.  She married her high-school sweetheart, her first husband.

“Truth be told, I was way too young to be in love and way too sheltered to know what becoming a mom would require,” she declared.

Marlene on the occasion of her first wedding and then with daughter Giselle

This important moment in her life was linked to another significant step – attending college.  When her daughter was born, she was finishing her first semester of college at Rutgers University while also commuting because the university didn’t have housing for married undergraduate students.  Morning sickness and commuting aren’t a good mix (note, the term “morning” sickness must have been created by someone who never experienced pregnancy or they might have called it “all-day” sickness).

“I have a very vivid and visceral memory of driving down the New Jersey turnpike towards New Brunswick in the middle of a huge snow storm,” Marlene recalled, “and I vomited twice… right on the side of the icy shoulder lane. There were very few cars on the road that day, but I had an exam and needed to get to class.”  She laughed and added that “this was way before Zoom.”  Noting that she had a terrible trimester, Marlene gave birth to Giselle just before her final exams. Unable to take them at the time, she returned in early January, completed her exams, and gained a 4.0, something she maintained for two years.

Because she and her then husband only had one car, Marlene transferred from Rutgers University to Fairleigh Dickinson College in Teaneck, New Jersey, a school where her husband was then studying dentistry, the focus for which the school is known.  At the time, the fact that she was the female in the relationship dictated secondary consideration.

“The man’s job was much more important than the woman’s then,” she noted, “and he was the breadwinner so….”  As a wife, she was just expected to “hang my pretty (college) certificate on the wall and continue to have children.” After graduating, her then husband wanted two more children, but something else was stirring in Marlene Forte – the desire to pursue an acting career.

These equally challenging objectives led to big changes in Marlene’s life.  She and her husband divorced and she launched her acting career – starting her own business as an artist.  Her “old-fashioned wonder boy” ex-husband became a cardiac surgeon while Marlene has a thriving acting career, one built against the odds of mainstream hurdles for BIPOC artists and narratives.

“I truly believe I would have never followed my dreams of becoming an actress if I remained married,” Marlene related, “because we were both children and we wanted two very different lives.” In fact, Marlene considers her divorce an important passage in her life. She became a successful independent business person and her ex-husband became a success as a heart surgeon.

The beginning of her acting career wasn’t effortless. A single mother with a three-year-old daughter, Marlene had to be inventive and resourceful. She started a business.

“I loved movies and acting, so I started my very own video rental store… just around the corner from my parents’ home,” she said. Its location was brave because her parents were still mourning her divorce and wanted her to go to law school, not pursue a “crazy and unstable acting career.” However, the fact that she was becoming a business owner pleased them, so they lent her cash that she combined with money from selling her car and started investing in movies. At the same time, she took the first steps towards her acting career, doing extra work.  “I needed to get on a set and really knew NO ONE in the business,” she mused.

A blessing Marlene had that helped her was her ability to speak English and Spanish fluently. Her bilingualism helped her get into the Screen Actors Guild. After taking a commercial acting course, she gained her first commercial agent and was booked on her first commercial, what she calls a roundabout way into acting.

As she built her pre-Blockbuster video store, she also was educating herself in film and becoming what she terms as “the Cuban Tarantino.” She owned the store for seven years and, simultaneously with being a business proprietor, did work as an extra on multiple movies coming out in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I did stand-in work for Talia Shire in ‘New York Stories’ and ‘Vittorio Storaro’ with a light meter in my face for the first time,” Marlene recounted. “I had no idea what stand-in work required, but I said yes. The cash was better than extra work.”

By 1990, a Blockbuster Video store opened up near her successful mom-and-pop video store.

“I saw the writing on the wall,” she mused. Her stock of over 5,000 VHS tapes left her with challenges that led to her getting out of the video business. My stock consisted of VHS’s at the time. Over 5000 titles. I decided to get out of the video business.”

“I would like to think that I really knew what was coming,” she said, “BUT, truth be told, I was just getting older and pushing thirty and I thought, if I don’t jump now, I will never become an actress.” So she jumped.

Theatre caught her.

While living with her parents, she heard about a new acting troupe. She joined the company, which became LAByrinth Theater Company. Her experiences there were the equivalent of a graduate education in acting and then some.

“LAByrinth became my MFA in acting,” Marlene affirmed.  “There were only thirteen of us and we would meet every Wednesday night. I was the first official intern. I had no acting experience except my commercial class and a few plays.  I would take notes and watch all the workshops.”

For a year, Marlene interned and then she was invited on stage. Two major things happened in the life of Marlene Forte.  

“The rest is history,” she said.

Marlene with father Gerardo next to a poster of Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics” in which she was
performing at Portland Center Stage and Marlene with actor Pedro Pascal in “Anna in the Tropics,”
Production Photograph by Owen Carey

That “history” includes the birth of a phenomenal acting career and her meeting the man she calls “the love of my life,” her now husband, Oliver, renowned playwright, librettist, essayist, and professor who serves as Associate Dean of Faculty and Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives at the School of Dramatic Arts, University of Southern California. 

Marlene’s Cuban heritage is another vital dimension of who she is.

“Culturally, I have ALWAYS identified as Cuban American, Cuban being the emphasis,” she declared. She noted she grew up in a very Cuban community and that “Cubans huddle together.” Her existence as a Cuban was altered when she went to college.

Much to the chagrin of her Cuban family in Florida, Marlene was transformed into a Democrat at college and also converted her parents to her political beliefs, too.

“My parents did not really understand except that Democrats let Fidel win!” she exclaimed. While non-Democratic perspectives haven’t changed much among her Floridian family, Marlene said she believes that growing up in New Jersey away from the Florida fold allowed for clarity.

 “The rhetoric was not so loud,” she said. “And an education opened my eyes to the manipulation of politics.”  

The fortitude of her Cuban culture is galvanized in part on the fact that the Cuban immigrant story is in her view different from others.  

“We are refugees from a communist country,” she explained. “If we could touch ground, we were mostly welcomed, especially in the 1960s. In my family’s case, we were White Cubans. I grew up among many White and a few Black Cubans, but mostly European White (Cubans). She didn’t experience racism directly until much later in life. She remember the day vividly.

“My parents had moved to their side of Hudson County Park,” she recollected. “We dared to move to the Italian side of town. I was about eight months pregnant. I was pulling out of my parents’ driveway and a man stood behind my car. I almost hit him. He was yelling something at me. My windows were shut tight; it was a cold Jersey day.  When I opened the window I heard him say,  ‘Go back to the other side of the park where you belong.’” She cried all the way home and, “for the first time felt cold and alone in America.” She never told her parents nor husband.  “I just cried,” she said, “I still cry thinking about it.”

When Marlene was starting her acting career, white-washing and gender-washing affected the branding of females and people of color who had what then were perceived to be non-US names. Being marginalized and generic were the rules. Women were not actors, but actresses, and if you had a name like Rodriguez, could you please make it more “American”?

“My name was Marlene Rodriguez at the time I started acting,” she said.  I kept my married name because I didn’t want to have a different name from my daughter… familia.” However, every representative she met wanted her to change her name to something more “generic”.

“GOD I hate GENERIC!,” Marlene exclaimed. “Lol! They wanted to change my name to Marlene Rodrick. Who the hell was Rodrick?! I said, ‘I was born Ana Marlene Forte Machado, pick one!’” And Marlene Forte it became. She noted that when her daughter Giselle Rodriguez started acting seventeen years later, nobody asked her to change her name.

“Thank goodness for Jennifer Lopez and Gina Rodríguez and Sofía Vergara!” she declared. “Our Latin name was no longer frowned upon.”

However, acting roles for the Rodriguez’s and Lopez’s were still limited, with ever-present stereotypes. Stereotypes notwithstanding, Marlene carried on, seeing them as a part of her job. Rather than trying to get rid of them, she sought to give such roles greater dimension and texture.

“I never became a lawyer who fights for the injustices of this world, but I can represent,” she pointed out. “I can educate. I can make a small difference with my portrayal of a character.” She strives to do this by cultivating the humanity of such roles. 

“I will NOT play them one dimensionally,” she stated emphatically.  “… my job [is] to make them whole, to present a human being to the world; a mother, a fighter, a daughter, a survivor, a wife, a lover, and partner who happen to be a whore, or a drug dealer, a maid or Mother Teresa! WHOLE human beings, with no judgment.”

Her love for theatre has enhanced her life in many ways – artistically and also because it connected her with husband Oliver. She said she enjoys the community aspect of creating theatre. Even though she makes her living performing on television, she believes it doesn’t give her the artistic value she finds on stage.

“I married a playwright so my personal life is very much mixed together with [theatre],” she said. “I wish I had more time to see my amazing daughter, but she is an adult now and lives in New York. This pandemic has made it more difficult to see each other BUT I do take advantage of all the media we have at our disposal now.”

Marlene uses virtual communication platforms to talk to her daughter and to her aging parents, noting the platforms make it easier to manage distance.

Today, Marlene lives in Los Angeles where she continues a viable acting career in film, television, and theatre; and shares a dynamic and bright life with husband Oliver. Together, they enjoy a creative partnership that encourages the cultivation of greater expression and feeds their personal relationship in a multitude of ways.

Marlene today with daughter Giselle Rodriguez and husband Oliver Mayer in front of a poster for “Knives Out,” a film in which Marlene acted

Credits

All photographs courtesy of Marlene Forte.

Again

Another murder of an unarmed Black person by police officers, who rarely are held accountable for taking the life of a citizen, especially a Black citizen, has happened – again.

1

As if enslavement of Africans didn’t take enough lives and separate enough families, the nightmare of killings of unarmed Black people continues. Good people everywhere shake their heads and say, “How terrible!” or “I’m not like that.” However, as a White speaker at a recent cultural talk said, “We ARE like that.”

Let’s own up to it and truly do something about violence against non-White people. Too often, we lean on excuses that smack of racism themselves. For example, many have told me that I shouldn’t think of the murders in Atlanta as being anti-Asian. They blame the murders on misogyny, but there were a lot of other kinds of places the murderer could have carried out his violence; he targeted Young’s Asian Massage – not a Black, Latinx, Native American, or White business, but an Asian business.

2

Yesterday, speaking as a guest of the USC (University of Southern California) Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Cultures, multi-genre writer Ta-Nehisi Coates stated that US citizens too often practice “fair-weather patriotism,” the kind that lets one enjoy the privileges of being a part of a country while foregoing the hard work on which those privileges were established in the first place.

As he pointed out, the notion that “I’m not a part of this” is absurd because we all are. He also mentioned US citizens who say they are not involved because they weren’t in the US when slavery happened. The point is not to run to home base, but to realize that being a US citizen comes with responsibilities. He noted that today US citizens are taxed on treaties made years ago and that we have a collective responsibility as Americans to own the matters that history has wrought.

3 Ta-Nehisi Coates

While it’s challenging to get statistics on police violence from governmental sources, community organizations estimate that, in an eight-month period in 2020, nearly 170 Black people were killed by police. Excavating the roots of that violence in this country goes back to 1619.

As Coates said yesterday, “I am taxed for roads I will never drive on.”

Violence against non-White individuals from the birth of this nation into our future produces a tax that we all must pay, out of our pockets and/or out of our souls.

Now, Daunte Wright is dead. He was twenty years old.

The White woman who murdered him has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. She says she made a mistake.

She’s been a police officer for nearly three decades and is a training officer. Her expertise and the fact that she is training others to be police officers suggests that making a mistake is unlikely in her case (if it is likely, we all ought to worry about what that means for newly trained police officers under the tutelage of others like Wright’s murderer, Kim Potter).

One of the Wright’s family’s attorneys, Benjamin Crump, stated to CNN that the shooting was not an accident.

“This was an intentional, deliberate and unlawful use of force,” Crump’s statement read. “Driving while Black continues to result in a death sentence. A 26-year veteran of the force knows the difference between a Taser and a firearm.” (4)

5

Credits

1 – “racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. By Ta-Nehisi Coates” by Quaries Official is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. Downloaded on April 14, 2021 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/4ae97a05-b460-4fbe-a9f8-9b15f605ab70.

2 – “Family Dynamics.” by Neil. Moralee is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. Downloaded on April 14, 2021 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/799d997c-e047-43bb-b543-7eadf0f26ba9.

3 – “coates2” by Oregon State University is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. Downloaded on April 14, 2021 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/6479ace7-1550-4f67-a71d-e2ca4d98140c.

4 – Hanna, Jason; Parks, Brad, Holcombe, Madeline. “Officer charged with 2nd-degree manslaughter in Daunte Wright killing.” CNN, 14 Apr 2021. Web. www.cnn.com. Downloaded April 14, 2021 @ https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/14/us/daunte-wright-minnesota-shooting-wednesday/index.html.

5 – “Solidarity” by Marcela McGreal is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. Downloaded on April 14, 2021 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/e9bf2023-c619-48b1-a83d-dbdda35897d9.

Integrating the World Through a New York State of Mind

Tamara Ruppart is a director who came into the world looking at it beyond arm’s length.

A native New Yorker (born in Manhattan and raised in Queens), she grew up surrounded by friends of different cultural backgrounds (Kenyan, Japanese, South Asian, etc.) and absorbing their recounting of the multitude of faraway places and histories that had shaped their lives.  In so doing, those experiences, as well as growing up in a highly multicultural metropolitan landscape, shaped Tamara’s perspective as well.

Tamara Ruppart in her pre-teenage years.

The fact that New York was and is a place where “many cultures mix and blend” is just one of the reasons that make Tamara proud of being a native of Manhattan.

That and her observations of similarities in her multicultural friends’ families’ lives ingrained in Tamara the importance of a global perspective that galvanized her interest in directing.

“As a storyteller, I love ‘living’ in other cultures; to learn, explore, and celebrate them,” she said.

I first met Tamara Ruppart face-to-face in the lobby of Los Angeles Theatre Center when my play, Calligraphy, was opening there, but, in the real sense of the word, we had “met” through a creative connectivity – we both were interested in exploring stories of female narratives lost in the hurly-burly of exclusive mainstream thinking, in particular the narratives of Asian and Asian American females. My play, Kokoro (True Heart), is what initially brought us together before we physically had met. 

Tamara Ruppart today.

Directing the play was Tamara’s first professional theatre job. Seldom on our artistic journeys are we fortunate enough to connect with another artist in a way that goes beyond the work of art itself into a human bond.  That happened via Kokoro and has evolved into many other artistic projects. 

Tamara’s film, Path of Dreams, was penned by me, and garnered numerous international awards and recognition.  Eleven Arts, Inc., now has hired her to direct the feature film adaptation of Kokoro, which begins shooting this year.  Organically linked to Tamara’s interests, the story explores the struggle of a young Japanese immigrant mother adapting to the very foreign culture of the United States. Challenging the audience to empathize with the accused in the face of what is seen by the West as a heinous crime, the play illuminates the degree to which culture and spirituality shape perceptions of truth and morality. 

Tamara’s interest in theatre and film has early roots.  Acting in a play in the eighth grade ignited her path.

“I played a leading role in a play in eighth grade and that was when I really fell in love with theatre,” she stated.  “From rehearsals, to script work and memorization – I couldn’t get enough. I remember the exact moment, before a dress rehearsal, that I realized theatre was a potential career choice.”

That seed of interest grew as Tamara continued her schooling.  Early in her college career, she focused on theatre as a major.  A pre-graduate school experience solidified her commitment, and also enhanced her understanding of the full landscape of theatre and theatrical collaboration.

Tamara Ruppart.

“I was given an amazing, exclusive opportunity to work on Phantom of the Opera on Broadway as an Assistant Stage Manager,” she recounted.  “Seeing how the choreography backstage was just as important as the blocking and choreography onstage was very eye-opening. There were so many moving parts onstage (in the dark), under the stage, up in the rafters, etc., that kept the show moving forward. I am forever grateful for (and inspired by) my experience and education at the Majestic.”

That experience was amplified by a private meeting with the theatrical producer and director of the premiere production of Phantom of the Opera, Hal Prince, instigated by a letter that Tamara wrote to him at the end of her graduate school years.

Months after writing the letter while driving across the US in her move from New York to Los Angeles, she received a phone call to set up a meeting with Prince. 

“So, after arriving in Los Angeles, I flew immediately back to New York to meet Hal Prince in his office at Rockefeller Center,” she recalled.  His warmth and encouragement created a precedent for her appreciation of “those at the top who are nice to those at the bottom.”  “I will never forget that hour of my life with Hal,” she continued.  “As an extension of the cast and crew at Phantom, Hal was wonderfully… exuberant and humble.”

Besides the aesthetic telepathy of Kokoro, I knew little about Tamara before I met her in person.  I thought about her name – Tamara.  I had known a Samara who was South Asian.  What, I wondered, was her cultural background?  When a slender, attractive blonde woman walked towards me in the lobby of LATC, my deliberations merged with the human being before me.  I marveled at how our paths had united given the very different circumstances of our growing up and our life journeys.  However, the more I learned about Tamara’s background growing up and her experiences teaching English in Japan, the more our bond strengthened.

“I was a little towhead blonde girl who was raised in the most diverse neighborhood of the world.,” she noted.  “Growing up in Queens, NY, made me feel like individual variations were a regular part of life. When I was young, I attended my local public school, but moved to a Waldorf school while still in elementary school. Juxtaposing the wonder and natural world of Waldorf education with the gritty streets of New York City exposed me to a wide variety of textures, cultures, colors and stories.”

Tamara Ruppart in her childhood years.

Tamara was never at odds with that diversity and, when she moved to a part of the country that didn’t have that same depth and breadth of diversity, she realized what she had left behind.

“When I attended college in North Carolina, I learned how extraordinary New York City really was,” she said.  Ultimately, she came to realize that diversity exists in many forms.  “… similar skin color didn’t necessarily equate similar culture, life experience, or world view. Just because someone looks like me doesn’t mean that he or she is like me. And just because someone doesn’t look like me doesn’t mean they’re not.”  These observations forged in Tamara the mandate to seek personal connections, both in her work and in her personal life.  “I always remember this in my storytelling, and look for opportunities to build bridges and celebrate cultural understanding,” she emphasized.

One of her favorite excavation sites for cultural understanding and raising of consciousness is the female condition.  Stories about women’s lives help her to grow.  They also have been a source that illuminates what cultures share versus what causes them to collide.

“From reading plays about women from other cultures (both domestically and internationally), I marvel at our core similarities regarding motherhood, romantic love, and inner strength and will (often worthy of a superhero),” Tamara said.  If one is an artist and must live in certain artistic worlds, it’s worth thinking about where you have to live before you move in.  “As a director, you live in the stories you tell for months or even years, and I love to live in stories about women who are different from me,” she explained. “These women teach me about the greater consciousness and character of ‘women’ and for that I am forever grateful.”

Tamara Ruppart on the set of “Path of Dreams” in Japan.

Directing is a beautiful and challenging art.  One is interpreting, through one’s own vision and experience, a world created by a playwright or screenwriter in Tamara’s case.  Every position in the theatre is daring, so it’s interesting that many theatre artists have experience in multiple areas in film, theatre, and television.  For Tamara, her surety in her directing path grew out of other areas of theatre. Often people talk about being bit by the theatre bug; for Tamara, once in the theatre world, there was a click and she had arrived in the place that was right for her.

“I feel so fortunate to be able to be a director,” she shared. “When I was young, I thought I wanted to be an actor. It was really fun to be on stage and play with the other actors. But, when I discovered directing, everything just clicked.”

Her acting roots, as well as what she learned working backstage, has informed her directing.

“I am not an actor, but my years on stages taught me about the craft,” she imparted. “As a result, I very much respect and appreciate actors, their dedication, and their talent. Actors are the keystone to every story.”

Twenty years of playing classical piano also informed her work as a director.  “I very much connect to the musicality and rhythm of each script,” she said.  “I usually find a single piece of music that represents the story (and/or main character) and listen to it repeatedly while working.”

She adds to this education her background in college art studies. 

“… textures and a set color palate on stage are vital for me,” she explained. “Ultimately, directing allows me to use all these tools in my toolbox, and lets me explore and shape each aspect of storytelling. It is both personally and artistically rewarding.”

Tamara Ruppart on the set of “The Kool School.”

Perhaps because of growing up absorbing a multi-faceted world around her and also educating herself in life behind the curtains and behind the camera, Tamara is a director who understands the critical value of technical production in performing arts.

“I live for tech,” she stated. “It’s my favorite part of the rehearsal process.”

She described the collaborative frenzy that excites her.

“The stage manager in me loves getting all the cues perfected, the actor in me gets a thrill out of the costume and make-up debuts, and the director in me delights in seeing all the hard work and planning finally come together,” she related.  “It’s also a time when designers are around to help problem solve, the actors are giddy with opening night approaching, producers talk about house seats and reservations, and the stage manager takes her place as God. It’s a glorious frenzy of creativity and collaboration.”

“Tech” in a theatre environment is something that Tamara compares to tech on a film shoot.  Both are exhilarating, but like the notion of impermanence in the Japanese culture that is a massive dimension of her life, transitory.

“… both are only temporary,” she mused.  “These fleeting thrills are usually few and far between, so I try to enjoy every moment.”

Besides being a busy artist, Tamara also is a busy human being.  Perhaps the other dimensions of her life raise and cultivate her artistry to a depth that single-focused individuals rarely achieve (and may not even be aware of).  She is a director, a mother, and a wife.  Work-life balance is not only key, but essential; and time management becomes an incomparable, fundamentally imperative skill.  All that energy, of course, goes both ways.  As she grows as an artist, it feeds the cultivation of her humanity, too.

“Like every working mother, I’m always working on balance, a notion that is in constant flux,” she pointed out. “With each new project comes a different schedule, which affects life at home.  Rehearsals, meetings, and film shoots don’t have flexibility, but, as all mothers know, it takes a village. Having family/friends/babysitters/a supportive spouse/etc. is paramount and I couldn’t do it alone.”

It may take a village to raise a child, but the hope is the village sustains and nurtures that child beyond just raising the child.  In the same vein, life takes a village and Tamara is an artist who recognizes that, which helps her navigate the vigorous and dynamic waters of life as a female director with character. She knows she can’t do it alone; and engages with family, friends, and other artists to make art and life glow.

[Credits: Photographs of Tamara Ruppart courtesy of Tamara Ruppart; production photographs courtesy of Eleven Arts, Inc., True Heart Films, Minx Pictures, and this author.]

This Is Shay Youngblood: Her Eyes Have Seen and the Seeing Continues to Soar

1

Shay Youngblood is the epitome of the worldly woman.

She has written multiple books and plays. She is a visual artist. She is a scholar who teaches in academia. Her interdisciplinary art practice includes writing, painting, object making, sound art and video.

She has won numerous award for her writing in multiple genres including a Pushcart Prize for fiction, a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and NAACP theatre awards (NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). She was the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Sustained Achievement Award and of a National Endowment for the Arts sponsored Japan-US Creative Artist Fellowship. 

Along with graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, Shay has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Brown University, where she studied with Anna Deavere Smith and Paula Vogel; and has taught at New York University, University of Mississippi, Texas A&M University, and Voices of Our Nations (VONA, a multi-genre workshop for writers of color). In Jilin, China, she was an invited participant for its International Literary Writing Program to discuss and write on the subjects of the environment, nature and ecology.

She manages Youngblood Arts, a resource for artists, musicians, writers and readers of all ages and backgrounds, created to promote the literary and visual arts as a vital part of culture. Her organization offers writing workshops in multiple genres, bookmaking workshops for writers and visual artists, workshops for readers, genre-bending literary fitness workshops, manuscript consulting, coaching, and corporate and educational programming. 

Having begun the work of crossing borders at an early age, she accumulated experiential knowledge that has informed her achievements in theatre, literature, and academia; and also contributed to the resilience of spirit that has helped her to meet the challenges of three global crises through which she lived – the fall 1986 Paris bombing, 9/11 New York, and 3/11 Japan; and now the COVID-19 global pandemic that began this year and has not yet run its course.

2

Shay, a native of Columbus, Georgia, forged her own path in life after the death of her mother when she was only three years old, an experience that, of course, holds significance in her life. Her hometown sits on the border of Alabama and Georgia divided by the Chattahoochee River. In effect, she was in the middle of two time zones; Alabama is in the central time zone and Georgia is in the eastern time zone. She was a time traveler from the outset.

Without her birth mother and raised by older female relatives in several different households, her childhood nevertheless was rich with experiences that fed her humanity and her art, including music and dance.

“The sound I remember most was at night when freight trains rumbled on the tracks in the street in front of the housing projects where I lived, gospel singing on the radio and my young aunts singing popular 1960s’ songs by Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Diana Ross and the Supremes,” Shay recollected. These aunts and an uncle taught her how to dance, and encouraged the shy young Shay toward theatricality. Despite this encouragement, they also demanded a genteel civility that gains little purchase in contemporary society. 

“These women were from a generation that believed children were to be seen and not heard, so I listened and observed,” Shay said. In the process, she became inspired by the stories of their lives. 

“Those stories I heard became the foundation of my early work,” she noted. “I wanted to give those men and women a voice, to tell stories they; and people of their generation, class and limited education could not.”

Shay’s world view has been shaped by her African American, Native American, and Irish American ancestors. The fact that she is female also has had an impact on her pathway.

“Being born a girl, my world was automatically restricted,” Shay observed. “There was the expectation that I would study something lady-like, such as nursing or teaching, and would marry and have a family.”

In fact, the idea of leaving Columbus when Shay was young was rooted in that frayed strategy of a woman finding a man to support her. In Shay’s case, the expected tactic was to marry a military officer and quench the thirst for travel by accompanying him to his postings. 

“Columbus is close to Fort Benning army base and so everyone I know was connected somehow to the military, by a job on the base, or an enlisted, retired or former family member who served,” she explained. Dispassionate early on by the old approach, Shay was drawn to an independent life that allowed her to travel on her own and read books for a living.

That’s the design that has come to fruition for Shay Youngblood.

“As a creative, I’ve explored a number of genres, experimenting with film and theatre, interdisciplinary projects, sound projects and creative non-fiction,” she stated. These creative dimensions have blended with a scholarly dimension that Shay enjoys. “I am grateful to have discovered that my passion and my purpose is teaching,” she imparted. “I think of myself as a facilitator, developing critical thinking and expanding the view of my students by exposing them to art, books, films and plays from many cultures and encouraging them to explore and experiment in genres outside their comfort zone.”

Many children growing up in the US had parents tell them that, if they dug a hole deep enough, they would reach China. Whether or not Shay heard those words, her explorative instincts and desire to see the world sent her in that direction.

“As a child, if I wanted to go to China I would dig a hole in the back yard until I got tired,” she disclosed. “Poking a stick into the hard earth for hours, I wondered if the people and houses and trees would be upside down when I got to the other side. Would the boys and girls be as curious about me as I was about them?”

Growing up in Columbus and too young to go to China or any other country on her own, Shay traveled by reading books.

“When I was nine, all I had to do to travel was go to the children’s section of the Mildred Terry Library and open a yellow book, one in a series about cultures of the world,” she said. “In one of those yellow books, I learned that children my age ate with chopsticks, wore different clothes, ate different food and spoke a different language than I did. Traveling by book to Nigeria, Morocco, Iceland, Japan, India, France and Spain among other countries, my imagination and curiosity continued to be stirred.”

3

Being an artist is not always kindly looked upon by one’s family until there is economic success, but Shay’s family – blood-related and chosen – always have been supportive of her artistry.

“They believe in the work that I do,” she said. “They support and encourage me so that I can prioritize my art. I have had many jobs that paid the bills, grants that encouraged and supported projects and commercial projects that have carried me for a year or two. The creative work I do is part of who I am.” 

The dancing that relatives encouraged when she was a child grew into a teenage love of dancing. During those years, Shay came to enjoy going out to clubs to dance.

“We would leave the club when it closed at 1 am and race across the bridge to Alabama where we had one more hour to dance before heading home to sleep a few hours before church,” she mused. This notion of crossing borders and its impact on the nature of time fascinated Shay.   It began to influence her creativity in myriad ways as the daydreams of pre-writing manifested in her work, meshing with her desire to tell the stories of those who could not find enough purchase for them (or purchase at all) in mainstream society.

“My family was very religious,” she explained. “Church was very theatrical, physical; and the many hours of service seemed like endless hours until I began to create elaborate fictional scenes in my mind each Sunday to pass the time.” She calls it “a form of daydreaming.,” a useful exploratory tool for the creative mind.

In fact, this daydreaming became dramatized in Shay’s mind.

“The women in the Southern Baptist church of my youth would be filled with the spirit every Sunday,” she recollected. “They’d shout, sing and cry with so much emotion. The greatest impact this had on me was that in midst of all the shouting, preaching and singing I was in my own personal movie theater dancing and singing to soul, R & B and blues music. I kept one ear open in case my grandmother asked me about the sermon.”

It bears relation to the dualities of time that Shay grew up with crossing borders. She was and is a time machine.

“… this early ability to do a kind of time traveling has been useful,” she said. “I can do several things at once and create while the world spins around me.”

Everything that spun before her eyes was an inspiration for further exploration. Growing up in the American South, for example, geographically and with regards to its society, made her look beyond its horizons.

“The biggest impact growing up in the American South had on me was that I developed a deep curiosity about what was on the other side of the invisible restrictions, barriers and borders that society had up for me as a young person of color at the time,” she shared. “Growing up in a place that put so many restrictions on me, I wanted to leave from an early age and explore the world to see if I could have a bigger, more expansive life.”

When Shay was thirteen, she met her birth father for the first time. The journey to meet him further expanded her creative mind. 

“I took a bus from Georgia to Los Angeles to live with him briefly,” she noted. “To see the country at eye level from a Greyhound bus, to have conversations with people from all walks of life, to feel danger and infinite possibility was exhilarating and I wanted to capture those feelings and put them in a bottle.” Since that experience, Shay continuously has maintained a journal.

She wrote her first poem at the age of ten. That and her first visit to Yaddo (a New York-based artists’ retreat) (“… where I became a writer and first said it out loud…”) along with having her first play produced and her first novel published cemented Shay’s artistry and gave it the organic confidence it deserved.

4

Shay designates her theatre collaborations as her favorite artistic experience.

“…especially in the creation of my first play where I adapted my short stories for the stage,” she said. She spoke of one of her first collaborations with a director. 

“I provided a kind of blue print and the brilliant director Glenda Dickerson, a dramaturg, actors, and costume, light and designers worked together to bring my words to life in a way that took my breath away,” she declared. “They each brought something of themselves to the work and created a community each time it was produced.” It was her first play — Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery — that introduced me to her artistry; I have Sidney Poitier and Cedric Scott to thank for that. They encouraged me to go and see her play when it was in Los Angeles.

Theatre arrived early in Shay’s life; she served as the narrator of plays at her school from the first through sixth grades. That’s when she started middle school – and integration of schools began as well, which altered the landscape.

I took a one-hour bus ride to my high school located in an all-white upper middle class neighborhood,” she shared. “I wanted to continue to be a part of theatre so I signed up to work on the set of a play the school was producing that first fall. I stayed after school one day and got a ride home with the father of one of my classmates. My uncle who I lived with told me that he could not pick me up at school after dark in that neighborhood. I understood that he was fearful of being stopped or harassed because he was black and he might be questioned why he was there. I was upset, but I realized he was trying to protect us both.”

The success of her first play Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery led to a scholarship to attend Brown University where she noted that “some of my deepest creative connections and my most successful experiments were born.”

Books and travel were fountainheads for growth for Shay. As a student, she had a residency in Haiti and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Dominica, Eastern  Caribbean. She said that these experiences politicized her and developed an interest in history.  Over the years, Shay has traveled to and lived in many places, one of them being Japan, which reunited our pathways.

The Japan-US Friendship commission allowed her to experience a five-month residency in Japan. She created a project called Add Architecture, Stir Memory inspired by her own personal search for home.

As noted, she grew up in several households after her birth mother died and became “a child of the entire community,” as she states. Today, she reflects upon whether the idea of “home” is being lost.

“For most of my life I’ve explored the question of how we are impressed by our first memories of home, the physical structures and the more interior psychological and spiritual aspects,” she communicated. 

“In the twenty-first century, home has become virtual, portable, global and in danger of being lost. What is the effect of memory on architecture and how does architecture affect memory?”

These are the questions that galvanized Add Architecture, Stir Memory

“Since the end of 2008, the United States has experienced an economic crisis that has led to the loss of home for over four million Americans,” she pointed out. “A week into my stay in Tokyo on 3/11, Japan experienced the strongest earthquake in recorded history, triggering a tsunami that swept away entire towns and a nuclear disaster that displaced thousands. “Since that time,” she continued, “I have interviewed people from all walks of life, about their earliest memories of home, exploring the relationship to home in another culture. I was especially interested in having conversations with contemporary architects, artists and designers who use traditional materials and concepts in their professional practice.” She expanded her research to include interviewing people from diverse backgrounds, focusing on her core question, “What makes home?”  This question, she noted, is especially significant when one’s original home is only a memory.  

5

Her beautiful paintings grow out of her love of exploring and embracing across borders. Of her visual art, she says on her website, “As a child, opening a book was like entering another country, a new world filled with possibilities. I could see the world through the eyes of others in a rather transparent way.”

On her website, Shay acknowledges that is known largely as a successful writer of short stories, plays, personal essays and novels. This changed after the events of September 11, 2011.

“After 9/11 I lost words,” she exclaimed. “Words could no longer effectively express my horror, fear, anger and profound sadness.”  As a result, she turned to visual expression.  “I am a mostly self-taught, intuitive painter who began painting as a way to rebuild my relationship with language. My influences include artists whose singular vision and daring, challenge me to create the kind of work that is relevant, timeless and takes risks.”

6 – “Longing,” 2005, Shay Youngblood

The words came back. Let us all be thankful for this voice that speaks without a thread of artifice.

Photograph Credits

All photographs of Ms. Youngblood and have been provided by and used with the permission of Ms. Youngblood.

1  – Shay Youngblood.

2 – Shay Youngblood in her girlhood.

3 – Shay Youngblood.

4 – Shay Youngblood in the early, pre-computer days.

5 – Shay Youngblood with friends.

6 – “Longing” by Shay Youngblood.

Park Your Ethnicity

Park your ethnicity.

Hmmm.

1

I heard a White female professor at a United States university state this concept, more in the vein of, “Can’t we just park our ethnicity for a moment?”  I paraphrase, but that was the gist of her expression, along with the notion that we should stop talking about BIPOC realities and get on with the shared activity of higher education.

The statement was made earlier in the fall, but the phrase often circles back into my mind.  It does so even though several people – White and Black – explained to me that the professor did not mean anything negative by her statement.

I understand that she did not on the surface, but the systemic nature of racism in the US also comes to light.  The phrase does not consider that BIPOCs cannot – ever—park their ethnicity, even if they attempt to.  In my view, they may think they have parked it and saunter through society with the belief that nobody sees them as BIPOC, but that is an illusion.  If you are a BIPOC, one’s ethnicity is either labeled, assumed, presumed, or surmised when one walks through US society regardless of where you parked and how much you paid for that parking.  Often, whatever ethnicity you actually may be assumed to be is way off the mark.

Regardless:

PARK YOUR ETHNICITY.

2

Let’s reflect on what that illuminates in contemporary times in the US.

I picture a parking lot far away from any predominantly White institution or business where BIPOCs who want to survive (dare I say succeed) in the US mainstream “park” their ethnicity.  (Note that this parking lot has not been provided by the mainstream; rather, it was born out of BIPOC aspiration and resignation to US racial convention.)  There is no tram to take the parkers from the outlying lot; one must walk a distance to arrive at the mainstream.  One usually cannot pace one’s walk or you will fall behind (this is akin to the BIPOC parents’ caution that a BIPOC must give 300 percent effort to a White person’s 100 percent effort to succeed in the US mainstream).  One must walk fast, perhaps even run.  Doors of the mainstream close quickly and some never open.  If you perspire, it will be hailed as innately characteristic of some BIPOCs.

Once one arrives at the threshold of the US mainstream, one must slip in without breaking the stride of the many non-BIPOC people who see you as competition, or see you as someone who got in the door simply because of their color and not because of aptitude that has nothing to do with ethnicity.  Of course, the irony is that, given US enslavement of Black people and the systemic racism that remains entrenched in our institutions and businesses today (and the unavoidable fact that many US businesses benefited economically due to years of free enslaved Black labor, benefits that are still enriching the lives of their descendants today), many non-BIPOCs have advanced and succeeded in the US mainstream because of their color, because they do not have BIPOC melanin (unless they are investing time in tanning).

So, the BIPOC is in the door and it is time to give 300 percent.  The BIPOC is challenged by the fact that one must accept things as they are and never raise a question, or the BIPOC will be seen through the view of non-BIPOC expectations and labeled as an angry (not assertive) individual.  This not only will emanate from non-BIPOCs, but also from within the BIPOC community.  For example, a Native American may exert this view against a Black individual or a Black individual may exert this view towards an Asian American (or vice versa).  Moreover, the BIPOC is challenged by the fact that a high sum was paid to park in the outlying lot and the BIPOC may be worrying about how to pay the bills for essential needs (is parking one’s ethnicity essential in today’s US?).  In addition, the BIPOC may consider the fact that, after exhibiting 300 percent, the BIPOC must walk back to that distant lot where ethnicity was parked.  This is the work day that never ends.

3

I know.  Many non-BIPOCs are thinking: “But it was hard for me to get in the door, too!” and “But I give 300 percent, too!” or “But the parking fees are high for me, too!”  However, just think about how harder it might be if you were visibly a person of color (I say “visibly” because some BIPOCs are White-appearing and, therefore, have an easier time navigating the US mainstream because they are assumed by non-BIPOCs to be White and they get to “park” in the non-BIPOC parking lot, which, even if it is expensive, does not cost the individual as much as it costs the BIPOC who must park their ethnicity in the margins). 

Here is an example of how a Black male is affected by this mentality.  In New York City, I sought to hail a taxi with a Black male friend.  This college-educated, intelligent, and kind man told me that he would conceal himself in the shadowy doorway of a store so that I could hail the taxi alone.  He explained that taxis often to do not stop to pick up Black male customers.  Finding this appalling in any way, but particularly in the twenty-first century, I nevertheless followed his instructions and hailed the taxi alone.  A White male taxi driver pulled over to pick me up and I opened the back door.  However, the minute my friend stepped forward to join me, the taxi driver sped off, nearly taking my arm with him.

In the US mainstream, non-BIPOC businesses and institutions tend to hand-pick a few BIPOCs that they invite as highly marginalized members of the White Privilege Club (WPC) (this seems reminiscent of the house versus the field Blacks during US enslavement of Black people).  Once non-BIPOCs select those few, others often are ignored or considered to be complainers who “play the race card” and who only need to look at the BIPOCs in their WPC to comprehend that, if they tried hard enough or were smart enough, they, too, could be part of the club.

When George Floyd was murdered, many earth citizens noticed (for the first time?) that BIPOC people were relegated to a different parking lot than they.  This realization astounded me because this was so painfully obvious – a massive elephant in the room that could only be unobserved if one chose to do so.  Looking the other way has to be a strategy in such a case.

So, now the US mainstream has provided a tram from the BIPOC parking lot to the US mainstream.  It does not move very fast and the roads it travels are rather bumpy (hence, the continuation of police murder of unarmed Black people), but, for the first time, some earth citizens genuinely are not looking away and wanting to do something.  What that something is or should be creates consternation, stress, and trial and error.  I understand; it is not easy.  However, it is long overdue.

It is my hope that this more broadminded thinking leads to the closure of the outlying lots or even the desire that one needs to park their ethnicity.  It is my hope that it creates an environment in which BIPOCs do not have to park their ethnicity in order to exist in the US mainstream, that they can exist in the mainstream and be able to be who they are – including ethnically – and still participate fully.  For example, why is a vice president not simply a vice president rather than an Asian and Black vice president?  Why is an architect not simply an architect instead of a good Asian American architect?  It is my hope that people will be able to be people instead of being seen as BIPOC first and human beings second.

These are my wishes for the racial pandemic that has slithered and rampaged through US society my entire life.

4

I fear, however, that this broadmindedness will be short-lived.  This view was affirmed for me when I saw in the recent US presidential election how politically divided the US population is (another unsurprising elephant, right?).

This also has been affirmed by goings-on that I have observed, sometimes firsthand, in US academia.  For example, three university leaders dismissed a prominent professor as an angry ______ (fill in the blank with BIPOCs who are visibly darker than Whites) due to that professor’s questioning of issues related to systemic racism.  One of the leaders defended his Southern upbringing, positioning it as a reason to prove he is not racist.

However, we all are in one way or another.  Denial or dodging of that reality is simply a cry for help.

Let us hope together.

CREDITS

1 – “parking lot 3013-06-27” by Paul-W is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L November 12, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/8145efad-f431-4407-98ec-2c133f6e044c.

2 – “parking lot” by Dean Hochman is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L November 12, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/4ae88b82-531d-41a8-9e99-eee7b712f4eb.

3 – “Chain Link Fence” by You As A Machine is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L November 12, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/02a7e481-3078-481c-9910-dc5653da914c.

4 – “Due to strong winds please close doors sign, Nature Magazine, Camden, London, UK” by gruntzooki is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L November 12, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/92282f4e-a153-47f6-be97-283c4711ed68.

Japanese and Black? Precisely. The Essence of an Asian and Black Identity

A recent media headline caught my attention, “Kamala Harris is Asian and Black.  That shouldn’t be confusing in 2020 – but it is to some.”[i]

Confusing?  Why?  Not confusing to me.  Not ever.

And in 2020?  I suppose I should not be surprised.  The US has been myopic when it comes to ethnicity and racial identity, and that is not going to change any time soon (laser surgery, contact lenses, or glasses cannot correct that kind of myopia).

Governmental politics aside, I am held by the fact that the notion of an Asian and Black identity was highlighted by an institution in the United States (US).  The Fifth Estate rarely discusses Asian and Black identity and, if it does, it deconstructs it into separate monoracial categories – Asian identity and Black identity – and focuses virtually 100 percent on Blackness. 

The only time it gives a nod to it is when it identifies someone of African-descent mixed race by his or her nationality, such as tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is Japanese and Haitian, but is identified in the media as Japanese because of her nationality.  I have a US passport, but I am multiethnic, and navigate as Japanese and Black, regardless of what country I might be in at birth or by residence. 

My mother moved to the US many years ago, but always said to me, “I am Japanese.  I was born Japanese and I will die Japanese, wherever I go.”  Spot-on.  I am multiethnic, I maneuver the world as Japanese and Black, and I am a Japanese daughter; I was born that way and I will die that way, regardless of nationality.  Hence, the genesis of this essay.

Oh, there is another reason as well.  When Senator Kamala Harris was named former US Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 vice presidential running mate for the 2020 US presidential election, some media sources asked me to comment on the fact that Senator Harris was Asian and Black.  (Never mind that her Asian ethnicity is South Asian Indian and mine is Japanese; never mind that her Black ethnicity is Jamaican and my Black ethnicity is US.)

Suddenly, Asian and Black ethnicity became important to the media because it had entered the realm of governmental politics, a world that likes to hold the reins of identity in its grasp by designating race by country of birth rather than by ethnicity.

1

The governmental politics of the situation, however, are not of primary interest to me.  The ethnic dimension and how it resonates in the realm of identity politics is.

The concept of a blended Asian and Black identity seems too difficult for the media – and most of society (including Asian American and Black American societies) – to grasp. 

Recently, I read an article written by a Black male that addressed how tired some Black people are of hearing about mixed race people.  Apparently, discussions about the challenges of living with two or more ethnicities is a topic to which he feels the media pays too much undeserved attention.  A Native American and White writer could not understand why someone who is Asian and Black does not toss aside her Asian ethnicity in the name of Blackness.  Can you imagine how he would feel if he were expected to deny his Native heritage and only identify as White, toss it aside as he might some sort of food that society doesn’t perceive he can have? 

The world benefits from understanding ethnic perspectives outside of their own – slavery, the murder of unarmed Black people, Native American genocide, the female condition (which has darker ethnic elements), the World War II forced incarceration of Japanese Americans, the Holocaust, the immigration of people of color, war anywhere – there is so much to learn and I don’t feel any attention paid is undeserved or exorbitant.

2

I am Japanese.

I am Black.

I am some other things, too, but, being raised in a profoundly meaningful way by an immigrant Japanese woman, and having a father who had to struggle with the world’s attitude towards Blackness, my galvanizing essence is comprised of Japanese culture and Blackness.  For the most part, I move on those pathways – although I will walk in the shoes of any of my kindred people. 

3

In this essay, I am not reflecting upon the intricacies of all ethnicities vis-à-vis the concept of race in the US or any such racist positions about identity. Rather, I am investigating the intricacy of being mixed race with heritage that includes Black ethnicity in the hopes of raising awareness where there is none – or where there is supposed to be some, but instead there is only loud absence.

It is important for me to note that my Japanese cultural essence is not a contemporary one, but one that includes a Meiji Era-born grandmother and a Shōwa Era-born mother.  The Japanese traditions and literature that were central to my upbringing ceased to exist in Japan many, many years ago.  Contemporary Japanese culture is an altogether different animal.  (Sometimes, it jars me.)  My mother’s cultural traditions, literature, customs, ideologies, and worldview were my upbringing and are as entrenched in my DNA as my very blood.  Neither do I apologize for those gifts nor turn away from them – ever. 

Regrettably, many of my experiences in many cultures of color – such as the cultures of Latinos, Native Americans, Japanese, South Asian Indian, Asian Americans, and others – have caused me to face a wall of anti-Blackness that makes it hard not to be astonished.  That is why when I hear the cry for “diversity,” I know that raising one’s awareness of cultures that are not one’s own is a responsibility that EVERYBODY faces, not just White people.  Why do I think this?  Granted, US school curricula conventionally have focused on White European American history and sidestepped those of BIPOC cultures. Many experiences, however, leave me no other choice except to marvel at the work so many of us need to do in the name of humanity.  Sometimes people say the oddest things to me and, even as they are saying them, I think to myself, “Please don’t say that.  Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it.”  However, they do; and the mind boggles.

An Italian American woman stared at me with contemptuous fascination and said, “May I touch your hair?  Does it feel like steel wool?” 

A Black woman said to me when I commented about the history of the murders of unarmed Black people in the US, “How can you possibly truly understand?  It’s a Black thing.” 

A Native American said to me, “Well, real Native Americans today are mixed with White.  If they’re mixed with Black, do they really count?” 

In moments such as these, I heave many a sigh (or yawn).

Another thing, it is interesting to observe people designating their race based on what country they were born in.  For example, Non-Hawaiian Asian American friends and White friends born in the state (not even a country) of Hawaii, tell me they are Hawaiian.  Black or White people born in Asia with no Asian heritage tell me they are Asian.  Same for the United Kingdom.

4

I get that such people want to hold purchase in their identities by holding fast to ones that are dictated by the governmental authority of nationality and I get how society can have an impact on one’s identity, but when I consider a person’s seared-in-the-gut identity, first I regard who raised them, and the ethnic heritages of their parents and ancestors.  Of course, it is up to them to choose how they wish to be identified.

Personally, however, I do not give a toss about where a person is born or languages spoken.  I care about who they are, based on how their mothers raised them and their father’s influences on their upbringing.  Society will bury mixed race into a hole underneath the sand box of humanity, but I never went there and am not going there.  (In the vernacular that often infects social media and the Twitterverse, “You can’t make me.”)  My parents’ ethnicities determine my ethnicity, not the media, social media, popular culture, personal whims given any respective sociopolitical climate, neighbors, nations, government, or anybody/anything else.  I am multiethnic.  Take it or leave it.

5

I realize many do not understand or accept what it means to be genuinely and sincerely multiethnic, such as looking across the table and observing parents from different countries, of different ethnic groups, and of starkly different colors.  Stereotypes of tragic mulattoes, delirious half-breeds, and people passing for White (although the opposite seems currently to be the penchant for some) come to mind.  Being multiethnic means that violet is both red and blue, but it is a new entity that is given a new name.  If that makes no sense to you, then all I can surmise is that you want everybody to pick a governmentally defined category of race and be silent.  Not happening here.  I will not check a box; my multiple heritages are not distinct, but confidently and happily coalesced.  When I am embraced by a community, they know that is my reality, no apologies. 

Because I am not Black and White, which is the historical blending of races in the US along with Native Americans and Whites, and because I was raised by an immigrant Japanese woman, not a Black woman or a Japanese American woman, my multiethnicity and atypical multiculturalism can make people just a little uncomfortable. That discomfort, however, is not my problem.  That discomfort should encourage those individuals to take a long, long look in the mirror about the genuine views of ethnic diversity that they wrestle with as their heads hit their pillows and perhaps do a little soul-searching.  Fragility, indeed.

A few weeks ago, a White female professor said in an online meeting in which I was present, “Can’t we just park our ethnicities?”  While I don’t think she meant any genuine malice when she said it, that is the point – these kinds of sentiments are buried in the subconscious and emerge seemingly out of nowhere in a manner that truly is not meanspirited.  Emerge they do, however, and they add to the racial pandemic that has besieged humankind for centuries (and for which there is no vaccine).  

Not only am I unable to “park” my ethnicity, but I also do not want to.  I treasure my heritage and all the gifts my mother endowed me with in raising me on her own after my father passed away when I was eleven.  This she did as an immigrant in a country that was hostile to her difference (even more so because she had married a Black man).   

I live in a racist society that is polarized with an archaic and limited view of ethnicity as a Black-White duality.  US society has manufactured ethnicity into a construction it calls “race” (I distinguish that construction from racism and racist) and largely defines US race as being Black and White.  That means that, if one is not White, one, for all intents and purposes, is Black.  That reduction happens most readily if one is mixed race with Black ethnicity.  (A gay Latino activist of late stated, “She looks Black so why does she consider herself Japanese?”  I equate such nonsense as being tantamount to, “She looks stupid, so why does she consider herself smart?”) 

In an ethnically unenlightened and/or clueless US society (or any other such society), one is challenged time and time again to navigate that society with one’s darker race in the foreground.  Many neighbors, friends, schoolmates, teachers, doctors, dentists, professors, business colleagues, shop persons, etc., operate with racially myopic behavior that derives from cluelessness and whatever dogma that cluelessness has embedded in their musculature, whether or not they are aware of that embedding.

6

Being Japanese and Black is a daily trial.  Of course, there are many people I have met who accept me on my own terms as a mixed race person who embraces her ethnicities wholeheartedly.  They are not the ones that make me pause and reflect on the Asian and Black identity becoming a topic in media.  Many, however, do.

Sometimes Asians or Asian Americans express a cultural or sociopolitical need to embrace me as a member of their community, even though I still encounter anti-Blackness that makes me uneasy. 

In the mixed race community, sometimes I experience another brand of that anti-Blackness from mixed race individuals who are part White and have no Black heritage (or think they don’t).   

Sometimes Blacks also express a cultural or sociopolitical need to embrace me as a member of their community, but that expression usually is more of a challenge as in, “You may be mixed, but you’re also Black.”  (I surmise that this stance is founded on the hypodescent theory of the archaic one-drop rule, but that rule has never meant anything to me because of its racist origins: it was invented by White slave owners to separate what was property [Black slaves] from what was not [White people].  Being able to label anything part Black as property was economic gain for White slave owners in that they could buy and sell more property, and also benefit from increased free labor that would sustain and build their wealth for generations to come.)  That expression also often requires one to address only one’s Blackness and to dismiss even one’s mother who raised you if she isn’t Black.

In claiming their identities, I do not ask people to deny their mothers or prove who/what they are.  I do not think someone isn’t who they are because they don’t look the way that the media says they’re supposed to look like.  I do not think I am better than someone because my ethnicity is different from theirs or because my skin is lighter than theirs.  I don’t say that people cannot possibly understand someone like Senator Harris because it’s a “mixed thing.”  No, I think it’s unethical to throw up such obstacles.  When groups throw them in my path, I consider them as immaterial as pebbles to be walked around.  It might get stuck in my shoe for a second, but I’m digging it out and discarding it.

7

Since media sources ask me to comment on Senator Harris’ selection as Biden’s vice presidential running mate, I will reflect upon it.  It is historic in many ways.  Yes, it is historic because she is a Black woman and because she is an Asian woman.  For those of us who are firmly mixed race, it is also historic because she is a mixed race woman and, for me, because she is immigrant-kindred.  Like her Asian Indian immigrant mother told her, my mother told me not to let people tell me who I am, but for me to tell them who I am.     

As a politician, Senator Harris must confront the complexities of the US voter.  Some voters may embrace her Blackness, some may embrace her Asian-ness, some may embrace the fact that she is mixed race, and some may embrace the fact that she is a female.  (Yes, I am aware that she also may be decried or embraced for other reasons, but, aforementioned, my interests are not with regard to the election, but with regard to ethnicity and culture.)

Contrarily and with equal (or even greater) force, some may denounce Senator Harris as not being Black enough or too Black: on one hand she may be perceived to be good for Black communities, but then the reality that she was raised by an Asian immigrant female may call into question her Blackness; on the other hand, non-Black communities will question whether or not a Black politician can represent their needs (although people of color have had White politicians representing their needs for eons). 

I understand.  I face different versions of this speculation as a writer and as a professor with regards to the right to write or teach about mono-ethnic groups of color because I am mixed race; and also with regards to speaking out about ethnicity and culture, which can make one unpopular with powerbrokers.

I am learning more about Senator Harris as time goes on.  One thing I have learned is that her first name and one of my middle names shares the same meaning in two different Asian cultures – lotus.  The plant grows underwater from resolute roots and blossoms above water.   Notwithstanding what happens, I must continue to blossom in myriad ways and I will not be uprooted.

8

Racism creates toxic stress that has a deleterious effect on human beings and not just on the objects of racism, but also on perpetrators – we reap what we sow.  All of us absorb (and proliferate) social stereotypes, but, left unexamined, they may lead us to behave in discriminatory ways that can have profound consequences on many dimensions of life, including higher education and the arts.  

It is said that seventy-five percent of human beings possess a subconscious preference for Whiteness.  I surmise that has generational roots, and that such beliefs are the origins of systemic racism and implicit bias.

Whatever you are or however you identify, I honor your choices.  Do not let people tell you who you are; you tell them who you are.  If they cannot or will not hear you, carry on and persevere.     

9

“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/ Of people… whose skin is a diff’rent shade…/ You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late… To hate all the people your relatives hate…/ You’ve got to be carefully taught…” – Richard Rodgers from the song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” from the film “South Pacific,” 1958.

[i] Nittle, Nadra.  “Kamala Harris is Asian and Black.  That shouldn’t be confusing in 2020 – but it is to some,” 12 Aug, 2020, Web. www.nbcnews.com. D/L on August 16, 2020 @ https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/kamala-harris-asian-black-shouldn-t-be-confusing-2020-it-ncna1236501.

CREDITS

Unless otherwise specified, all photographs are provided by the author and are part of The Velina Avisa Hasu Houston Family Trust.  Permission to use must be garnered from Velina Avisa Hasu Houston, Ph.D.; H. Rika Houston, Ph.D.; or their descendants.  All other photographs are from the Creative Commons, www.creativecommons.org, respective licenses noted.

1 – US Senator Kamala Harris, South Asian Indian mother and Black Jamaican father.  “Kamala Harris” by Gage Skidmore is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/.  Web.  www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/0f9adebb-a556-4e5b-a8db-70dc35570c44.

2 – The author’s mother as a teenager and in present day.

3 – The author with her sister and mother in Kansas, post-immigration.

4 – A historical photograph of a mixed race family in Australia.  “Mixed race family in Queensland” by Aussie~mobs is marked under CC PDM 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/e519b9cc-0884-46b5-b745-4c48e94e1a38.

5 – A portrait of King Kamehameha the Great of Hawaii (when someone tells me they are Hawaiian, this ethnicity is part of the equation that comes to mind).  “O’ahu – Honolulu: Bishop Museum – Kāhili Room – King Kamehameha the Great” by wallyg is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/7678948b-4bee-4404-b7c3-d5a9193ecdd5.

6 – Just how different are we?  Masks from various cultures around the globe. (From left to right: (1) Polynesian mask (country of origin unknown), (2) African mask (country of origin unknown), (3) African mask (country of origin unknown), (4) First Nations mask, (5) Noh mask, Japan, 6) New Ireland, South Pacific.  Photographs of various masks: (1) “Polynesian Mask” by Amaury Laporte is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/525e8330-feaf-42e8-8356-5a4785be7dc7. (2) “African mask” by Dowbiggin is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/239373f1-4f82-4390-a5fd-b9126833baca. (3) “DSC08919 African Masks” by godutchbaby is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/b76f7481-af18-49d3-935a-d49a750c5477. (4) “First Nations Mask” by ngawangchodron is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/023fba67-4d6a-4520-9083-43802671824f. (5) “Noh Mask: Kojo (Old Man)” is marked under CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/cc0/1.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/77f2baa2-6e3a-45cd-8998-be72d2824986’. (6) “Dance Masks of New Ireland in the South Pacific” by mharrsch is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/d3b9bd4b-0a8e-44bb-8899-a58fe8b3048a.

7 – Senator Kamala Harris.  “Announcement of Senator Kamala Harris as Candidate for Vice President of the United States – Wilmington, DE – August 12, 2020” by Biden For President is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 29, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/fb283f13-6448-483a-9857-21bc88ddda9b.

8 – Mahatma Gandhi contemporary art regarding his words, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” by duncan is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 29, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/b9df53ad-6cd2-4565-9bf7-0fd848d53850.

9 – The author in Kyoto, Japan, 2012.

A Harvest of Firsts for Any Actor, But Especially for a Female Asian Artist: Star Light, Star Bright, Ever Effervescent

Emmy Award.  Grammy Award.  Tony Award nomination. Drama Desk award nomination. 

1300 performances on Broadway. 

Six seasons and 760 shows in “The Electric Company” series. 

At ten, the youngest soloist soprano non-traditionally cast as an English child at New York City Opera. 

Sheet music signed with love by Richard Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein. 

A jade necklace with the Chinese character for love etched in gold from Rodgers as well. 

Working with Pat Morita, Rita Moreno, Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover, and others. 

Offered a role in another Broadway musical, which she declined for personal reasons, resulting in the role being given to an African American actress for whom the role was the fountainhead for a celebrated international career.

From playing Tuptim in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” to portraying Glover’s wife Sumi in Philip Kan Gotanda’s “Yohen” and doing voice work for major producers, June Angela, a true trailblazer for Asians, Asian Americans, and for women in theatre and film, maintains a vibrant career that brimmed with energy even at a time when Western society generally would not let an artist of color get more than (or even) a toe in the proverbial door.


(1 – Photo on left, Angela, age eleven, in “The Electric Company.  Photo on right, Angela, age seventeen, in “The King and I” with Yul Brynner on Broadway)

A native New Yorker who loves the genuine straightforwardness and energy of New York City, Angela broke new ground and continues to realize an inspiring artistic career.

“I grew up in a fast-paced environment,” she expressed.  “For me it was a normal way of life, a drive and energy like nowhere else.”

Noting that some people find New York to be “a cold, hard city with people hustling” and a place that is “way too frantic,” Angela said she prefers the directness of the city and its citizenry. 

“New Yorkers have a reputation of being real, not playing mind games or taking any trash from anyone,” she said.  “You’ll hear the frank, opinionated truth being spoken and I like that realness, as opposed to seeing a fake smile and people being two-faced.  No one stands for lies or anything you don’t believe in. ”

(2 – A Manhattan Street Scene, New York City)

Navigating the city also has taught Angela how to hold her own.  She stated that you “learn to maintain your own space and respect the space of others, even in a big crowd.”

She admits that this skill sometimes can make New Yorkers appear aloof, a word that many who do not know Angela use to describe her.

“I confess as a native New Yorker maybe it does make you a little harder and gives an appearance of being cold, but that’s life in the big city I guess,” Angela contended.  She and her husband make their life in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles now.  With humor and realism, Angela gave a nod to spatial relations.

“I always thought my kitchen in New York City was fine, as I cooked many a holiday meal for gatherings,” she declared, “but I realized my kitchen is the size of a walk-in closet in LA!”  Despite the fact that her spacious Los Angeles home provides her with more room, Angela’s blood runs New York. 

“For me, there’s no place like New York City and I will always consider myself a native New Yorker no matter where I live,” she exclaimed.


(3 – New York City’s Central Park in autumn)

Because of the demands of the ingénue role of Tuptim in “The King and I” on Broadway with Yul Brynner and her stated age of eighteen (she was actually seventeen, but would not have been allowed to audition if she had revealed that), Angela had to get beyond everybody’s disbelief and prove that she had the wherewithal as a singer and actress to engage in a long-running Broadway show.  Rodgers believed that she wouldn’t last two weeks.

“I proved him wrong and never missed a show, playing over 1300 performances a total of three and a half years on Broadway, LA, and the London Palladium,” Angela said.

Not only was Angela the youngest person to play that role, but she also was the first Asian to play the role, a fact that opened doors for other Asian and Asian American performers and singers, and inspired succeeding generations of them, something that makes Angela happy.

The legendary Rodgers was so taken with Angela’s performance and fortitude that he presented her with sheet music for one of the songs she sang and signed it, “With love, Dick Rodgers.”  On the show’s opening night, he also gave her a jade heart necklace with the Chinese character of love in gold.  Angela said that, at the time, she didn’t understand the honor that Rodgers bestowed upon her, but the full weight of that honor is clear to her today.

Angela’s work in theatre, musical theatre, film, television, and voice have led her into many different worlds in which she learned a number of skills.

As geisha Kohana in “American Geisha,” a television film, Angela entered the hidden and private world of Kyoto geiko.  She learned to fight like a samurai with a katana.  She learned how to conduct tea ceremony and also learned about how non-White actors were questioned about their ethnicity (the various indiscreet ways of finding out if an Asian or Asian American actor’s ethnic heritage is Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, South Asian, etc.) while White actors were not asked if they were French, Italian, Irish, English, German, etc.

Angela’s roles have taught her many skills and also often allowed her to rise above the ethnic categorization games of Hollywood and the theatre world so that she works as an artist who defies cataloguing.

So many people have posed the question, “But what is she?”  Well, the easy answer is that she is a human being.  She is a New York City “American girl with no leaning toward any specific culture.”  That being said, different aspects of her heritage and its traditions have imprinted on her life via not only her family, but her art.

“Because of productions I’ve done that were written specifically for a Japanese character, I’ve learned from traditional Japanese master sensei to fight with a katana like a samurai and play taiko drums,” she stated.  “I’ve had the opportunity to portray a geisha and… worn kimono more than one probably ever would in this modern day and age.  I’ve personally experienced things that people only read about or see.”

Furthermore, cultural consciousness was enriched while working with fellow Japanese American theatre-makers, Angela said.  She provided some small examples.


(4 – Little Japanese Snacks)

“During rehearsals, an actor brought Japanese snacks for everyone,” she recalled.  “A wonderful playwright did that once, too.”  Little touches such as these brought a dimension of cultural enrichment to rehearsal processes and the run of a show.

Angela emphasized that the key to portraying any culture is to do the research.  That, she said, is part of the beauty of acting.  Nobody is all things, but Angela believes in bringing authenticity and genuineness to the roles that she undertakes so that she can bring ideas to life with richness and legitimacy.  Talking to individuals involved in a certain experience, reading, watching videos and films, and listening to recordings of various kinds allows the theatre-maker to shift into an engaged consciousness so they can provide a performance that goes from the inside to the outside.

“As an actress, in whatever culture I am portraying, I learn by doing research and then am immersed in the project having a hands-on experience,” Angela explained.

When she received a Tony Award nomination as Best Leading Actress in a Musical for “Shogun,” she didn’t think of it as a first for an Asian artist, but an outcome of her hard work and of the sacrifices that her parents made for her so that she could thrive in the arts.  She described the “unbelievable joy” she felt when she took her parents to the Tony Awards as her guests.  Both of her parents, with whom she was very close, are now deceased.

(5 – On Broadway as Lady Mariko in “Shogun,” Nominated for a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical)

An early success for Angela was being cast in the Sesame Street-generated “The Electric Company” with Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman.  Angela was non-traditionally cast in the show; its producers were seeking Black and White children, not a young Asian.

“My agent at that time said, ‘Can you just give her a chance and let her audition?’” Angela noted.  “They were open-minded and said okay.  So I auditioned and I was cast.  I did the pilot through the end of the show, 760 shows for six seasons.  Then it was repeated for years.”  Receiving both a Grammy and Emmy Award for her work, Angela expressed her enjoyment of the experience because of its social rewards.  She noted the program’s focus on educating children and said, “…  knowing that I was helping kids read was terrific.” 

The show continues to generate touching moments in Angela’s life, as it did during the run of the show.

“When I was doing the show – we taped in NY – kids on the subway would recognize me and say, ‘Hey, you guys’ and start singing the opening theme,” Angela recalled.  “To this day, I meet adults who say they grew up watching me and I still get fan letters.  Growing up on the show working with Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno was great.”  Her recollection reminded me of when LeVar Burton was the commencement speaker for a School of Dramatic Arts, University of Southern California, graduation ceremony.  The audience broke out in a rousing rendition of the theme song from “Reading Rainbow,” a PBS series he hosted and executive-produced.

June Angela’s encounters with Moreno came full circle for her in an interesting way that links “The Electric Company” with Angela’s experience with “The King and I.”

“In the film of ‘The King and I’ with Brynner, Moreno played the role of Tuptim,” Angela explained.  “That was the role that I was playing in the Broadway revival.  She (Moreno) saw the show and came backstage.  She joked with me and said, ‘Watch out, Junie, I still remember those lines!’  It was wonderful and who would ever think I’d be a child growing up working with Rita and then years later I’d be playing the same role on Broadway that she did in the film.  It was quite a moment.”

(6 – Rita Moreno in “West Side Story” and in contemporary times)

Recently, Angela connected with another well-known artist, the iconic Danny Glover, when she played opposite him in a two-character play, “Yohen” by Philip Kan Gotanda.  Known best for his work in the “Lethal Weapons” film franchise, actor/film director/activist Glover also performed in the films “The Color Purple,” “To Sleep with Anger,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Prince of Egypt,” “Angels in the Outfield,” Aaron Woolfolk’s “The Harimaya Bridge,” and others as well as many television programs such as Alex Haley’s mini-series “Queen” and Joshua Deets’ mini-series “Lonesome Dove.”  In “Yohen,” produced by East West Players, Angela and Glover portrayed a couple who had been married for many years.

“It was an incredible experience,” Angela, who has formed a friendship with Glover, declared.  “Having the opportunity to play his wife, a great character that went through every emotion possible with him in this intense, ninety-minute play with no intermission was tremendous for me.  Being onstage with him, looking into his eyes, playing off each other every night was just great.  He’s a wonderful person.”

(7 – Angela with Danny Glover in Philip Kan Gotanda’s “Yohen”)

Many individuals disparage theatre, film, and television for its lack of production of stories about non-White cultures; I understand.  One is hard-put to find a variety of films with BIPOC individuals in protagonists’ roles.  How someone like Angela has made such a mark in many media given the challenges of these odds is a testament to her talent and wherewithal.  The Asian American community is vocal in the discourse about this lack and their assessments definitely have merit.  Angela pointed out that “there only have been four Asian American sitcoms produced.”  Her artistry graced the very first Asian American comedy series — “Mr. T and Tina” – and also graced one of the recent ones – “Fresh Off the Boat.”  Hopefully, more shows exploring the many different dimensions of Asian and Asian American life – and other BIPOC cultures – will stand on the shoulders of “Mr. T and Tina,” “All-American Girl,” “Dr. Ken,” and “Fresh off the Boat” and not be forgotten as the world excitedly and dynamically evolves.

Angela made television history with her work in the ABC prime-time show, “Mr. T and Tina,” playing the daughter of Pat Morita.  In “Fresh Off the Boat,” Angela had a recurring guest star role.  In both cases, her work spoke not only of rich artistic endeavors, but also of opportunities to contribute to history and to work with Asian American artists of note.

(8 – Pat Morita-inspired art)

“I know that Pat Morita was the idol of many young Asian comics and to have been able to work with him was really something,” Angela said.  In “Fresh Off the Boat,” she worked with Constance Wu, the Asian American actress and activist known for the sitcom as well as the film “Crazy, Rich Asians.”

(9 – Angela with Constance Wu in “Fresh Off the Boat,” ABC)

Angela’s Broadway experience as well as the fact that she pioneered the presence of Asian artists on Broadway led China to invite her to participate in its Festival of the Arts, representing Broadway.  She was invited to sing, accompanied by a 100-piece orchestra.  The concert was broadcast live to an audience of 40,000.

As a child actress, Angela was less aware of the challenging issues faced by non-White artists because she so often was cast in what today might be termed as “non-traditional” roles. As aforementioned, at age ten she was cast as an English person in “The Turn of the Screw” at New York City Opera, an opera based on Henry James’ “The Innocents.”  The opera was directed by Theodore Mann, then Artistic Director at New York’s Circle in the Square theatre, and “type did not matter” to him, Angela stated.

“So I made the youngest soloist soprano debut and never felt out of place,” she noted.

In “South Pacific” at the Jones Beach, New York summer theatre, she portrayed a Polynesian child.  The next year, the theatre was presenting “The Sound of Music,” a casting process that illuminated the impediments that non-White actors often have faced in US theatre, film, and television.

“I still remember that before going in the room to audition, the producer came out to talk to me, explaining very nicely that they were looking for a family, so I wouldn’t be right for the show,” she remembered.  “That was my first brush with typecasting, but I wasn’t aware of it.  I just thought that was reasonable and accepted that it wasn’t my turn.”

Often, however, for BIPOC artists, it isn’t their turn.  The awareness that Angela encountered in that production experience intensified as her career continued.  In her words, she said she became “very aware of ethnicity and casting.”

“It’s a reality that Caucasian actors can play French, Italian, Irish, English ethnicities and are not questioned about their own ethnicity,” she declared.  That is not the case for Asian or Asian American actors.  Angela enjoys performing voice work because characters generally have no specific ethnicity.  She said she realizes that sometimes the issue of ethnicity matters, such as with a culturally-specific project that is non-Asian.

“As a Eurasian, I would never be cast in ‘The Godfather’ no matter how racially authentic I am personally,” Angela said.  “In a very visual medium, if you don’t look the part, it doesn’t work.”  That reality has locked Angela and other BIPOC performers out of so much work  (absence of access); and indicates the need for more BIPOC narratives to find footing in theatre, film, and television.

The current (and past) reality doesn’t make it any easier for a talented, trained non-White artist building and sustaining a career in the US.  Angela said she understands that “The Electric Company,” with its non-traditional casting ideology, was ahead of its time.   Her solution?  Continuing being the actress, singer, and performing artist that she is.

(10 – Angela today in a “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” event in which she participated)

“I enjoy all of my projects and I love being in a profession that allows me to bring an audience along to another world,” Angela said.  “In theatre, it’s wonderful to feel the tension immediately; to hear the laughter or sniffles, knowing that people are so emotionally involved.” 

Angela’s statement resonates even more deeply in a time of quarantine when live theatre is not happening.  The emotional responses that occur only when theatre artists and audiences are breathing the same air are a thing of the past to be reignited in the future in ways that cannot be foretold.  Yet, Angela understands that the magical connections between audiences and theatre-makers are omnipresent.

“I enjoy immersing an audience in a playwright’s, creator’s or writer’s imagination; I love bringing joy to people and knowing someone is moved or bonding with a situation and characters,” Angela expressed.

Angela perceives a transformative force in theatre, an energy that has an impact on the fabric of society.  In these times of sociopolitical upheaval, her words speak to methods of healing that improve the quality of life in unique ways.

“Opening people’s eyes and having them think, bringing feelings that someone might have not been aware of existing inside of them, perhaps changing a perception to someone else’s way of looking at things, ups and downs, good and trying times crossing all ethnicities, that’s meaningful to me,” she said. 

Furthermore, Angela observes that theatre can provide routes for people of disparate backgrounds to come together.

“I hope and believe that, through art, we all can try to learn and appreciate one another and our differences,” she noted.  “Perhaps we will realize on some level that we have something in common, even if it’s just a small thought.”  As the author Linda Sue Park said in her book “A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story,” “One step at a time… just today, just this day…”

Theatre-making includes the audience and a genuine artist respects that.  It is not surprising that Angela counts as one of her favorite theatre experiences being a spectator on the other side of the fourth wall.  She said she finds magical a performer’s “inner emotions resonating on a level that could strike a chord involuntarily” and enjoys the ways that theatre has an impact on her emotions.  This feeling about the magic of art extends beyond theatre into music, dance, and other art forms.

“In music, hearing a song, tears start streaming before you can even know what’s happening,” she said.  “I find myself crying tears of elation, sadness or joy.  That affects me and I love experiencing all artistic works.”

(11 – Angela with her parents in Los Angeles in 2016)

For several years, Angela has helped to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive type of dementia.  Besides being a disease that is extremely common and in need of greater awareness in society, it also is personal to Angela because it was the cause of her father’s death.

“Alzheimer’s is an incredibly debilitating, tragic disease for the person suffering from it and it’s unbelievably emotionally devastating for their loved ones watching a life fade away,” she said.

Every year, Angela participates in The Walk to End Alzheimer’s, which seeks to raise money for a cure or treatment. 

“On my first fundraising walk, I was enveloped in a sea of purple flowers,” she expressed. “The flowers symbolize people who have lost loved ones. It was so emotional seeing all these people, knowing that we have all gone through losing a loved one.”

Angela recalled the day that she found her father “all tangled up trying to put on a sweater.”  The moment stunned her, a response she couldn’t hide from him.

(12 – The jade heart necklace given to Angela by Richard Rodgers)

As always, Angela leads a disciplined life.  Over the years, she has made many personal sacrifices in order to focus on her career.  She thinks of it as artistic tunnel vision.

“I always had tunnel vision, I never had any thought of doing anything else and was fortunate enough to be able to do so,” she mused. 

With no regrets, Angela at all times dedicates herself to the show she is doing.  For example, if a project requires singing, she rests, including resting her voice. 

“I save my voice all day until the performance,” she stated.

If a production requires a notable time commitment, she approaches it with the same determination.

“I do the show, then go home, sleep, eat and do it all again eight times a week, with only one day off,” she explained with a dogged sense of commitment to her art.  “There is no time for anything else, but it’s worth it.”

In fact, Angela experienced shows with long runs with enthusiasm because of her enjoyment of being on stage night after night.  Unlike television, which included hiatus periods, theatre production runs did not have hiatus periods and she didn’t take vacations during long stage runs either.

“I find each experience new and fulfilling,” Angela said.  “But there will always be discipline in my life when it comes to my art.”

A demanding schedule has never daunted this artist.  With a career that has blazed many a trail, especially for female artists of color, Angela continues to thrive and contribute to theatre and singing, honoring the disciplines with her artistry and stunning soprano voice.  She accomplishes this with a grace and humanity that makes her stand out from the crowd.  Like the show that must go on, she, too, goes on.

Credits

All photographs provided by June Angela and used with her permission, except for photographs credited to another party (all from Creative Commons).

1 – Photo on left, Angela, age eleven, in “The Electric Company.  Photo on right, Angela, age seventeen, in “The King and I” with Yul Brynner on Broadway.

2 – A Manhattan Street Scene, New York City.  (“Manhattan Street Scene” by Lida Rose is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/.  Web. creativecommons.org.  D/L September 18, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/79e64212-27fa-4db9-83a1-2c4ac218da7b.)

3 – New York City’s Central Park in Autumn.  (“‘American Elm’, United States, New York, New York City, Central Park, Mall Area, Fall Colors” by WanderingtheWorld (www.ChrisFord.com) is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/.  Web. creativecommons.org.  D/L September 18, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/b2ba5d1a-d2e8-4fe8-97fb-d2b63770f5c0.)

4 – Little Japanese Snacks.  (“Japanese Kokeshi dolls rice crackers” by koalie is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/.  Web. creativecommons.org.  D/L September 18, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/92c0899a-1224-47aa-be20-0377a596e644.)

5 – On Broadway as Lady Mariko in “Shogun,” Nominated for a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.

6 – Rita Moreno in “West Side Story” and in contemporary times.  (“File:Rita Moreno face.jpg” by John Ferguson is licensed with CC BY-SA 3.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 23, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/f2996e45-274b-4c81-afea-c2145eb0b3d5.  And “Rita Moreno, West Side Story (1961)” by classic_film is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/.  Web. www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 23, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/0edaacd4-bfea-444d-8f80-50301a2da7ed.)

7 – Angela with Danny Glover in Philip Kan Gotanda’s “Yohen”

8 – Pat Morita-inspired art.  (“Pat Morita” by migueljbr is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/.  Web.  www.creativecommons.org.  D/L September 24, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/3991d2d7-d173-40a4-8363-510309e2eba9.)

9 – Angela with Constance Wu in “Fresh Off the Boat,” ABC.

10 – Angela today in a “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” event in which she participated.

11 – Angela with her parents in Los Angeles in 2016.

12 – The jade heart necklace given to Angela by Richard Rodgers.

Theatre and Life: For Lee Chen-Norman, Windows into the World

Actress Lee Chen-Norman has traveled from a Communist culture in China’s Inner Mongolia to a life in the City of Angels, Los Angeles, California. 

The impact of China’s Cultural Revolution having been a part of her childhood, Chen-Norman has transformed from an artist who performed to praise Chairman Mao Zedong to an artist who performs for the world; in both cases, theatre was a form of expression and was rife with social meaningfulness.

Born in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, Chen-Norman grew up in a small town called Tumotezuoqi, about thirty minutes away from her birthplace.

1

“I was raised under communist influence and the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution happened during my childhood,” she shared.  Performing began early in Chen-Norman’s life.  When she was six years old, she became a member of Chairman Mao’s Propaganda Performing Troupe as she was too young “to join the red guards to follow Chairman Mao’s guidance to get into all the political events.”

As a member of Chairman Mao’s Propaganda Performing Troupe, Chen-Norman began performing in front of large groups, some numbering the thousands, consisting of farmers, factory workers, and soldiers, when she became troupe leader and the group began to travel throughout the region.  “We learned to sing, to dance, and to recite poetry to praise Chairman Mao and communism,” she noted.  

Perhaps reflecting upon Chen-Norman’s artistic beginnings makes one wonder about the politics linked to the performing, but it was the thrill of their theatrical presentations and not the politics that engaged Chen-Norman and her peers.

“Those years were a formative time for me,” Chen-Norman noted. “As a child I truly enjoyed performing and calling out, ‘Long Live Chairman Mao!’ But I had no clue about any political reasons involved in the performances.”  Despite the cluelessness, the reality for Chen-Norman is that she was a child member of a communist propaganda performing troop that toured regionally “singing and dancing to praise the leader of the country.” 

Chen-Norman acknowledged that many people in the US may think of the Cultural Revolution as something negative, but it provided a pathway into performance for her, giving her the foundation for her love of acting.  Living in the US has allowed her to build upon that, something that she said she may not have been able to do in the same way if she had remained in China.

“America definitely provides freedom and opportunities to immigrants like me,” Chen-Norman contended.  “America is a better place for me to grow as an individual than in China.  I am happy to be living a life I choose.”

2

When the Cultural Revolution ended, Chen-Norman was thirteen years old.  While she still performed, her focus was on her academic education.

“Growing up in a communist country trained me to be very disciplined,” she stated.  This cultivating of discipline spilled over into her entire life, even attracting the notice of mentors who counseled her in self-care.

“I remember when I was in graduate school at the University of Hawaii getting my MFA in Theater and Dance,” Chen-Norman recalled.  “One of my professors, Terence Knapp, told me, ‘Lee Chen, you need to make time your friend, not your enemy.’” However, the discipline remained, becoming a positive dimension of her life that allowed her to balance academics, art, and personal life. During her three years of graduate studies at the University of Hawaii, Chen-Norman played the lead in multiple main-stage and late-night theatre productions while also teaching beginning acting to undergraduate students..

Chen-Norman seemed destined to carve a pathway beyond the country of her origins.  In high school in her liberal arts group of about 300 students, she was the only one to pass the National High School Examination and be accepted by one of the country’s major universities where she earned a Bachelor degree in English language and foreign literature.  The fact that Nanjing University’s Center for Chinese American Studies was one of the founding members of Johns Hopkins University paved the way for her to come to the US to earn a master’s degree in multicultural education.

After that, she moved to Chicago to teach.  That is when her US-based acting life began.

3

“I accidentally saw an audition notice and got cast for my first stage production, ‘The Primary English Class,’ directed by Karen Erickson,” she recounted.  After that, she performed in over fifty stage and dance productions in Chicago, Honolulu, and Los Angeles, including her original one-woman show, “Life Flies,” about growing up in Communist China and becoming an actress in the US.

Her long and meaningful artistic career notwithstanding, Chen-Norman unequivocally notes the “best productions of my life” – her two children.  Getting married was a significant moment in her life, enriched by the arrival of her two sons, Zachary and Perry.

4

While raising them, she stepped away from her acting career for a decade.  She returned to the entertainment industry in 2011 and enjoys a viable career, having been cast in numerous television shows such as “Veep,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Arrested Development,” and others.  One of the most fulfilling roles in the theatre for her was being cast as Lindo in “The Joy Luck Club,” directed by Tim Dang in 2019 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.

Family is important to Chen-Norman.  Over a twenty-year period, she also accomplished bringing her entire family from China.

“I immigrated my parents, my brother’s family, and my sister’s family to America so they can have a better life in the United States,” she stated.  So far, she continued, the plan has proven to have been the right thing to do.  

As an actress who is also an immigrant, Chen-Norman addressed some of the cultural challenges that she faces, language being one of them.

“I am Chinese and came to the US as an adult, so I speak English with a Chinese accent, which limits and helps me,” she said.  “In terms of casting, I am very specific because of my accent. So I can’t get parts when they need someone without an accent. Yet, I generally get the roles if they require an accent.”

The issue of the accent is a complicated one between Asian immigrants and Asian American artists.  Younger-generation Asian American artists, who are usually US citizens who do not have an accent, decry roles that call for an accent, yet immigrant Asians, because English is their second language, usually do have an accent; it’s equally as natural for them.  The issue becomes even more complicated when casting directors who have no Asian ethnic heritage attempt to define Asian/Asian American identity in roles.  These circumstances create challenges for Asian immigrant actors in the US. 

On the other hand, gender has never been a problematic issue for Chen-Norman in the US.  “It may be because I grew up in China and came to the US as an adult so the experience is different from the ABC (American Born Chinese),” she offered.

Language is at the center of many of the challenges that Chen-Norman has faced, which makes her feelings about the theatre that much more powerful.  In a world of cultural diversity where language plays a big part, Chen-Norman is drawn to theatre because of its power of self-expression.

“Theater to me is to tell one’s story, to express feelings, to help people understand the world better and see the world in a different way,” Chen-Norman explained.  “I love performing because it gives me a way to express my feelings through an art form. It can connect with people and impact their lives.”

Chen-Norman feels that theatre’s power of self-expression not only entertains, but also educates people.  That transformative capacity can have a strong impact on society.  It has allowed Chen-Norman to explore not only her own feelings, but also to understand other people’s situations better.

“When I do a play,” Chen-Norman declared, “I put myself into a different person (a character).  In real life, I don’t like any conflicts and troubles, but, if I play a character, I can go crazy, I can fight, I can scream, I can cry….”  Putting herself in different emotional situations allows her to think more expansively and also “can change the thinking of the people,” she said.  This ability to connect with the audience is important to her.

Creating her one-woman show was one of the highlights of her theatrical journey.  Chen-Norman wrote and performed the show, and it was directed by her graduate school classmate Joyce Lu as her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) directing thesis project.  After performing the show at the University of Hawaii, Norman and Lu received a grant that allowed them to tour the show in Honolulu and Los Angeles for a year.

5

“That was one of the best experiences,” she said. “That experience really was the best in the sense that I could feel the audience’s connection with me.  Especially after the show when we had an after-show question-and-answer session.  You could tell the audience really responded to the show and really connected with it.”

As Chen-Norman looks at her present and future, she sees that her love of acting takes a back seat to her love of family.  Striking that life-work balance is never easy, but her priorities are straight in her mind.

“I put my whole heart and whole life into raising my children, taking care of them,” she described.  Although she returned to acting when her sons grew older, she is clear that “family is the priority and acting is the secondary.”

However, when she’s acting, she’s a hundred percent present.

“Whenever I do a production or I’m on set,” she said, “I put my whole heart into it.  I was there every step of my children’s growth, so I think that kind of dedication is very important.”

Her dedication to her sons has paid off for her in myriad ways.  Now, they’re teenagers and she is happy that they are responsible young men.  Given the chaos and craziness of contemporary living, Chen-Norman emphasized the important of raising children to be good citizens and to cultivate their happiness.

Credits

1 – Photograph of Lee Chen-Norman with parents and brother. Property of Lee Chen-Norman.

2 – Photograph of Lee Chen-Norman at 13 in front of her school. Property of Lee Chen-Norman.

3 – Photograph of Lee Chen-Norman in her twenties in Chicago. Property of Lee Chen-Norman.

4 – Photograph of Lee Chen-Norman with her sons Zachary (long-sleeved shirt) and Perry (short-sleeved shirt); February, 2020. Property of Lee Chen-Norman.

5 – Photograph of Lee Chen-Norman in her one-woman show, “Life Flies,” Photo by Craig T. Kojima. Kojima, Craig T.  Photograph of Lee Chen-Norman with Kam, Nadine, “Confronting her past,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 15 Feb, 1999.  Web. www.archives.starbulletin.com.  D/L July 12, 2020 @ http://archives.starbulletin.com/1999/02/15/features/story1.html

The Bill Is Due — Can We Pay It?

“All your buried corpses now begin to speak.”  – James Baldwin

After the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, which left me depressed, enraged, and disappointed about the condition of race in the United States, a White male actor from a Los Angeles theatre excoriated me on social media for his view of my belief that the long, sadistically violent history of anti-Blackness was related to the current civil unrest.  Self-righteously fuming and accusing me of celebrating the civil unrest (which he termed merely as “looting”), he and his allies sought to intimidate me via social media stalking.

In effect, they practiced violence – a flamboyant emotional violence – against me.  Though not nearly the same, it was similar to that practiced against George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, Trayvon Martin, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Alton Sterling, Michelle Cusseaux, Freddie Gray, Janisha Fonville, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Gabriella Nevarez, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Ahmaud Arbery, Raymond Jackson, and countless others, often at the hands of police, often against children, sometimes murder, sometimes assault, sometimes psychological violence.  As a mixed race Asian, some of these incidents were complicated by the fact that they were trans-racial (Akai Gurley was murdered by gunshot by an Asian American, Peter Liang, and George Floyd’s murder occurred with the assistance of Asian American Tou Thao).  Let me be crystal clear: in no way do I compare emotional violence to the violence of murder, but all violence is wounding.  If you practice it, stop (and apologize to those you have hurt or tried to damage).  If someone has practiced it against you, name them, whether in your prayers or on a billboard.

So, am I intimidated?  Browbeaten?  Hardly.  Not even by the skin of your teeth.

Annoyed and pestered are better descriptions of how I feel about the White actor’s social media prowling and emotional violence.  So, I left a few virtual cities for a while.  There are more interesting places to visit.  As a cultural responder, I have a lot of writing to do, so that is what I am doing – writing.

I think of social media sites as virtual cities.  I am not a permanent resident of any of them.  I visit them; sometimes, I stay longer than other times; sometimes, I merely pass through.  I am not much for traveling, although my life’s journey indeed has taken me to many countries, broadening and deepening my understanding of the human condition.  Generally, people visit places for pleasure or to commune with someone/something.  Very little of that was present in the virtual cities I was visiting, so I exited.  I applauded that many people of color spoke out about anti-Blackness, but I was extremely disappointed in the fact that so many other people of color, women, and other allies were radio-silent – I mean RADIO-SILENT.  They said nothing to support those who spoke out, which was shameful and disheartening.   They all should have been first responders.  To those of you who were, I celebrate your courage and candidness.

I have spent the last two weeks thinking about the fire in which we are all standing.  The bill is long overdue and it appears that this society does not have the resources to make payment.

I have read things, watched things, listened, and reflected.  The voices that I find most illuminating are from the past, such as from James Baldwin.  I am not going to argue whether Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X were or were not the right advocates for anti-Blackness.  I am not going to argue what anybody perceives to be their merits or shortcomings.  I also am not going to worry about whether anybody thinks I am Asian enough, Black enough, Latina enough, Native American enough, woman enough, or human enough to reflect at all.  If you oppose my reflections, stop reading here (or perhaps you never started reading this in the first place [I see you]).

Culturally, my Japanese, Asian, and Black ethnicities have been foregrounded over my Latin and Native American roots in the way I move through the world (monoracial measurement and perceptions be damned), but my blood is my blood and I embrace it all – all my cultures and people – confidently and happily; as well as the additional cultures brought into my world by those who love my family: Vietnamese, Vietnamese American, Chinese American, Chinese, Taiwanese, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Italian, Hawaiian, Scottish, Korean, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Indian, Syrian, British, Irish, German, Brazilian, Argentinian.  Yes.  We are blessed.

There are no pictures in these reflections, except for one, also historical – but it is a telling, literal portrait of figurative anti-Blackness that persists.  As for a need to see other pictures, watch the video of Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd or the video of George Zimmerman walking away without so much as a slap on his hand after murdering Trayvon Martin.

Screen Shot 2020-06-16 at 4.48.52 PM

(1)

What does it mean to breathe?

So many US citizens can relate to violence and hatred; it comes in numerous flavors: anti-Asian, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Semitic, anti-woman, hetero-phobic, anti-mixed race, anti-age, religious strife, strife over ability levels, class strife, etc.  One Asian American described an anti-Asian, COVID-19 experience with a White female as his “breathing while Asian” (2) moment.

But, let’s face it, as devastatingly, inhumanly ugly as those incidents are, they are “it’s hard to breathe” moments, not “I can’t breathe” moments.  Granted, when such violence escalates to murder, yes, they are definitely, painfully “I can’t breathe” moments.  But let’s be gut-wrenchingly honest about this and put away insulting, simplistic tools of measurement.

If one of us is having difficulty breathing or if someone cannot breathe by any means, then we had all better grab our oxygen masks and put them on.  Akin to the oxygen masks in airplanes, put yours on first and then your child’s.  If someone is making it hard to breathe or if you are making it hard for someone else to breathe, you must learn to breathe yourself and then help your children breathe.  If you are not breathing well or causing someone else not to breathe well, your children will learn from your example – and I mean White children, too

Let me tell you about not being able to breathe well as one strives to raise children in the US.

In 1990 at The First School, a westside Los Angeles pre-school, a White girl named Daisy, age three, adored my four-year-old son and insisted on playing house with him.  Then she saw me retrieving him from school one day and asked, “Is that your nanny?”  When he explained I was his mother, his biological mother, Daisy was troubled.   The next day, my son relayed to me that Daisy had told him she could not play with him anymore because she was White and he was not.  When I discussed the occurrence with Daisy’s mother, a Santa Monica White progressive, she said, miffed that I was asking, “I don’t know where she got that from.”  It is said that children develop racial views at the ages of three of four.  At three, Daisy’s racism had one primary source: her parents.  At Wildwood School, another progressive westside Los Angeles school, when my son began attending there at age five, three White boys cornered him in the bathroom, whipped out their penises, and urinated on him.  When I discussed the matter with the teacher, Nancy Nedell, she told me that the three boys came from wonderful families and that it was impossible for them to have done what I described.  That night, I washed the wonderful boys’ urine from my son’s pants.

Your children will learn from your example.  They will.

Those who have tried to intimidate me in my life have sought not only to terrorize me, but to destroy my life as I know it — my father, my mother, my siblings, my children, my residence, my career, and my health.  Speaking individually, I can count those people on seven fingers: a Latino gay male, a White-passing mixed race Latina, a White Jewish male, an African American male, a White gay male, a White straight male, and a White straight female.  Broadly speaking, predominantly White institutions (what university students call PWIs) have tolerated me, but, as I began to achieve academically and creatively, figurative lynchings sometimes ensued.  Of course, I was cast as the antagonist in these figurative lynchings.  As Baldwin says, the US has a habit of making legends out of massacres.  You all know well the legend as it presents itself; I am not part of that narrative.

A metaphorical colored entrance materialized and, often, there was no entrance at all; buildings were sealed – Blackness was the virus that non-Black people did not want to catch.  Often these invisible, but very sturdily built barriers were erected by White people, but sometimes they were erected by people of color.  As someone who was reared by a Japanese immigrant and knows my Japanese culture is more Asian than any Asian American culture in this country, I am sad to say that often these barriers were erected by Asian Americans who were happy to have mixed race Asians that were mixed with White in their midst, but not mixed race Asians who were mixed with Black (in the mixed race Asian population, it, after all, is not enough to say “mixed race Asian”; there, too, color is happily brought into play with terms such as Blackanese, without the presence of any correlating terms such as Whitanese, Latanese, or Natanese; or the term Blasian [which many use and with which I have no issue, but then where are the correlating terms of Whasian, Lasian, and Nasian – or is it only Black difference that must be singled out?]).

Of course, in environments of invisible impediments, nothing was said.  Everybody was excruciatingly polite, most of the time, but, in their actions, I saw the anti-Blackness (I see you).  Because my Asian ethnicity is, to most US citizens (especially those who have not traveled to non-tourist regions of Asian nations) an invisible ethnicity, I have had a unique vantage point of observing anti-Blackness in Asia and Asian America.  Similarly, my invisible Asian ethnicity has allowed me to observe views about Asians and Asian Americans within Blackness.  Moreover, the fact I am mixed race has been a reason used by Asians, Asian Americans, and African Americans to tell me that I do not really get it – “It’s a Black thing,” “It’s an Asian thing.”  Right.  White people often mis-race me and ask Asian Americans (who generally are Americans with distant Asian ancestry) or White mixed race Asians (Whitanese or Whasians) about any aspects of Asian culture.  Even if they learn I am also Japanese, far be it from them to deign to ask me about Japanese culture.  After all, how could I possibly know or understand when my  Japanese blood is mixed with — egads! — Blackness?  If you mix Black blood with Asian blood, the Asian blood dries up and blows away, right?  Right?!  Nani?  WHUT?  (Insert laughing smiley face here.)

Last week, a Black female told me I cannot possibly understand the George Floyd murder and the civil unrest in its wake because I am mixed race.  (Insert another laughing smiley face here.)  I get anti-Blackness – it has touched my family in more ways than one; it has touched me directly at restaurants, stores including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, nail salons, cinemas, theatres, universities, bricks thrown at me while driving, and even while walking home being harassed by the Beverly Hills Police Department (the cop, Joseph Bohr, was described by the BHPD as a “stellar” officer and, of course, he went unreprimanded for his racist behavior).

So, yes, I have very specific knowledge of anti-Blackness in the US, but I think we all need to face the fact that, at the end of the day, this is a HUMAN issue.   If every human being does not do something about this beyond it being the topic of the day, the fire will burn so hot it will weaken the entire nation.  The murder of unarmed Black people is born out of an unquenchable thirst for domination and suppression, but Black people are also HUMAN and the sooner all of us understand that and move forward with that thirst behind us, the better off we will be and so will our children – again, yes, I am talking about White children, too.

Screen Shot 2020-06-16 at 5.23.29 PM

(3)

And the beat goes on and on and on

What is quite haunting about words from the past is that they seem to be just as appropriate for today’s fire.

I am glad to have those words because anti-Black micro- and macro-aggressions abound, and often I experience racial fatigue.

At Deluxe Nail Bar and Spa in Santa Monica, a manicurist told another manicurist that she hated helping Black customers because she had to touch their hands and feet.  Then she and three other Asian women gathered around a gloating White male customer as they caressed his hands and feet and generally fawned over him.  At Toe Heaven, another Santa Monica spa, I waited an hour (with a reservation) while the Asian manager served White customers without reservations who came in after me.  When I questioned this behavior, she told me to leave.  These people figuratively have put themselves on fire.

In the 1960s, critics of Martin Luther King, Jr., called his protests untimely and unwise, and blamed what they termed as “outside agitators” as being responsible for “looting.”  (Sound familiar?)  Dr. King emphasized that we are all in this together:  “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he said.  “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness…” (4)

The civil unrest is galvanized by many things that I am not going to list here because I am addressing but just one dimension of that galvanization.  The Black condition in the US is a condition of despair.  An Asian professor at the University of Southern California recently claimed, “White is a color, too!”  Yes, technically speaking it is, but we are not talking about crayons; we are talking about the construction of race.  In that vein, I turn to Baldwin’s wisdom for clarity: “White… is not a color—it’s an attitude.  You’re as white as you think you are.  It’s your choice.”  With regards to Blackness, he and I share the same view.  Baldwin stated (in 1968) when Esquire asked him if “black is a state of mind,” “No, black is a condition.” (5)

Regarding what the media terms as “looting,” Baldwin saw this, as do I, as civil unrest that cannot be disconnected from anti-Blackness.  The violence of civic and police brutality against Black people, what Baldwin termed as, “the cultivation in this country of ignorance,” instigates more violence.

Baldwin noted that the “American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us.  And no one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is.  After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting.  I think it’s obscene.”

I think it is painfully ironic.  It makes me think of affluent US institutions that seem to feel their success is the result of their own hard work.  However, many of them benefited from over 200 years of free, Black slave labor.  If I was able to have 200 years of free labor, I would consider that quite an advantage, especially if I did not have to give any of those “free” workers forty acres and a mule when they stopped providing labor at no charge.

When I am working on a dramatic writing project, speaking with family, speaking with friends and good colleagues, or playing with my pets, I feel hopeful about humanity.  When I am not, I feel less hopeful.  The fire is so hot.  The moment I think I can step out of it and cool my feet, I realize I cannot.  Any control I believe I can exercise quickly is thwarted by the flames fanned by society.  Baldwin’s writings renew in me a sense of hope, something that he possessed a great deal of.  In reading his words, I realize I HAVE to be in the fire.  I see you.  I have to see myself.  I have to see the fire.  I have to see the people who are having trouble breathing.  I have to see the people who cannot breathe at all.  I have to see the people who turn their backs and seem to be breathing just fine (perhaps even better than they did before May 25).

Screen Shot 2020-06-16 at 5.24.31 PM

(6)

For these reasons, I have no choice but to remain in the fire; it is not going away.  It is burning me and you.  It is burning our children – again, including White children.  Baldwin stated, “If you don’t look at it, you can’t change it.  If we don’t change it, we’re going to die… every single one of us.” (7)

Every single one of us.

Can you make rent?

Baldwin spoke of the accumulation of the bill that is going to be very hard to pay.  The bill was due long ago and what he said over five decades ago rings true today.

The bill is due “for you and your children, and… all over the world,” he stated.  As I agree, he pointed out that this “bill” is not a Black problem, but a human problem.  “It’s a matter of whether or not you want to live.  And you may think that my death… will save you, but it won’t… All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history…which is not your past, but your present.”(8)

My father was born in 1916 and died in 1969 at the age of fifty-three.  In re-reading Baldwin, I thought of my father, who went to the Pacific theatre of war during World War II and returned to the US to be treated with undignified racism, as undignified as things he had experienced before the war, including seeing his uncle hanging from a tree, having been lynched for racist sport by a crowd of White men.  Baldwin spoke of the Black US soldier:

“You must put yourself in the skin of a man who is wearing the uniform of his country, is a candidate for death in its defense, and who is called a ‘nigger’ by his comrades-in-arms and his officers…” stated Baldwin.  He spoke about how White US racism infiltrated the ranks of the US military forces in other countries.  Indeed, my parents told me that White US soldiers in Japan told Japanese women to be careful of Black soldiers, that they were demons whose tails rolled out of their buttocks at midnight. “You must consider what happens to this citizen, after all he has endured…” Baldwin said.  “And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the twentieth century.”(9)

And in the twenty-first century.

What can we do, what can we do, what can we do… many ask.  As a cultural responder, I must respond.  As a person of African ancestry, there is much I cannot do; it is time for the flame fanners to sort this out.

The Asian American resistance

Poet and activist Ed Bok Lee, a resident of Minneapolis-St. Paul, US, told National Public Radio (NPR) that it is hard for Asian Americans to face the reality of the video revealing the murder of George Floyd, particularly given the aiding of that murder by Asian American Thao.

Many Asian Americans have denounced the George Floyd murder, but there are also dissenting voices of anti-Blackness.  Lee likened the current civil unrest to the conflicts between Blacks and Korean Americans in the wake of the beating of Rodney King by White cops in the early 1990s.  Confronting Asian-ness and Blackness is nothing new to me.  It is my essence and I know both worlds can come together harmoniously.

As a mixed race Asian, I have enjoyed the embrace of Asian America and different Asian nations, but also have confronted toxic anti-Blackness in both populations – and, as noted, in the mixed race Asian population.  While I have observed sociopolitical consciousness and organic ally-ship in those arenas, I also have witnessed (time to be candid – I see you) a desire to be a part of the attitude of Whiteness.

Lee declared it is a “moment of reflection” for Asian Americans.

“If you are Asian American and… anti-black,” Lee declared, “it’s probably because you see black people through a white hegemonic lens of racism, colonial-style racism.”(10)

The segregated water fountains – for whites, for coloreds – that my cousin recalls from her childhood and the colored entrances to restaurants, theatres, cinemas, and other venues are a thing of the past.  But only physically.

Today, those pernicious barriers still exist. They are invisible and we are told not to address them in professional discourse, but those of us who are visibly people of color know they are there.  Today, I am thinking about doors closed to Black people because, in all other communities, anti-Blackness exists.  Unfortunately, it exists in other communities of color and among non-mainstream individuals who decry the discrimination they face, but are not as forthcoming about anti-Blackness in general or anti-Blackness within their own ranks.  Absolutely, there are impediments they must confront and usually undeservedly so, but members of their communities consciously or subconsciously practice anti-Blackness, dividing ranks, weakening unities.

Theatres and Universities: also in the fire

This brings me to two communities in which I exist professionally: theatre (arts and entertainment in general because I write in multiple genres) and academia.

Recently, I have been privy to students expressing their concerns about their educations.  Many of them include this statement in their commentary, “I don’t care if you think I’m angry, because I am.”  Their frankness and honesty is refreshing and humbling.  They talk about the Euro-centric nature of education, how often they are the only person of color in their classes, and how White professors grade down people of color who speak out.  A White male student said he feared standing up for people of color in his classes because he was sure he, too, would be graded down for being an ally.  As a faculty member, I have experienced anti-Blackness in unsettling ways.  In classrooms, White students have questioned my presence as a legitimate faculty member because I do not fit their central casting ideas of what a college professor should look like.  Walking on campus last spring, I overheard a group of White male faculty members talking about Blackness.  One of them stated, “I guess our people are no longer important because our ancestors didn’t come from Africa.”  Twice, once in a predominantly White setting and once in an Asian American setting, I was presumed to be lost because I was not perceived as belonging to the community that was gathering.  When I expressed concerns about anti-Blackness to individuals tasked with dealing with equity, diversity, and inclusion, they ignored my commentary and did not follow up with me.  At a presidential party before a football game in the fall of 2019, a White male professor walked up to me and asked, “How did you sneak in here?”  I looked around and realized that, except for the service staff, I was the only person of African descent in the room.

The fire is very hot in these quarters.  Soon, we will all feel the flames.  I have been feeling them for some time.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women nearly players…” – William Shakespeare in “As You Like It”

It is also hot in the performing arts.

Recently, a collective of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) theatremakers created an organization and wrote a letter of testimony titled, “We See You, White American Theater.”  The address in the letter’s greeting was “Dear White American Theater.”  The letter in its entirety can be read at this link: https://www.weseeyouwat.com/.  The letter sought to expose the “indignities and racism that BIPOC, and in particular Black theatremakers, face on a day-to-day basis in the theater industry.”(11)

Something that struck me in the letter (I was not asked to sign it and I see why that is so, too, but I later signed a petition) was the idea of what is seen and unseen.  “We see you,” the letter states.  “We have always seen you.  We have watched you pretend not to see us…. We have watched you program play after play, written, directed, cast, choreographed, designed… dramaturged and produced by your rosters of white theatremakers… while relegating a token, if any, slot for a BIPOC play.”

The letter reminded me of something a BIPOC artistic director of a regional theatre once shared.  With bitter but resigned regret, he told me that regional theatres in the US would only produce one play by a woman or person of color every seven or so years.  That meant, he explained, that, for example, an Asian American play could be produced every seven years while, in the interim years, other groups of color and women’s plays would have to be presented.  As I considered those numbers, I realized the truth of the US theatre, a truth that has been around for decades and that is addressed in the BIPOC letter.  If we are not produced by our buddies, a system by which some BIPOC theatremakers have built their entire careers, then we are forced to throw our aesthetic up against a wall and hope it sticks.  Or write in a cage.  (The cage is now open; for some of us, we persevere with the mindset that it always has been.)

I am often asked why I write the plays I write.  Who is going to produce them? people ask me.  Once a casting director at The Mark Taper Forum said to me, “Velina, why do you write these plays with these kinds of people in it?  How do you expect me to cast them?”  I have been fortunate that my plays have been produced by many.  Often, ironically enough, these producers are PWIs and not ethnic theatres.  Ethnic theatres, with sometimes astonishing fervor quietly tucked away in public personas of being champions of racial diversity, have created those aforementioned figurative barriers for me because neither me nor my narratives were Asian enough or Black enough.  Putting an Asian, Asian American, or Black actor on stage once in a while was one thing, but an Asian or Black narrative?  No.  A mixed race narrative that included Blackness?  No.  (Maybe now, for a quick minute.)

Even with PWI production, however, I sometimes feel like a second-class citizen privileged to be welcomed into the Big House.  Sometimes it feels like the Kansas tourism motif: please visit, patronize our businesses, but then move on.  Finding community in theatre can be challenging.  Today, I have had the good fortune of working with theatres such as Playwrights’ Arena and Hero Theatre that put their money where their beautiful mouths are with regards to presenting BIPOC narratives and hiring BIPOC theatremakers.  In addition, PWIs and non-BIPOC theatremakers such as Los Angeles Opera, a New York producer I am working with, and a heavenly handful of directors, collaborate with me on my own literary merits.  It is nice to be thought of as human.

Largely however, I know I am in the fire alone.  My multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, trans-national aesthetic will not be defended by most and, obviously, I am not — and cannot — be hindered by that.

For four decades, I have been cultivating it and creating out of it, and I persevere.  (The new “anti” I have discovered as I get older is ageism.  Now, besides multiple colors and cultures, I see the many people who believe that, after fifty, an artist ought to just shut up.  Not happening here.)

For most of her career, novelist Toni Morrison wrote about racial prejudice in the US.  She discussed the fact that race is a construction; it is something made in America.  She said that those who practice it are “bereft, there is something distorted about the psyche.”(12)  When I think about Chauvin pressing his knee against the neck of George Floyd for almost nine minutes, I concurrently think about Toni Morrison’s words.

We are here.  We have eyes and ears.  We definitely see you.  We hear you, too.  Be an example, not an excuse, for your children and for generations to come.  For they will see you, too.  Sooner or later, they will truly see you.  As Baldwin suggested, how do you want to live?

CREDITS

(1) Blakemore, Erin.  “The Story Behind the Famous Little Rock Nine ‘Scream Image’: It didn’t end when Central High School was integrated.”  Web.  www.history.com, 1 Sep 2017, updated 9 Jun 2020.  D/L June 16, 2020 @ https://www.history.com/news/the-story-behind-the-famous-little-rock-nine-scream-image.

(2) Loffman, Matt.  “Asian Americans describe ‘gut punch’ of racist attacks during coronavirus pandemic,” PBS, 7 Apr 2020.  Web. www.pbs.org.  D/L June 16, 2020 @ https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/asian-americans-describe-gut-punch-of-racist-attacks-during-coronavirus-pandemic.

(3) Blakemore, Erin.  “The Story Behind the Famous Little Rock Nine ‘Scream Image’: It didn’t end when Central High School was integrated.”  Web.  www.history.com, 1 Sep 2017, updated 9 Jun 2020.  D/L June 16, 2020 @ https://www.history.com/news/the-story-behind-the-famous-little-rock-nine-scream-image.

(4) King, Jr., Martin Luther.  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 16 Apr 1963, University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center.  Web.  www.africa.upenn.edu.  D/L June 16, 2020 @ https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

(5) Esquire editors, “James Baldwin: How to Cool It,” Esquire, originally published Jul 1968, reprinted online 2 Aug 2017, Web. www.esquire.com, D/L June 16, 2020 @ https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a23960/james-baldwin-cool-it/.

(6) Blakemore, Erin.  “The Story Behind the Famous Little Rock Nine ‘Scream Image’: It didn’t end when Central High School was integrated.”  Web.  www.history.com, 1 Sep 2017, updated 9 Jun 2020.  D/L June 16, 2020 @ https://www.history.com/news/the-story-behind-the-famous-little-rock-nine-scream-image.

(7) Esquire editors, “James Baldwin: How to Cool It,” Esquire, originally published Jul 1968, reprinted online 2 Aug 2017, Web. www.esquire.com, D/L June 16, 2020 @ https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a23960/james-baldwin-cool-it/.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Baldwin, James.  “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Esquire.  Web.  www.esquire.com.  Originally published 17 Nov 1962. D/L June 16, 2020 @ https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind

(10) Morning Edition.  “For One Immigrant Community, George Floyd’s Death Isn’t Just About Black And White,” Special Series: “America Reckons with Racial Injustice,” 4 June 2020, NPR.  Web.  www.npr.org.  D/L on June 16, 2020 @ https://www.npr.org/2020/06/04/868978380/for-one-immigrant-community-george-floyds-death-isn-t-just-about-black-and-white.

(11) “We See You, White American Theater,” Web. www.weseeyouwat.com. Undated.  D/L June 16, 2020 @ https://www.weseeyouwat.com/.

(12) Barajas, Joshua.  “Lessons we can learn from Toni Morrison,” PBS News Hour, 6 Aug 2019.  Web. www.pbs.org.  D/L June 16, 2020 @ https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/lessons-we-can-learn-from-toni-morrison.

Life Fascinations: The Curious and Compassionate Karen Huie in a Nation of Artists

Being an artist in a society that prioritizes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is challenging.  Being a female artist is even more challenging.  Being an artist of color intensifies that challenge.  Karen Huie’s journey as an artist reflects what those circumstances mandate:  one must be curious and hyper-vigilant about life.

Born and reared in New York City’s Chinatown, Karen lived in the city’s other boroughs briefly (Staten Island and Queens), but the mainstay of her upbringing was in Chinatown.

Matchabook - Karen Huie - Photo With Mother

1

“Chinatown was about a six-block area with mostly Chinese, so, until age seven, everyone I knew was Chinese, and spoke Chinese at home and English in school,” Huie recalled.

This multicultural environment created many bilingual children as well as a sense of community.

“As a friend observed, you were pretty cocky by age eight because you were bilingual and could navigate things at home and in the neighborhood,” Huie recollected.  “Everyone ate the same kinds of food, celebrated the same holidays, had the same cultural understandings and largely knew one another’s families.”

Even though there were many things that connected Huie to her Chinatown contemporaries, she felt marginalized because of the way she looked and her parents’ cosmopolitan nature.

“I always felt spooned out because the kids taunted that my skin was too fair, the bridge of my nose too high, my eyes too large, my forehead too round (??) [she wondered what that meant], and I didn’t talk like them,” Huie said.  Her young, bilingual, and attractive parents only made it harder to fit in with her peers.  “My Dad came from Hong Kong at age eleven, went back to find a bride, and brought my Mother over when she was eighteen and he was twenty-one.”  Huie noted that even her mother told her that she didn’t fit in with the local children.

When she was eight, her family moved away from Chinatown and would not return for seven years.   The first move was to Staten Island to a mostly Norwegian neighborhood that welcome Huie’s family.  A year and a half later, her family moved to a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Jewish Americans, Italian Americans, Puerto Rican Americans and Irish Americans where they were the only Chinese family except for another family that managed a Chinese American hand laundry.

It was in this neighborhood where Huie saw the ugly nature of racism rear its head.  The sister of a girl who was interested in talking to Huie came to her and said, “Mom and Dad told us not to play with colored people.”

Colored people?  Initially, Huie didn’t realize that the sister meant her.

“We turned back over our shoulders to see who they were talking about,” she said.  “When we turned back, the girls had skipped away.”

Matchabook - Photo - Karen Huie as Pre-teen 05-24-2020

2

“Chinatown was about a six-block area with mostly Chinese, so, until age seven, everyone I knew was Chinese, and spoke Chinese at home and English in school,” Huie recalled.

This multicultural environment created many bilingual children as well as a sense of community.

“As a friend observed, you were pretty cocky by age eight because you were bilingual and could navigate things at home and in the neighborhood,” Huie recollected.  “Everyone ate the same kinds of food, celebrated the same holidays, had the same cultural understandings and largely knew one another’s families.”

Even though there were many things that connected Huie to her Chinatown contemporaries, she felt marginalized because of the way she looked and her parents’ cosmopolitan nature.

“I always felt spooned out because the kids taunted that my skin was too fair, the bridge of my nose too high, my eyes too large, my forehead too round (??) [she wondered what that meant], and I didn’t talk like them,” Huie said.  Her young, bilingual, and attractive parents only made it harder to fit in with her peers.  “My Dad came from Hong Kong at age eleven, went back to find a bride, and brought my Mother over when she was eighteen and he was twenty-one.”  Huie noted that even her mother told her that she didn’t fit in with the local children.

When she was eight, her family moved away from Chinatown and would not return for seven years.   The first move was to Staten Island to a mostly Norwegian neighborhood that welcome Huie’s family.  A year and a half later, her family moved to a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Jewish Americans, Italian Americans, Puerto Rican Americans and Irish Americans where they were the only Chinese family except for another family that managed a Chinese American hand laundry.

It was in this neighborhood where Huie saw the ugly nature of racism rear its head.  The sister of a girl who was interested in talking to Huie came to her and said, “Mom and Dad told us not to play with colored people.”

Colored people?  Initially, Huie didn’t realize that the sister meant her.

“We turned back over our shoulders to see who they were talking about,” she said.  “When we turned back, the girls had skipped away.”

photo karen huie as a teenager cropped

3

She took a dramatic arts class in college and studied at New York’s HB Studio for a long time until her instructor said, “You’re not here to be a professional student, get out and work.” (Huie declared, “I loved it and was there for four years until my teacher kicked me out.”) Taking her mentor’s advice, Huie got out and worked, getting cast in six shows in a row.  An early marriage into which she’d been forced “fell apart,” and Huie moved to Los Angeles and “never looked back.”

With roots in writing poetry, Huie’s shift to playwriting was natural.  Her comedic play, “Songs of Harmony” was workshopped and then produced at East West Players.  CBS executives came to see the play and offered her a sitcom pilot deal.  Today, Huie writes in force both for theatre and television.  Currently, she is working on four projects: a musical, an animated feature film, and two plays with no music.  “All three are steeped in Asian culture,” she said, “Two Chinese, one Japanese, and one set in the 1960s in New York City.”  Huie likes being able to explore Asian themes in her writing.  “The culture I was raised with manifests itself either directly by being about a Chinese or Chinese American situation, or examining the story or characters through an Asian American lens to deepen my understanding of the differences,” she said.

Huie’s beguiling past includes two episodes of running away from home at age fifteen.  “It was a crash course in life,” she said.  When she ran away, she stayed at a “crash pad” with four other runaways, one of whom told her about his plans to study acting at the Academy of Dramatic Arts.  Reflecting upon such aspirations for someone in their mid-teens, Huie noted how times have changed.  “Now,” she said, “every sixteen-year-old wants to be a Kardashian.”

photo karen huie modeling shot nyc

4

Huie’s forced marriage at twenty-two was a critical point in her life.  “I was coerced into marrying my boyfriend because my parents didn’t want us just living together,” she said.  Later, when she decided to pursue a professional writing and acting career and divorced, she was “shamed for it.”

Too often people who are not of your ethnic background expect you to be a cultural expert about your ethnicity.  As Huie notes, because she is Chinese American, often she is asked to be a cultural ambassador for all things  Chinese American.  Even back in grade school, her social studies teacher had her “stand up and tell the class why the Chinese burn fire crackers on Chinese New Year” to which Huie said she muttered, “I don’t know.”  (Of course, the teacher enjoyed telling the class her answer.)

“I was ashamed and humiliated,” Huie recalled.  However, the cultural questioning was just beginning. “Later, I was asked why I always ask if someone has eaten, what a certain Chinese character means, and always where the best Chinese restaurant is.”  As she began to realize that people asked her such things out of genuine interest, she started to accept her role as a cultural ambassador.  Even so, she has her fun.  “I have suggested to know-it-alls about Chinese cuisine to chew thoroughly on a dried shrimp that really was a chile.”

Huie’s curiosity and hyper-vigilant nature connect with the motivations for her acting, which are driven by her fascination with human behavior.  She recalls watching “Sybil” and “The Three Faces of Eve” when she was in college, and feeling torn between psychology and acting.

“I wondered what life would be like as an actor and what it would be like as a psychologist,” she said. However, she said she made her decision after “imagining listening to people complain for eight hours a day.”  That, she said, “hastened and definitively made my decision.”

Matchabook - Karen Huie - Photo With Mako & Group - 05-25-2020

5

Even though she chose acting and writing, she wondered if she would have if she’d comprehensively imagined their job descriptions. “If there were job descriptions for acting or writing itemizing life-long training, developing and honing skills, rehearsals, and failures for possibly no pay, would I have embarked on either?” she asked rhetorically.  It being organic to her nature, Huie ignored what would be demanded of her, and chose the arts.  She said that acting and writing require her to navigate experiences, which helps her to question them and reach greater clarity.  “Acting and writing are the mediums through which I try to find understanding and identification,” she explained.

As an actor, Huie enjoys the audience taking a journey with her.  As a writer, she has an ability to make people laugh.  After her play “Songs of Harmony” opened at East West Players, her then partner convinced her to go and see a subsequent performance (she said she whined, “Can’t we take a night off?”).  As the audience laughed line after line, Huie was ready to leave to go eat, which astounded her partner.  Didn’t she know that she had a gift people would kill for?

For Huie, it was par for the course.  “I wrote a comedy,” she said.  “It’s my job to make them laugh. That’s kind of the agreement.”

Huie stresses the fact that theatre is a communal art and that there is no room for narcissism.   That is her least favorite thing to encounter in the theatre.

Being a woman in an industry that favors the male point of view is challenging for Huie, but not a road block.  In fact, she said, she often has been told that she has male tendencies.

“Maybe that happens because I was first born in my family and was spoiled and headstrong,” she mused.  She admits that she has strong impulses and, when inspired, moves swiftly to create, but, since it is part of her nature, those traits have to be understood as female tendencies, as human tendencies.  Huie reacts to her muses.

“If I think things through too much, I’ll feel overwhelmed and not want to do what I was initially inspired to do, so I jump in with both feet and figure it out as I go along,” she declared.

“Who knows? Who cares?” Huie exclaimed.  “I worry less about what people think about me and focus on what I want to accomplish.”

With regards to gender, Huie notes that she has had to fight a lot of battles in arts and entertainment, but she said that these conflicts were not only with men, but also with women.

“I used to assume if we were all women, or Chinese American, Asian American, from New York, of a certain age or whatever likeness, we’d be simpatico,” she said. “But I’ve had many disappointments and realized we’re not all the same.  More than race, neighborhood, gender, age, or culture, what I really belong to is the Nation of Artists. I have more sustaining cohesion with writers, actors and people striving to create something challenging than I do with someone from the same neighborhood.  While I enjoy and am energized by the place we have in common, I am not sustained by it.”

In the Nation of Artists, Huie thrives on process and illumination.   She says that acting and writing are how she synthesizes the world; and, in process, she discovers what the story and characters are.

Sorting out life’s complexities and contradictions motivates Huie.  Hyper-vigilant, she seeks a pathway right into those intricacies and then sets out trying to make sense of them.

“I see two things together and my mind starts making up stories about what’s going on,” she stated.  “Some things take me longer to figure out, but I love finding a pathway to the complexities, the contradictions.”

The imagining is swift for Huie.  Sometimes she can sit in an empty theatre and an entire play emerges in her mind in fifteen minutes or less.  The craft part of it, of course, is not as swift.

“What gets me is how a whole idea can come to you in thirty seconds, but you then have to lay the story out brick by brick so a reader or audience can see in two hours what you saw in your mind in thirty seconds,” she said. She likened it to what the pastor of a local temple told her about Noh theatre.  “Sometimes it may seem agonizingly slow, but he said you have to go to the theatre an hour ahead and sit there until your rhythms slow down to the pace of Noh. Then, you will feel its beauty.”

Matchabook - Photos - Karen Huie Today - 05-04-2020

6

These days, Huie continues with her usual vigor, although she feels that she is more mindful about what she chooses to do.

“In my seasoned years,” she stated, “I flit between still wanting to do it all, especially as time will run out and choosing more carefully.”   She noted that a friend shared with her how his writing friend chooses what projects to take on.  “He asks himself three questions. Is it fun?  Does it pay well?  Will it advance my career?”  When the man was younger, she said, any one of those things would have prompted him to say yes.  “As he got older, he needed two of those things to accept an assignment,” she continued. “Now, he needs all three.”

When Huie wants to act or write something, she can feel it in her bones.  If she doesn’t, she can feel that, too.  “Procrastination tells me a lot!” she exclaimed.

 

 

 

 

CREDITS: Photographs all provided by Karen Huie.

1 – Karen Huie with her mother.

2 – Karen Huie as a pre-teenager.

3 – Karen Huie as a teenager.

4 – Karen Huie photographed by renowned fashion photographer Phil Pegler in New York City

 

5 – Karen Huie with the late actor and East West Players Artistic Director Mako Iwamatsu; Clyde Kusatsu, current Los Angeles President of SAG-AFTRA; and actor Dana Lee.

6 – Karen Huie today.