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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.     


“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. D/L on August 16, 2020 @


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,, 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  Web.  D/L September 27, 2020 @

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  Web.  D/L September 27, 2020 @

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 Web.  D/L September 27, 2020 @

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 Web.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ (2) “African mask” by Dowbiggin is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit Web.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ (3) “DSC08919 African Masks” by godutchbaby is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit Web.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ (4) “First Nations Mask” by ngawangchodron is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit Web.  D/L September 27, 2020 @ (5) “Noh Mask: Kojo (Old Man)” is marked under CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit Web.  D/L September 27, 2020 @’. (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 Web.  D/L September 27, 2020 @

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  Web.  D/L September 29, 2020 @

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 Web.  D/L September 29, 2020 @

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.


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  Web.  D/L September 18, 2020 @

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 ( is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit  Web.  D/L September 18, 2020 @

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  Web.  D/L September 18, 2020 @

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  Web.  D/L September 23, 2020 @  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  Web.  D/L September 23, 2020 @

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  Web.  D/L September 24, 2020 @

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.


“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.”


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.


“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.


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.


“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.


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.  D/L July 12, 2020 @

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


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


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


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:  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?


(1) Blakemore, Erin.  “The Story Behind the Famous Little Rock Nine ‘Scream Image’: It didn’t end when Central High School was integrated.”  Web., 1 Sep 2017, updated 9 Jun 2020.  D/L June 16, 2020 @

(2) Loffman, Matt.  “Asian Americans describe ‘gut punch’ of racist attacks during coronavirus pandemic,” PBS, 7 Apr 2020.  Web.  D/L June 16, 2020 @

(3) Blakemore, Erin.  “The Story Behind the Famous Little Rock Nine ‘Scream Image’: It didn’t end when Central High School was integrated.”  Web., 1 Sep 2017, updated 9 Jun 2020.  D/L June 16, 2020 @

(4) King, Jr., Martin Luther.  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 16 Apr 1963, University of Pennsylvania African Studies Center.  Web.  D/L June 16, 2020 @

(5) Esquire editors, “James Baldwin: How to Cool It,” Esquire, originally published Jul 1968, reprinted online 2 Aug 2017, Web., D/L June 16, 2020 @

(6) Blakemore, Erin.  “The Story Behind the Famous Little Rock Nine ‘Scream Image’: It didn’t end when Central High School was integrated.”  Web., 1 Sep 2017, updated 9 Jun 2020.  D/L June 16, 2020 @

(7) Esquire editors, “James Baldwin: How to Cool It,” Esquire, originally published Jul 1968, reprinted online 2 Aug 2017, Web., D/L June 16, 2020 @

(8) Ibid.

(9) Baldwin, James.  “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Esquire.  Web.  Originally published 17 Nov 1962. D/L June 16, 2020 @

(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.  D/L on June 16, 2020 @

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

(12) Barajas, Joshua.  “Lessons we can learn from Toni Morrison,” PBS News Hour, 6 Aug 2019.  Web.  D/L June 16, 2020 @

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


“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


“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


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


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


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


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.


Nancy Keystone: An Artist of Universes and Multitudes

Directors bring depth, meaning, and vision to theatre-making.  Nancy Keystone is that kind of director and theatre needs more of them.  Life and theatre are serious matters that require consideration, thought, and mutual respect of other artists in the collaborative work of creating theatre.  To the good fortune of theatre, Nancy Keystone gives that.

Matchabook Nancy Keystone Photos - 10-24-2019 - NK 1992 copy jpeg1

Born in San Francisco in 1963 when her family lived there for a year (her parents’ first year of marriage; she was conceived during their honeymoon) for her father’s residency at San Francisco General Hospital, Nancy has no memory of the city by the bay.  As a matter of fact, her memories of growing up surface from a variety of places including Ann Arbor and Detroit, Michigan (where her parents are from); Montgomery, Alabama; and Santa Barbara, California.  She spent a total of three years, not consecutive, in Ann Arbor where her father completed medical internships at the University of Michigan.  In Montgomery, where her doctor father was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base, she spent two years.  From 1970 when she was six years old, she spent most of her childhood in Santa Barbara, living there on-and-off until 1992.  Her mother gave birth to her at age twenty-one; her father was twenty-five.


Culturally and religiously, Nancy is a Jewish American.  In the early twentieth century, her great grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe (Russia, Poland, and Austria) to the U.S.; and, on her father’s side, to Canada.  In Michigan (Detroit had a large Jewish community), her conservative parents were involved in synagogues, but, when they arrived in Santa Barbara, that changed because that city “had very few Jews.”  Nancy said there was only one synagogue (Reform) in Santa Barbara when her family arrived.  However, those circumstances proved to be fertile.

“My mom always came to our classes to teach about the Jewish holidays (primarily Hanukkah and Passover),” Nancy expressed. “…my parents, along with about ten other families, started their own Conservative synagogue.  My dad led the services every Friday night and Saturday morning, and my mom ran the Sunday school.  Temple Beth Ami grew, and lasted for four years.  We had a fantastic cantor, who had been quite well known, and came out of retirement to be a part of our temple.  We never had a building – we always used other spaces.”

While the experience was fulfilling, it also took a great deal of effort that eventually wore out her parents, particularly the difficulty of raising funds to obtain a Rabbi.  Nancy’s family began to attend a synagogue in Thousand Oaks, California, two or three times a week (round-trip by car, a journey of about 112 miles).  Her sister and she had their Bat (B’not) Mitzvah ceremonies there while her brother had his Bar Mitzvah in Israel on a tour with the synagogue’s congregation.

Nancy’s family observed other Jewish tradition as well including Shabbat.

“We observed Shabbat every Friday night, with a nice meal, and candles, wine, and challah,” she described.  “My parents worked very hard to make a Jewish life for us, and I had a strong and mostly positive sense of identity. I don’t remember any overt prejudice from anti-Semitism around us.  But I do remember feeling somewhat alienated and different on a basic level, around a lot of my other non-Jewish friends.”

Nancy recalled one incident where anti-Semitism raised its ugly head.  In 1972, her parents attended the Olympics in Munich, Germany when Jim Ryun was elbowed, fell, and was disqualified; and Israeli athletes were massacred.  The Jewish High Holidays were occurring at the same time.  Her parents were afraid to go to a synagogue, so they held their own services in their hotel room.  Later at a café, however, some ugliness from reality bit.

“Someone dropped a note with a skull and crossbones on the table in front of my mother,” Nancy stated.  Even though she wasn’t there, this event had a big impact on her when her mother told her about it.  “My parents – my mother, especially – did not really want to go to Germany (the Holocaust was just thirty years prior).”  The Olympics, however, attracted many and the world always struggles with difference.

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Between the Jewish emphasis on education and her family’s emphasis, Nancy read a lot and excelled in school.  The arts were in her life from an early age via music.

“Music was a big part of our world,” Nancy said, noting liturgical music at synagogue services.  “…my dad started a choir for the synagogue and they rehearsed at our house,” she elaborated.  “He also played piano, and I played piano for most of my youth, and music was always playing on the stereo at home — mostly classical and show tunes (and the University of Michigan fight song!).”  She feels fortunate that her parents always exposed her and her siblings to art.  On a small scale, they collected art and photography.  Nancy remembers visiting art galleries, not just viewing the art, but being encouraged by her parents to have conversations about the artists and the artworks.

“Art was always an integrated part of my life and I always understood that it was important,” Nancy stated.

Not only did her parents provide her with artistic experiences, but they were do-ers.  Based upon their passion for photography, they opened a fine art photography gallery in the early 1980s, much like the synagogue they initiated in Santa Barbara in Nancy’s youth.

Naturally, her Jewish upbringing educated her about one of the Holocaust.  Taught about it from a young age, its horridness could not be dismissed.

“Those images and sounds and events dug deep into my nerves,” she said.

While that history has been fodder for some of her theatre work, particularly given her Jewish identity and the fact that her ancestors came from Eastern Europe, which was directly affected by the Holocaust, it is not the only source from which her muses speak.

“My Jewish background is more foundational, and not so much front and center in my life as an artist,” she noted.  “In fact, I just directed ‘Indecent’, and that was the first overtly Jewish project I’ve ever done (outside of Sunday school!).”  However, Nancy is developing a new theatre piece that is based on Jewish history events.  Like most artists from specific cultural backgrounds, her artistic vision goes beyond her experiences at times, but does not have to exclude them.

Nancy retains vibrant, mostly positive memories of Ann Arbor including dancing to the music of her first celebrity crush Herb Alpert, viewing “Truth or Consequences” and the “CBS Evening News” on television, attending the circus in pink fish-net tights with her grandparents, and participating in “some sort of” anti-Hubert Humphrey chant during the 1968 election.  Another memory Nancy recalls is that of Migali, a non-English-speaking girl from Venezuela who joined her kindergarten class.

“She was missing an arm and I remember my mom teaching me some Spanish so I could speak to her, and our class preparing to welcome her so we could understand about her disability,” Nancy stated.

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Nancy also recalls sharing a bedroom with her sister, replete with beds her father made; that all-important first kiss with first-grade boyfriend, Jimmy; and a mural of a boy with balloons that her mother painted on the walls of the unfurnished living room that was called the “play room.”

In truth, Nancy declared, life in Ann Arbor was full of experiences that mark her memory richly today.  Besides the aforementioned recollections, she reminisced about singing in nursery school, playing on the family swing set, her father’s backyard garden, cultivating seeds in the family basement, and getting a microscope set that she used to look at the wings of flies.

“I learned to walk to kindergarten by myself,” she recollected, recounting the guidelines her parents gave her: “never go into the woods, look for the ‘helping hand’ sign in neighbors’ windows in case you need help, stay away from the lake and never walk on it even if it looks frozen.”

Lessons could be fun.  She took creative movement class and “pretended to be popcorn,” and engaged in “make-papers,” which meant writing words and drawing corresponding pictures.

After Ann Arbor, Nancy’s family moved to Montgomery where her brother and sister were born.  She remembers those two years as “foggy memories… tinged with the fear, tensions and complexity of that period.”  These strange things included having a pet chicken that was run over by a car, a field behind her house filled with rats, a bullet hole in her neighbors’ window, and a note on her family’s door “warning her parents never to let me play with “that n****r child” (the Black son of her White neighbors’ housekeeper.  Other experiences also were tinged with race such as the African American female lieutenant “who wouldn’t sit with my father in the front seat of the car when he gave her a ride because if they were seen it would be a provocation to violence.”  During her life in Montgomery, the Selma to Montgomery march happened.  Too young to be on the front lines, Nancy looked on from afar, but was aware of what was at stake given the presence of Blackness in her family’s life via experiences such as that of the lieutenant and the young Black man she was told to avoid.

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Montgomery sparks other recollections in Nancy’s mind that are not always pleasant, such as a blue dress with an itchy tulle underskirt, black patent leather shoes, twirling under a “spot light” in the dining room of the Diplomat Hotel, her brother’s bris when she ate candy-coated peanuts and had her first allergic reaction to peanuts (an allergy that sustains to this day), and a frightening nightmare.

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“I woke up and saw a shadow of myself on the wall, seemingly playing a piano,” she described.

However, Montgomery does evoke some positive remembrances, such as painting on butcher paper that her mother put on the wall.  Soon, her family left Michigan and the U.S. South behind for the greener environs of Santa Barbara.  That city gave Nancy numerous memories, beginning with a family trip that began on New Year’s Day in a station wagon packed with blankets, books, toys, and three children (ages four, five, and six) that took them along a southern route that included stops at Carlsbad Caverns and Disneyland.

Life is no piece of cake for anybody.  When one thing is going well, another dimension of life may prove challenging.  Nancy experienced this high-wire upbringing as her parents moved houses eight times in twenty years.  Noting the often sublime childhood in a scenic site such as Santa Barbara, Nancy recalled the overall loving nature of her family surrounded by the “ocean, mountains, a mission, the history of Chumash Native Americans, creeks, walking and taking the bus everywhere, fog in June, and the local Summer Solstice Celebration.”

Three memories that Nancy recalled from her Santa Barbara days center around music and performance, a part of the artist’s DNA from the outset, it seems.

At the age of seven, Nancy began playing classical piano.  That skill grew out of her ancestral ties to Russia.

“My teacher was a Russian émigré,” Nancy recollected.  “She was very strict, I had to curtsy and say, ‘Hello Miss Galina,’ when I came into her house.  She yelled at me a lot and the lessons often ended in tears. Every year, I had to take an exam, practicing for two weeks during the summer and then playing for a judge.”  Nancy played for nine years until a concert in which she “blanked on the music.”  Despite the trauma of that experience, it educated her. “I learned discipline and am grateful for the experience.

In the second grade, she auditioned for a talent show by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” a Capella and was granted the part.  For both the audition and performance, she considered themes in sorting out her costumes.

“I wore a blue quilted skirt with turtles on it (and a yellow shirt), which I thought was appropriate because of the nature theme and the song,” she said. “In the show, I wore a long, pink dress with white flowers – again, the nature theme.

Two years later, Nancy created a singing group called The Starlights that included guitar, tambourine, back-up singers, and Nancy as lead singer and director.  One of their numbers was, “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.”

Because of the “problematic” nature of a public school near her home in Santa Barbara, Nancy attended fifth and sixth grades at Marymount Catholic School that welcome her family, its only Jewish family.  Primarily a girls’ school, it was transitioning to lay faculty and started to admit boys.  At her previous school, Nancy had been bullied and teased a lot, which diminished her self-confidence.  The years at her Catholic school proved to be different.

“The two years at Marymount were healing and full of creative explorations, and I had space and support to blossom a little bit,” she noted.  Along with learning about Judaism, she also learned about Catholicism.  “I was supposed to leave the room during religion class to do my Hebrew school homework, but I was interested in learning about the life of Jesus and Mary and so I stayed to listen to Sister Catherine Marie’s lessons.”  Sister Catherine Marie also illuminated important sociopolitics of the time via what was happening to her former student Patty Hearst who had just been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

“My imagination that year ran wild with this terrifying mixture of sacred and profane,” Nancy recalled.

The Marymount years also began a lifelong practice of journaling, courtesy of Nancy’s sixth grade teacher, “Ms. Polacco.”

“My 6th grade teacher was the first ‘Ms.’ I’d encountered,” Nancy said.  “Ms. Polacco was very artistic and groovy, and she read us ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,’ which was one of my two favorite books.”  Nancy’s other favorite book was “Harriet the Spy,” which began her interests in journaling, a practice she has maintained since the age of ten.

Nancy directed her first true play – Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” – at Santa Barbara High School.  Not only did that school offer her theatre, but also an extremely diverse student body.  She flourished there, especially with a teacher who supported her talents and believed in her.

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In 1985, through Santa Barbara City College, Nancy spent a year studying art in Europe.  She traveled to England, France, Italy, and the Netherlands studying drawing and art history.  She also saw major theatre works by world-class artists such as Peter Brook at the Bouffes du Nord and Ariane Mnouchkine at the Cartoucherie.

“This was a major immersion in Western visual and performing art,” Nancy said.  “[It] …gave me context for so much of what I’d learned as an undergraduate; and launched my graduate studies in a deeper, more interdisciplinary way.  Looking at art became a way of experiencing life, and understanding the world.”

Love in all its forms is a big dimension of everybody’s lives and presents itself in an artist’s life in an emphatically vigorous way, given the highly tuned nature of an artist’s being.  For Nancy, heartbreak first arrived at the tender age of twenty-one when her relationship with her first “true love” ended.  She described it as her “most painful and traumatic heartbreak” that “opened up a whole world of human experience that deepened and ‘seasoned’ me as a person and artist.”  Most importantly, however, it taught Nancy Keystone never to give away her power like that.

As she matured, more genuine loves entered her life.  She married and had a child.  She describes her marriage as a “port in the storms” and her husband, who is also a theatre person (director, writer, and performer), as a “partner in the joys, support, home.”  Her husband’s job at Sony Pictures has allowed her to focus on her theatre work.  They also share fundamental interests, and are each other’s critical eyes and ears.

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This genuineness heightened in a significant way when she gave birth to her daughter, Alexa.  Parenthood opened a door in her life, bringing her “more love, more empathy, more understanding what everyone’s been talking about all these 1000s of years.”  She stated that it also gave her a deeper appreciation for her parents.

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Today, Nancy the director and artistic director of a theatre company also balances her art with life.  A career that meaningfully embraces the life of the mind is no easy feat.  Her myriad responsibilities include, “taking care of my daughter, being a partner in my marriage, maintaining our house, being present for the rest of my family, volunteering in the community, teaching, making money.”  In other words, she is running a country called her life.  She noted that, cliché as the saying may be, it truly takes a village.

“I’m blessed to have a husband and parents who support my work, and help with childcare and… other domestic responsibilities,” Nancy stated.   She also noted some important guidelines she has put in place for self-care and nurturing of her art.

“Sometimes I say ‘no’ to opportunities and requests because I know I can’t do everything, and I need to prioritize in order to maintain integrity and quality of work (and my sanity and health),” she said.  While sometimes she stays up late to get things done, she also is a firm believes in walks and daily naps.

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Perhaps Nancy was destined for a life in the theatre.  She feels that, her entire life, she’s been “putting on a show.”  Her parents took her to performing arts events and, as she grew up and became interested in entrepreneurial theatre, they supported her, both of them owning an entrepreneurial spirit.

“I do remember one of the first plays I saw – a children’s show – and I really did not want to be in the audience,” she recalled.  “I wanted to be part of the show and I had very mixed feelings about being there since I could only be a spectator.”

While her mother had majored in theatre and supported Nancy from the outset, Nancy’s father came on board later.  Both have advocated her artistic creation for some time.  Nancy remembered their early commitment, including when they let her product and direct a play in their home one summer.

“When they still lived in Santa Barbara, I was going back and forth to Los Angeles to rehearse with the actors who mostly lived down there,” Nancy said with regards to her parents’ commitment.  “On week nights we’d work in LA, and on weekends everyone would come up to Santa Barbara and they’d all stay over Friday and Saturday nights at my parents’ house in Goleta (which was not very big, by the way – this was when we were all in our 20s so people didn’t mind sleeping on the floor so much!),” she said.  “My folks would make brunch for everyone before we went off to rehearse, and then midnight snacks for the ‘sleepover,’ and generally welcome the whole crazy group with open arms.”

Right after her daughter was born, Nancy’s mother accompanied her to a Theatre Communications Group conference in Philadelphia so that Nancy could both participate in the conference and be a mother.

“[My mother] …brought her to me every three hours so I could feed her and we all slept in a dank dorm room,” Nancy recalled.  “Later, my parents would help take care of my daughter for a week or two at a time when I had to go out of town.  They still come to help when we’re in production – catering company meals and opening night parties, running around town finding impossible props.  It is no exaggeration to say that I could not have done, or be doing, what I do without the full-throttle support of my family.  I am supremely blessed.”

Nancy reflects upon her view that her career has developed on two rarely overlapping fronts:  independence in artistic creation and unconventional theatre artists such as German’s Pina Bausch.  She describes her most important theatre influences as Bausch, Elizabeth Lecompte, Suzan-Lori Parks, Mnouchkine, Tadeusz Kantor, Tadashi Suzuki, and Brook.

“I was inspired to create my own ensemble modeled on the common framework of those [artists’] companies: a long-term commitment to a group of collaborators to explore ideas in an organic way, development of a unique performance vocabulary and aesthetic, social and political relevance, and gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art),” Nancy noted.  She also works as a freelance director/designer at U.S. regional theatres.  First and foremost, she described her guiding principle in theatre as choosing herself.

“Early in my career, I placed much more emphasis on the regional theatre route and I knocked on a lot of different doors with little to show for it (not atypical for most early career artists),” she said.  “At each point of frustration, I made a conscious decision to ‘choose myself,’ meaning that I simply made my own opportunity and did my own work. After many years of doing that over and over, that’s primarily what my career has become – making work with my own ensemble, which is really what I wanted.”

Nancy writes in a collaborative manner, developing new work with her company, Critical Mass Performance Group. For that company, she is director, scenic designer, and writer.

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“With the company, I develop a project for as long as it takes to come to fruition, usually several years through multiple workshops,” she said as she described her process. “I write on the page, as well as in three-dimensions, directly through the actors’ bodies and spirits, similar to a choreographer.  I use a lot of found text as well as improvisation with the actors, in addition to ‘original’ writing. I conceive the productions as an organic whole, creating the scenic environments throughout the development process.”  She strongly believes that, in the course of creating a piece, “it is often the interaction of the performer with the physical environment that ignites possibilities for action and metaphor.”

Her work with Critical Mass Performance Group encompasses a wide range of forms and genres including epic historical projects, adaptations of classic texts, intimate interactive salons, public happenings, and social practice art.  Thematically, she likes to explore historical, political, and ethical quandaries, which highlight faith in human resilience and progress.

“I love uncovering untold stories as well as finding surprising connections between people, places, and events,” she stated.  “I’m interested in placing human experience and struggle against larger backdrops of historical and cosmic forces, illuminating injustice, questioning received histories and structures; educating, inviting people to see things in new ways and understand different perspectives, [and] hopefully inspiring action or at least a shift in consciousness in order to create a more just and equitable world.”  At the core of these interests, is her desire to entertain and make spectators laugh, “to share something that interests me, to give people a thrilling theatrical experience.”

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Her theatre interests solidified during the late 1970s in Santa Barbara.  The summer before her senior year in high school, Nancy joined a theatre company as its youngest member. The company was a repertory ensemble that began at 9:00 in the morning with a collective warm-up (which is the basis for the warm-up she does with her company today), rehearsed all day, and performed at night.  The productions included works by Henrik Ibsen, Maria Irene Fornes, Samuel Beckett, Hubert Selby, Jr., and Gertrude Stein – “serious, soul-expanding stuff” that made her feel as if she had been “plunged into an ocean of recognition.”  She was searching for that kind of theatre art and being exposed to it set her on a course that is organic to her artistic creation today.

Being a woman in theatre today is to Nancy like a being a fish in water.  She is what she is and so…

“I’m female, so everything is filtered through that lens,” she said.  “However, on the other hand, when I was in college I took a women’s studies class and gained a whole new perspective on what it meant to be female in this society – had my consciousness raised, as we say.”  That gave Nancy new ways to think about issues related to gender, ways that inspired her.  In fact, it motivated her to an independent, “radically feminist” theatre project at school that “created a bit of a stir.”  Since then, Nancy has created a lot of projects illuminating the female condition, but she doesn’t feel that gender bias has limited her.  In fact, she feels there is greater geographical bias towards artists based in Los Angeles.

However, being a theatre artist anywhere in the U.S. is, to Nancy, a challenging proposition because “theatre, as an institution and idea, lacks value in our culture.”  She acknowledges that life in the theatre for female playwrights is “abysmal,” but that today it is more possible for them “to have a meaningful career, as long as that is defined, at least in part, by personal markers (as anything meaningful is).”

Society’s attitude towards theatre isn’t the only challenge that Nancy sees facing U.S. theatre.

“Speaking in general terms, mainstream theatre, despite the preponderance of right-minded liberals amongst the ranks, is actually surprisingly conservative, risk-averse, and quite behind the curve in moving into the 21st century (and I say this as someone firmly caught in the past in many areas of my life and consciousness),” she contended.  “The theatre is doing a terrible job of making a case for its relevance and value across a broad spectrum of society.  Perhaps there is a connection between the inclusion of more voices, and increased relevance and vitality?  No one theatre can be all things to all people, of course, but all theatres can benefit by a shift in consciousness.  We have conscious and unconscious biases, entrenched social and professional networks, perceived limitations of resources, and fears of risk that must be acknowledged in order to change the current situation.”

The shift in consciousness that Nancy feels is needed relates to a theatre’s leadership, administrative staff, season; and what playwrights, directors, designers, and actors are being employed by that theatre.

“It takes some effort to break out of habits,” she acknowledged. “There are many things that need to happen, by individuals, and by the field as a whole, to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive theatre.

A few years ago, Nancy’s work took her to Japan where she directed a show at Tokyo Disneyland.  Determined to use her time in Japan to enrich her knowledge, Nancy made a point to see traditional Kabuki theatre.

“I was blown away by the entire experience, seeing in person things I’d only studied about, the actors, the stage craft, the story-telling, the physicality, the forms, and conventions,” she said.  She expanded upon this by seeing a contemporary Kabuki production of “Yotsuya Kaidan” directed by Kushida Kazuyoshi.  “It turned out to be one of the top live performances I’ve seen in my life,” she continued.  She was captivated by the ways the production both preserved the traditional form and also exploded it.

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Despite the many challenges that complicate theatre in the U.S., Nancy continues to create, her determination nurtured by ideas and inspirations.  She doesn’t want to create theatre out of habit, but out of necessity, particularly in a society that finds theatre to be unnecessary, she noted.

“Every time I think I might be done with the theatre, I get another idea and that sets me off again,” she said.  “I get excited about learning about something and making something.  The theatre is the form through which I am best able to express those ideas. And I hope that someone else will be interested.”

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Photography Credits

(1) Nancy Keystone, 1992.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone.

(2) Montgomery, Alabama, 1966; both photos.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone.

(3) Web. Downloaded on January 23, 2020 @

(4) Nancy Keystone, 1972, with sister Jenny.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone.

(5) Web. Downloaded January 22, 2020 @

(6) Web., Creative Commons CC0. Downloaded February 8, 2020 @

(7) Nancy Keystone and parents.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone.

(8) Nancy Keystone.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone.

(9) Nancy Keystone walking with daughter Alexa, 2006.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone.

(10) Nancy Keystone and family.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone.

(11) Critical Mass Performance Group, The “Bread” interactive salon project, a commission from Cornerstone Theater Company and its Creative Seeds program, Los Angeles Kitchen, 2017.  Back row, L to R: David Olsen, Valerie Spencer, Nathan Singh, Ashley Sparks, Juan Parada, Michael Garcia; Front row, L to R: Crissy Guerrero, traci kato-kiriyama, Nancy Keystone, Fran de Leon, Randy Tico.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone.

(12) Nancy Keystone; the director at work, Critical Mass Performance Group, “Ameryka” Tech 2016.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone.

(13) Nancy Keystone, Kyoto, Japan, 2016.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone.

(14) Nancy Keystone.  Courtesy of Nancy Keystone. Photo by Luke Fontana.

Artist Tracking a North Star: Playwright Elizabeth Wong

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Welcome to the charm, intelligence, and unconventional magic that are part of the playwright Elizabeth Wong.  In a continuing series illuminating the lives of women theatre artists, I explore her life and literary journey.

When I think about her, the words idiosyncratic and distinctive come to mind.  She writes important stories that wrestle with ideas about culture, governmental politics, identity, fame and infamy, and a multitude of other topics for which she feels passion as an artist.  While she has had writing commissions, the bulk of her work is that of an original artist who grasps character and story without borrowing from history’s glorious Western male writers.  Some examples of this are plays such as Letters to a Student Revolutionary, Kimchee & Chitlins, China Doll, and Dating & Mating in Modern Times.

In addition to her playwriting, Elizabeth is a director, theatrical producer, and social essayist; and has shared her literary acumen with younger generations of artists as a professor.  Elizabeth is a dyed-in-the-wool, working playwright, one who has been applying her craft over decades and continues to create with vigor.  Fearlessly and with a commitment to authenticity, she writes original plays and expands her journey to the global scene as well.  She navigates these pathways with charm and kindness for the artists with whom she interacts.

While we always have supported each other’s work in a discipline that is often unwelcoming to female voices and the voices of people of color, we had the opportunity to collaborate and deepen our ties on a project with Silk Road Rising called The DNA Trail.  Not only was I able to witness Elizabeth’s artistic creation vis-à-vis the play that she wrote for the collaboration, but I also observed her work ethic and collaborative spirit with the other playwrights working on the project (David Henry Hwang, Shishir Kurup, Philip Kan Gotanda, Jamil Khoury, and Lina Patel).

The Early Years and the Dream of her Father

Because Elizabeth’s mother was pregnant with her when she emigrated to the United States, her mother likes to say that Elizabeth was born on an airplane.  The very image of that seems appropriate to Elizabeth’s dynamic aura.  In reality, however, Elizabeth was born as a Gemini in a hospital in South Gate, California.  She was reared in a corner store called the Golden Star Market in Huntington Park.  Her father had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in electrical engineering, but the military-contract-rife World War II era did not engage him, so he became a grocer like his father before him.  She and her little brother Will strove to help at the store.  Her brother would push cans (sometimes backwards) onto the shelves.  Known by customers as the “worst cute bagger,” Elizabeth bagged groceries, but was too young to realize that it isn’t a good idea to put bread and chips at the bottom of a bag.  Her father never scolded them for their youthful efforts.

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[Elizabeth and her brother Will]

The death of her father had a deep impact on Elizabeth.  At the age of five, her childhood as she had known it permanently shifted.  At the end of a fun night with neighborhood children playing hide-and-go-seek, Elizabeth heard a loud thump and then heard her mother screaming her father’s name.  Elizabeth watched as paramedics wheeled her father out on a gurney; the next time she saw him, he was lying in a casket.  The young Elizabeth had trouble absorbing and processing what death meant.

“I had nightmares about needing to dig my dad back up,” she said.  “I thought he was still alive, buried alive.”

Elizabeth feels that the loss of her father influenced her towards writing; in fact, it was something in her DNA when later a cousin told her that her father’s true ambition was not to be an engineer, but a journalist.  She accepts this legacy wholeheartedly.  “It makes perfect sense,” she said.  “I thought I was living my dream, but it’s actually the dream of my father.”

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The artist-to-be was getting an experiential education at the Golden Star Market.  Elizabeth heard many different languages and accents among the customers, which inspires the presence of them in her plays.  “I love to explore the interactions and intersection between cultures,” she stated in an interview with me.  She remembered the first time that she met a Black person, which also happened in the Golden Star Market.  That encounter informed a scene in her play Kimchee & Chitlins.  Early, she began to learn about the diversity of humanity.  “My early plays reflected the world I grew up in,” she stated.  “I lived the American melting pot, and it was friendly.”

Elizabeth and Will were close even with regards to their arrivals in this world.  At birth, they weighed about the same and were born about the same time.  “It was like we were twins but born one year, twenty days, and one minute apart,” she said.

Elizabeth’s mother had her hands full raising a family.  She worked long hours, kept the apartment clean, and shared her love with her children.  Unlike many Chinese mothers, as Elizabeth noted, her mother wanted a girl, not a boy, so she celebrated Elizabeth’s birth, telling her later, “Girls take care of you when you are older, and I wanted to dress you up like a princess.”

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[Baby Elizabeth as her mother’s princess]

In reflecting upon her journey, Elizabeth considers the experiences in her upbringing that inspired the future artist.

Her father’s scholarship and ownership of many books and vinyl records were big influences on Elizabeth (she knows the words to the Rodgers and Hammerstein music canon).  After her father died, his books and records became even more a part of her life.

“I would sit surrounded by his books and earnestly pretend to read them,” she recalled.  “I think it was a way to remain connected to him.”

In the books’ margins, she found many notations from her father in his own handwriting.  Over the years, there were snippets of memories such as her father calling her “Bee” or “Yellow Rose.”  While she tended to gloss over things “with a broad patina of rose colors,” she said that her father’s notes were starkly straightforward about the truth of a fatherless upbringing by a single mother, the life he had led before becoming a father and husband himself.

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The Immigrant Daughter’s Sandwich: Human Being/Daughter/Artist/Liaison to American Culture

Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother (her PoPo) was a significant support in her life.  In the Wong family’s multi-generational home, she was a second mother.  An immigrant from China, she added maternal structures to their lives, such as waiting for the Wong children after elementary school and walking home with them.  “She even let my brother and I visit every public phone so we could reach into the slot and check for forgotten change,” Elizabeth stated.

This maternal support was needed because Elizabeth’s mother, a widow in her twenties, worked three jobs to ensure the family’s financial stability.  She had to sell her husband’s belongings and struggle with an uncle who cheated her out of her inheritance.  Elizabeth recalls secretly recording her mother and uncle on a reel-to-reel tape as her tearful mother begged for a fair share for her family.

That incident triggered Elizabeth’s protective instincts.  From that point forward, she became her mother’s shield to the complicated world.  At a young age, Elizabeth had to rise above being a child and help her mother with paperwork, forms, and documents; she was her liaison with the world.  The behavior of her uncle – her father’s brother – in his dismissive and poor treatment of Elizabeth’s mother, ignited in Elizabeth the need for social justice, particularly for women, an interest that continues to find its way into her artistic creation.

Despite the family betrayal and the financial hardship that they often faced, Elizabeth’s mother also strove to make life enjoyable for her children.  “After Sunday dinners, my mother’s idea of fun was to go for a drive after a home-cooked meal,” Elizabeth recalled.  During the week, Elizabeth prepared TV dinners and had fun “smashing all the Chinatown cockroaches that fled the oven.”  The playwright reminisced about her odd adventures spiritedly.  She loved the drives and the smashing.

There was societal education, too.  Elizabeth’s mother took her children to Skid Row, the public library, and the book-mobile.  She encouraged them to study hard and reveled as her daughter checked out the maximum number of books.  “Back then, I loved fantasy and science fiction, and books about animals like ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Charlotte’s Web,’” Elizabeth said.  Calling herself a “bookish egghead,” she spoke about her love for Nancy Drew mystery novels.  Elizabeth loved books so much that she saved her milk money and went without lunch at school in order to be able to purchase more of them.

When her family lived in Chinatown, the book-mobile was her favorite escape.  The library was supposedly a safer place (“better to be in there than to get beat up,” she surmised), but it was actually at the library that Elizabeth and her cousin were accosted.  A group of elementary-school-aged Latinas led by a middle school girl assaulted them in a library, introducing Elizabeth to the “F” word for the first time in her life.  She didn’t know what it meant at first, but she learned quickly.  Bothersome, too, was the fact that girls of color were attacking other girls of color.

New words were gold.  While the “F” word wasn’t at the top of her list, Elizabeth did like learning other new words.  “I was always trying to use them, but, having never heard them uttered before, I often mispronounced them,” Elizabeth noted.  Her love affair with new words nearly was aborted by an English teacher who told her to stop using big words.  At the time, the admonishment hurt her feelings, but today she hears that voice in her head sometimes and it motivates her to write plays with economy.  She feels that gives her audiences “terra firma.”

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[Elizabeth in high school as the girl most likely to succeed]

You Are a Playwright

Elizabeth’s writing was informed by other experiences, too.  For her twenty-fifth birthday, her then boyfriend gave her two gifts: a new red bicycle and a meeting with Truman Capote.  Capote signed a first edition of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” for Elizabeth, including the words, “Keep writing!”  After a round of a happy birthday song, Capote told her that he liked to write prone and on yellow-lined legal pads, and that “he always tried to write simply, like a ‘clear country creek.’”  She loved that he pronounced “creek” as “crick.”

Another celebrated encounter for Elizabeth was with the late August Wilson, whom she met in a New Haven, Connecticut, stationery store.  At the time, she only had written as a journalist, so she was awed to meet an actual playwright.  The encounter inspired her to quit her journalism job and give herself “the gift of one year to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.”  She did tell Mr. Wilson of her aspirations and he made a declarative statement: “You are a playwright.”

Elizabeth then wrote her first play, a one-act called “The Aftermath of a Chinese Banquet,” about a dysfunctional family.  The play garnered her a place in graduate school at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.  “August Wilson ignited a fire that still burns to this day,” Elizabeth said.  She jokes that she wrote her first play “because I didn’t want to make him out to be a liar.”  She didn’t.  He was right.

What Are You?  Native SoCal Beach Girl!

Culture is a complicated animal.  Are Asian Americans Asians who happen to also be U.S. citizens (sometimes) or are they Americans who happen to be of Asian descent?  Elizabeth defines herself as an American of Chinese descent.  Of course, that hailing confuses some people who have trouble understanding that someone who looks like what they think Asian people look like can’t be an American.  “When people ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I know they are referencing my heritage,” Elizabeth stated.  She said that, even as people asked the question, they were uncertain because she tanned so easily.  “I could be mistaken for many Asian phenotypes, even African American, Native American and Inuit, but I always responded, ‘Los Angeles’ as my answer, or I’d just say I’m a native SoCal beach girl, which invited further conversation and investigation.”

Even though Elizabeth grew up in Los Angeles, she didn’t see the Pacific Ocean until she was a teenager.  Her mother only drove on surface streets, so Elizabeth’s world was as wide as her mother’s ability to read street signs.  That small world and the fact that so many asked her the “what are you” question became ingrained in Elizabeth’s DNA.  “That innocent question was/is the insidious catalyst for a long-held feeling of being the outsider, of not belonging,” she said.

Elizabeth’s mother moved her family from Huntington Park, California, to Chinatown so that PoPo could live in a community where Chinese languages were spoken.  For Elizabeth, however, the move caused her feelings of isolation to worsen.  Chinatown didn’t feel like her community either.  “I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere or was accepted anywhere,” she said.

There was one place, however, where she felt she belonged and was accepted – the world of literature.  Young Elizabeth took refuge in books.

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“The library was a sanctuary, a place of adventure and discovery,” she recalled.  She loved the smell of old books and the sound of a new book’s spine cracking as she opened it to read it.  “I would peruse the stacks, find a book title that interested me, read the first paragraph, and, if it was a great first paragraph, I’d check the book out,” she said.   What was important were stories that validated her existence.  “I was seeking a friend in those books,” she declared.

Her zeal for reading led her to the other community in which she felt she belonged – the theatre.  When she found a life in the theatre, she could “breathe and find out what it meant to be me,” she stated.  She discovered the meaning of home and community, and a greater ease and understanding of her Chinese heritage.  She learned to accept herself.

Suzie Wong?

When you have what most U.S. citizens think of an Asian face, how does one navigate the pigeon-holing and marginalization that can occur from that view?  When she was working as a journalist, Elizabeth found that she was shielded by her professional purpose.  Even though many Whites called her “Suzie Wong” after the character played by actress Nancy Kwan in “The Wonderful World of Suzie Wong,” Elizabeth enjoyed being a journalist first, with questions about her identity being relegated to second status.

Once she began writing plays, that shield was lost.  She said that, in order to create a place for herself in the theatre world, she had to adopt a cultural perspective.  “To stake my own claim, in my early work, my artistic Copernican view is always Asian female-centric,” she said.   She even embraced the “Suzie Wong” moniker as a sign of her own comfort with who she was, not what other people thought she was.  As many writers of color note, the predominantly White media watch-dogs them to try to intimidate them to write only from their personal cultural perspectives while, at the same time, chastising them for doing so; viewing their efforts as not authentic, or ignoring them altogether in favor of other’s views of their cultural realities.  (I believe such actions are not only the work of the media.)

Elizabeth’s Asian, female-centric view insinuated itself into her work.  She devised stories that included people who looked like her and used variations of her name in her plays.  In her early work, she explored gender issues such as female workplace experience including the glass ceiling, women questioning convention, pigeon-holing of women, and other issues that can generate long-term headaches.  She sought to explore limitations placed on women by societal circumstance.

“Slay the stereotypes!” she exclaimed.  “Define womanhood beyond the niche!”

Elizabeth, for example, confronts this in her play China Doll, as an actress struggles for success in Hollywood.  In her play Kimchee & Chitlins, an ambitious television reporter swims with sharks in the newsroom.  In Letters to a Student Revolutionary, Elizabeth tackles a coming-of-age story about a U.S. cub newspaper reporter and a young Chinese student discovering life; and the fact that they are shaped by their families, jobs, partners, and places in which they live and work, to the extent that it may be impossible to be masters of their own fates.

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Elizabeth still sees gender as an important theme.  Noticeably, she pointed out, drama critics rarely mention issues of gender vis-à-vis a play.

“You have to make history or be mowed down by it,” Elizabeth said.  “Gender has always played a part in the architecture of my work and my thinking even though most reviewers don’t ever mention what seems obvious to me.  And it’s how my work transcends being fixed to a particular social upheaval, whether it be the Tiananmen Square massacre or the Black boycott of Korean bodegas. I think if my plays achieve a timelessness and longevity, the answer is tied to gender and a yearning to belong.”

Often people talk about artists catching the theatre bug.  For Elizabeth, the introduction to theatre was like that.  “I was hooked right away,” she admitted unreservedly.  “I heard the call to theatre.”  Part of that call was seeing Equus at the now-defunct Huntington Hartford Theatre in Hollywood.  A high school Jewish American friend Joyce White took her to see the play and they had seats on stage.  “It was like being in a jury box,” Elizabeth said.  For Elizabeth, something magical happened on stage, something that engaged both her mind and heart.  “Yup,” she said, “by the gills — hook line and sinker.”  She barely could bring herself to leave the theatre after the performance.  Over the years, she saw other theatre magic such as Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, and Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box.  “I always lingered in my seat, the last to leave,” she recalled.

The Life of the Mind

Elizabeth knows that the artistic life is a tough one.  “Aspiring to it is too scary to contemplate,” she said.  However, in Elizabeth’s view, seeing as many plays as possible is important to that process.  She found inventive ways to see numerous plays over the years, but experienced a tremendous transformation when she saw her first Asian American play.  “I saw Wakako Yamauchi’s play And the Soul Shall Dance and saw people who look like me with profound problems that weren’t me and yet were,” she said.  “I was so moved.”  Seeing similar cultures of people on stage as characters exploring challenges that Americans of Asian descent face was powerful for Elizabeth.

The audiences in attendance to see the plays were equally as powerful.  She saw playwright David Henry Hwang, someone she had seen at high school debate tournaments.  She recalled his wonderful debating skills.  “He was a formidable debater with his partner Gleam Davis, and it was a certain defeat to go up against them,” she said.  “David’s success with [his play] FOB made me believe that our stories, our faces could live in the mainstream world and be accepted by that world.”

When she decided to follow her artistic interests, her brother was her biggest supporter and a severe, no-holds-barred critic.  “He’d say things like ‘That’s boring’ or ‘This is stupid’ or ‘How dumb is that?,” Elizabeth reminisced.  “He wasn’t always diplomatic, but I trusted his Everyman point of view despite his balls-out honesty.” She remembered, after a workshop reading at the Mark Taper Forum of her play Kimchee & Chitlins and a Taper reading of her play China Doll, that her brother spoke to her as if delivering a mantra: “Don’t listen to all those people giving you advice. Stop trying to please everyone.  Stay true to yourself.  You know what you are doing.”

Elizabeth’s last journalism job was with The Hartford Courant.  When she resigned on an April Fools’ Day to take a year off to write plays, her mother wished it was just a holiday prank.  To appease her mother’s concerns, Elizabeth decided to enter graduate school.

“If there’s one thing Chinese people value, it’s education and higher learning,” she said.  “My mom dreamed I would be a lawyer or a doctor, so I was already a sorry disappointment, and highly unladylike for choosing to be a journalist.  Journalists ask questions and my mother believed that ladies don’t ask too many questions.”  Elizabeth, however, says she is not “lady-like” and emphasizes that she likes asking questions.

“I always ask questions,” she declared. “I’m good at asking questions. I love learning new things.  Seeing new things.  Experiencing new things.”

When she dedicated herself to a year of writing plays, her mother asked why she was “throwing it all away.”  At the time, Elizabeth said that she couldn’t answer that question.  “I can hear her fear in my head,” Elizabeth said.  “I hardly could blame her. To a woman who worked three jobs her whole life, a writer’s life looked like sloth. Thinking looks like laziness! Who could blame her fears for my future?”  However, playwriting is far from idleness.  It is a rocky ride, but Elizabeth said she’s tried to convince her mother to “be Zen with the ups and downs of my artist life and be cool with my stubbornness.”

Part of the challenge of being an artist is finding ways to carry on in a sociopolitical environment that throws a lot of speed bumps one’s way.  An artist must stay motivated.  Elizabeth acknowledges that she contemplates giving up often, even with successes, productions, and the glory of opening nights at the theatre.  “I enjoy it all for about one hour and then I’m onto the next writing project,” she said.

However, time is a great teacher.  “I’m better now at living in the present and enjoying the moment, even stretching out the moment and the enjoyment,” she said.  What keeps her going?  The passion for stories that are yet to be written.  “All I know is I still have stories to write,” she said.  “I’m motivated by some weird, unseen, ineffable feeling I can’t quantify, let alone explain.”

Along with these ethereal motivations, artists must find ways to sort out the financial demands of life.  However that is sorted out, the ethereal motivations remain and are louder than anything else.  “I can tell you that, whenever I try to get a normal job, the Universe won’t let it live long in my life… and all I’m left with is the blank screen and the dancing cursor calling my name,” Elizabeth said.  The blank screen and the blank page, however, are the writer’s call to action and Elizabeth Wong answers it potently.

Writing an original play takes genuine artistic muscle.  With adaptation, there is a story on which to hang your transposition.  It’s like getting on a train at Point A and riding to Point Z without having to work hard (don’t fall asleep).  However, when you’re writing an original play, you must exert blood, sweat, and tears to create and build your own characters and stories.  No, there is no train with a specific destination to ride.  There are no traits of historical characters to use as (yes, a different metaphor) ingredients.  You must start from scratch.  It’s hard work, not that adaptation isn’t, but adaptation provides a recipe and, with original work, there is no such thing.  Blank page, blank screen; may the gods and muses be with you.  For such reasons, playwrights like Elizabeth are true treasures of the genre.

Elizabeth is a playwright who not only succeeds at being a brilliant artist, but who also strives to be the best human being she can be and to attempt to make this world a better place.

“At the heart of it, I’m just trying to understand what makes life worth living, how to have a worthwhile life, how to be happy,” she stated.  “And if I’m honest, I want to change things, hold up a mirror, do my part to make things better than I found them.”

Working towards artistic success is one thing, but creating original theatre motivated by heart, mind, and soul – something that enhances one’s humanity and the world in which one lives – is altogether a different matter.  She calls her playwriting a “call to action,” and it is a call that Elizabeth continues to answer with resoluteness and vibrancy.  “I like it when people have conversations about my work in the parking lot on their way home and maybe are motivated to do something,” she said.

The Two Faces of Drama: Cry and Laugh

Along with wanting to have an impact on the way that audiences think about a given subject, Elizabeth also wants her work to entertain.  “I like to make people laugh through their tears,” she emphasized.  “Pretty simple really.  Making people laugh is a way to disarm, to unclench the fist, to find commonality, and the surprise that lies inside.”  Through her writing, Elizabeth hopes to reveal truths about human nature and ask the question, “How can we do better?”  She feels that, through comedy, people can build community more expeditiously.  “I think comedy helps reveal our common humanity,” Elizabeth noted.  “And it’s healing.  Laughter is good medicine.  That is the prescription I am scribbling when I write a play.”

Motivations come from diverse sources.  Elizabeth described uncommon gods and goddesses that organically feed her writing spirit.  “I lay fruit at the feet of the Goddess of the 4 a.m. Wake-up Eureka,” she reflected.  “Also, I pay homage to the God of Internalized Anger.”  In the early days of her writing journey, Elizabeth said that injustice in society and the internalized anger that emanated from it were ardent muses.  As her journey continued, she felt that those feelings sometimes paralyzed her and finding the comedy in life’s sometimes tragic circumstances allowed her to blend her stories into original plays that had something important to explore, but also entertained.  “To get unstuck, I write to sort it all out through the filter of the comedic lens,” she said.

Moreover, she noted that this sorting it out isn’t something to procrastinate about.  “There’s no time to waste,” Elizabeth declared.  She expressed that a writer must write and not behave as if they have all the time in the world.  “I came to know the preciousness of life via the mortality of loved ones so early in my life,” she stated.  “Time is a fleeting thing.”

Art in Action

Elizabeth describes her art as her citizenship in action.  She said that it allows her to be a useful human being as she strives to advocate change through story.  Her art and activism combine in a potent way that inspires her audiences.  As an example, she mentioned her play, Code of Conduct.

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“I took on the challenge of writing about Guantanamo Prison in order to pull back the rug, to implore the audience not to avert their gaze; to look at this open wound, acknowledge it, and then ask the hard questions,” she explained.  Last year, Elizabeth also accepted a writing commission from East West Players to write about undocumented students in a play called Tam Tran Goes to Washington.  “Both plays incorporate my love of music and a sense of humor to help me rip off the bandage fast,” she said.

The Fountainhead

While muses come from various sources, the foundational muse for Elizabeth is her mother.

The reasons for this are numerous: “her story, her hardships, her triumphs, and how she overcomes them; how she forgives while never forgetting, how she bore the cruelties of war; the sacrifices she made coming to the U.S. in an arranged marriage, leaving behind her true love, bearing the stigma of being labeled as a gold-digger and treated so unfairly by my paternal family.”

Describing her mother as a pretty young widow “saddled with two babies,” Elizabeth said that many potential suitors considered her mother to be bad luck.  “I admire my mom’s strength and fortitude, and her compassionate, forgiving, light-hearted nature,” Elizabeth mused.  She marveled at her mother’s ability to be able to continue to find humor in life despite the tragedies she faced.  Her forgiving nature is something that Elizabeth finds inspiring and tries to re-create.

“Within hours, she forgives transgressions,” Elizabeth stated with admiration.  She called this a “Buddha nature.”  “In my writing I try to dissect how my mother turns no to a yes, a frown to a smile, and pain into triumph,” she said.

Art and Life

Sometimes audience members are surprised to find out that playwrights also may have other jobs that help them pay the bills.  Usually, they are not writing jobs because that, Elizabeth affirmed, can diminish one’s acumen for the art and craft of playwriting.  Still, however, audience members are surprised.  Perhaps it’s like finding a favorite actor waiting on one’s table at a Los Angeles restaurant.  Yes, the individual is a fine actor, but auditioning and securing employment on a television show or film may not be constant.  Not that the bill-paying work is easy, but Los Angeles has a lot of restaurants.

For Elizabeth, the bill-paying job once was in retail.  When her play “China Doll” was in New York City at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, Elizabeth was working in a store in SoHo.  With astonishment, a customer accosted Elizabeth because she recognized her from the “China Doll” opening night talkback.  “Are you the playwright?” the customer asked.  “I was at your opening night!”  She surged on to tell Elizabeth how the play moved her.  As Elizabeth thanked her for coming to the play, the customer awkwardly shifted to retail mode and asked if she could try on an item.  Although Elizabeth was embarrassed by the intersection of art and economy, she then felt embarrassed for being embarrassed.

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“The SoHo event is a memorable experience because the customer was so surprised to find a playwright ringing up the sale,” Elizabeth shared.  “People don’t know that they are surrounded everyday by amazing humans doing beautiful things.”  At the same time, she noted that “doing beautiful things” is not solely in the realm of artists.  Addressing the rigor and commitment that retail salespeople face, Elizabeth stated, “Nothing humiliating about an honest paycheck.  Nothing humiliating about a survival job.”

She said that the experience taught her not to take herself too seriously.  She said that, with regards to another event, the same opening-night talkback and reception deepened the lesson of humility.

“An audience member came up to me and chastised me, saying my characters were callow and my politics too facile,” Elizabeth recalled.  “And, a second later, a different audience member gushed, saying the play moved her to tears.”  That is the nature of creating art.  As the saying goes, one person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure.  Elizabeth described it as a hit in the head with a brick at the same time that a compliment showers you in gold dust.  “I learned to accept both the insults and pats on the back with equanimity,” she said.  It also taught her that an artist must value her own consideration and judgment of her creations.  “If I achieve my artistic goals for a play or if I do not, my own opinion is my true barometer of success.”  To many success may mean money or being produced at a theatre considered to be “it” by the dominant society, but to Elizabeth it means making an impact on an audience with a coalescence of meaningful reflection and entertainment.  It is not the reviewer’s consideration that is of importance to a genuine playwright, but the attainment of an artistic endeavor, measured by the artist and her audiences, not civilians.

Harkening back to her awareness that every artist must find a way to create and pay the bills, she noted that, while she had many female playwright colleagues during graduate school, most have “defected to other media because they couldn’t make a living just by working in the theatre.”  The hope is that these women writers keep writing plays, too, but, as most of us know or will learn, reality bites.

Elizabeth can’t stress enough the importance of audience in the playwriting experience.  In her very first production, a workshop of her play Letters to a Student Revolutionary at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Elizabeth was struck by the palpable power of the audience, particularly as a first-time playwright.

“Their applause washed over me like a wave,” she said.  “I had never received an acknowledgment like that before.”  She said that she relished that first moment of recognition because it was appreciation from strangers.  Learning that she wanted to be understood via her playwriting, she also realized in that instant that “I had been invisible before that moment.”  In that production, she also met an Alvin Ailey Dance Company performer, actress, director, and screenwriter, the late Elizabeth Fong Sung, who became her good friend and also was a friend of this playwright.  (Elizabeth Sung passed away in 2018 at age sixty-three.)

The Female Playwright in a Male Theatrical World

While Elizabeth Wong navigates the world of theatre with aplomb, she is confronted with what she terms as the “deafening” reality of the challenges that women playwrights face in being produced in the U.S. theatre.

“Look no further than any season anywhere,” she challenged.

However, she pointed out that such misogyny is not exclusive to the theatre.  “The misogyny is pervasive in every facet of our society,” she exclaimed.  “It’s as if men hate their mothers!  Perhaps they were weaned from the breast too soon or not soon enough. Perhaps the resentment comes because they didn’t suckle at the breast at all.  Perhaps it’s jealousy because women can bear children, the ultimate in creation.”

It is an interesting thought that women are often second-class citizens in U.S. society (other societies as well), but yet all men are born of women.  An ideological quandary indeed.  Elizabeth wondered if the source is not the men born of women, but the women themselves.

“Maybe mothers with their own self criticisms and self-loathings teach their children this misogyny themselves?” she wondered.

Still, she sees some degree of change in U.S. society, be it with regards to women or, one of the other supreme ideological quandaries, race.  “I’m glad to live in a time when a biracial man can be elected president (biracial Black-White President Barack Obama), when more than one strong woman sits on the Supreme Court, and that the #metoo movement is calling attention to what women have had to live with and put up with,” Elizabeth declared.  “It was buried under the proverbial rug, so just acknowledging the gaping open wound is a start.”  With dismay, she noted that “Wrong and immoral have been normalized and institutionalized, and in our current climate, reinforced… so it’s no wonder that misogyny has been an accepted cultural norm.  Given these circumstances and the circumstances of history, Elizabeth stated that she applauds “brave women stepping forward, speaking out, and telling their stories.”

Elizabeth acknowledged that many women playwrights may have learned from plays written by men, of course often because the mainstay of published and produced plays to learn from were male-written plays.  However, good plays come from all sources – including women and people of color – so enlightenment for playwrights like Elizabeth means embracing marginalized voices with the same respect with which non-marginalized voices are embraced.  Elizabeth also extends this consciousness into her teaching.  “In the classroom, I am equal opportunity,” she said.  “I am ready to be impressed by the brilliance of all students, male and female and non-binary.”

Reflecting upon my long-held desire to uphold women playwrights (not just women, of course, but they often need intentionality in a field that historically has marginalized them), Elizabeth addressed the need for women playwrights to support each other through mutual validation, particularly in public forums and essays – and, in education, also in readings lists for syllabi.

“It’s stacked against women playwrights,” Elizabeth stated.  “We get trotted out during women’s month and, in the case of writers of color, heritage months.  What about the rest of the time?”  She pointed out that theatre reviewers exacerbate the problem by focusing “on the personal, never the politics.”  Often, I have found that the focus on politics is on their view of politics, so that the truth is obscured in critical misconstruction.

Despite the hurdles that women and playwrights of color face, Elizabeth Wong continues to navigate the theatre world with achievement and fulfillment.

“I’ve managed to live a life in the theatre, steadily, under the radar,” she mused.  Her desire is that more audience members can experience her plays and her “cock-eyed view of the world” and explorations for social change.

Amused with the ups and downs of a life in the theatre, Elizabeth declared, “I continue because I’m an idiot.  When I’m in the quiet of my thoughts, I hear a voice saying ‘You aren’t done yet’ and I think maybe I’d rather be a forest ranger or a marine biologist.  But I get lost in the woods and I get seasick in a boat, so I figure, I’ll stick to writing plays.  I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.  And I’m definitely not done yet.”

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The fast buck does not lure Elizabeth.

“I write what I want,” she said.  “In the past, I’ve walked away from high-paying TV shows.  I take commissions only if they challenge me personally, have a social justice component, and are fun.”

Elizabeth’s definition of “fun” isn’t in the dictionary; she has fun when there are writerly problems to solve.  For instance, she was commissioned by Honolulu Theatre for Youth to adapt an oral tradition, Filipino bedtime story about the Ibong Adarna, a songbird “whose song makes people fall asleep and whose precision poop turns people into stone.”  A musical for young and family audiences, the original story involves a child trying to catch the bird by cutting his wrists and pouring lemon onto the wound to stay awake.  Well, that didn’t seem appropriate for the projected audience so Elizabeth had fun coming up with a proper solution.  “After months of thinking on this and no solution, the answer came to me in the dead of night: the character should just snap a rubber band on his wrist” instead of slashing his wrist.  “Finding solutions like than is my idea of fun,” she affirmed.

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[Elizabeth in India]

Not only is Elizabeth passionate about women’s voices in the theatre, but she also feels enthusiastic about the voices of people of color in the theatre.  While more women and people of color have picked up their pens or are poised at their keyboards, Elizabeth feels that their desire to respond to the human condition, which she feels is at a crisis point, is stymied by the fact that theatres are not dealing with all dimensions of that crisis beyond “lip service.”

“The emergency is real,” she avowed, “and the crisis is approaching critical mass, so theatres must respond with velocity and courage… or die.”

She said that theatre producers often discuss how they can attract more people of color to the theatre.

“Lip service isn’t enough,” she stated.  “One play by a playwright of color every other season will not cut it.  If you want to sustain the theatre, you’ve got to serve up new perspectives, new stories by playwrights of color and women.”

She said that is one of the easiest and most straightforward steps that theatres can take to be truly relevant.  When theatre producers tell her that their older audiences don’t want to watch plays by women or people of color, Elizabeth responds with her view that those audiences “don’t want theatrical pablum either.”  “Theatres should stop serving up re-hashes of longings for the good ol’ days when white male privilege wasn’t a question,” she said.  Calling this approach “colonialism porn fantasy,” she said it’s a definite way to bore audiences rather than engage them.

[Elizabeth with me and others (including Wakako Yamauchi, Momoko Iko, and Jeannie Barroga) at a book signing for Roberta Uno’s “Unbroken Thread,” University of Massachusetts Press, 1993]

Humanity First and True Gifts

Even though Elizabeth’s 1040 tax form states her occupation as “playwright,” she said that, in reality, she’s a juggler.  Along with writing, directing, traveling, and teaching, “I take care of my mother,” she expressed with openness and commitment.  “I lift and tote for her and I still read all her paperwork; she’s still sharp and mostly hale, but I am her resource and her support system as she is mine.”

Three years ago, Elizabeth’s mother lost her only son to lung cancer and Elizabeth lost Will, her only brother.  When he struggled with cancer, Elizabeth also integrated his care into her life.  “I was there for him as he had always always, always been there for me.”  Not only did she cook special meals for him, but she also prepared juices.  Consumed with her brother’s healthcare for three years, she read numerous articles about cancer nutrition and alternative cancer treatments.

While juggling all those activities, Elizabeth also kept writing and working day jobs to support her writing.  “I balanced it all by marrying work with art and play,” she said.  “If I was away from home at a theatre, I’d always try to go horseback riding, paddling in a kayak or canoe, spelunking in a cave or exploring a lava tube.”

Also a golfer, Elizabeth often asked theatres at which she was working to ask a board member to invite her to play a round of golf.  She was motivated by a need to be in nature.  However, life’s demands also influenced her choices about work.  “I’d take jobs that kept me closer to home and refused jobs that took me away from home, or I’d shorten the periods I was away.”   The artist also grew as a human being.

photo - matchabook - elizabeth wong 2019 - #10

[Elizabeth and Will]

Elizabeth has found that the most important aspect of learning to be a better human being – indeed, even caring about being that better human being (thanks, Elizabeth) – is to be more present in her relationships.  She said that she credits her brother for this life lesson.  She remembers the intricacies of caring for him: fussing with medications, rearranging his tray, cleaning, cooking, shopping.  “He’d tell me, ‘Hey, stop doing things.  Just be with me,’” she recalled.  “OMG, he was so right.”

Now, she said, her objective is to just be with people, to be as present as possible.

“That’s the true gift,” she said, “and the gift that I now more readily receive.”












Photographs courtesy of Elizabeth Wong.

Photograph of Anna May Wong: “Femme Fatales/ Anna May Wong.”  Web., 27 Aug 2012, via D/L June 30, 2019 @

Photograph of image of “Kimchee and Chitlins”: A poster designed by Fox Smith for a production of “Kimchee and Chitlins,” Directed by Elizabeth Wong.  D/L June 30, 2019 @


There are those who do not give

a second thought to aging buildings.

They only see the flaws:

wrong essence, outmoded style,

decay, rust, and the wear and tear

of simply staying alive.


They cannot appreciate the original design

that speaks of the beauty of the bygone,

different materials, different construction;

it is an eyesore to them, an obstacle

to the shiny, new, impersonal thing that

they have ordered, next-day delivery.


It is abominable that mothers must die,

the whole art of unconditional love

having to be re-invented each time.

I love every crack in your walls,

every line that others see as fissures,

your closed windows stuck for years,

your aching bones that tell a story.

I am listening.


I have told many of this love,

but they do not believe in it.

Like literature, they dismiss it.

If it isn’t on television, it isn’t relatable.

All they want to do is tear you down

to build something else that

cannot weather the storms that come.

I stand outside the fence, teeth clenched,

hands fisted in helplessness.


Your stones come tumbling down,

the facade revealing the inner spaces

that I only glimpsed in dreams,

but I knew were so very there.

Many things happened here yet

slowly they disintegrate into dust.


I must tell someone how wonderful

you are.


Can they ever understand?

photo setsuko okaasan & velina with head on shoulder 2018

The Art of Breathing, Writing, and Living: Curiosity, Creativity, and Caring

The medical doctor and playwright Anton Chekhov once said that knowledge is of no use unless you put it into practice.

To give you an idea of how an artist can endow the word “practice” with deeper meaning, consider Marianne McDonald who when asked, “Why write?” instantly answers, “Why breathe?”  She inspires me to write about artists of our time whose hearts beat to different drums.

Dr. Marianne McDonald is someone who has harnessed intelligence, heart, literary acumen, and artistry and put them into practice.  Many are blessed with those gifts, but write only one book or play a decade (and give to the homeless without ever having to look in their eyes).  Not Marianne.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #1

Dr. Marianne McDonald

She has earned three university degrees, published countless books, written extensively, raised six children, lost a child, mothered other “children,” learned multiple languages (twelve), tolerated boyfriends and husbands, traveled widely, and given generously – heart, mind, body, and soul.  Not content merely to talk about life, she activates it, particularly through her writing.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #2

Dr. Marianne McDonald in childhood

When as a child one has a personal nurse to comb your hair and dress you, it would be easy to give into such comforts, disguise those as the laurels of life, and let life float you forward fancifully.  Marianne, however, chooses neither to rest nor fear complication.  Indeed, she grabs life by its horns, and rides its every kick and rear with buoyancy.

As her home page illuminates, Marianne is involved in the “interpretation, sharing, compilation and preservation of Greek and Irish texts, plays, and writings.” Recognized as a historian on the classics, she has received numerous awards and accolades because of her works and philanthropy. As a playwright, she has authored many modern works based on ancient Greek dramas in modern times.  As a teacher and mentor, she is sought after highly for her knowledge of and application of the classic themes and premises of life in modern times.  In 2013, she was awarded the Distinguished Professor of Theatre and Classics, Department of Theatre, Classics Program, University of California, San Diego (joint program with University of California, Irvine [UCI]). As one of the first women inducted into the Royal Irish Academy in 1994, Marianne was recognized for her expertise and academic excellence in Irish language history, interpretation and the preservation of ancient Irish texts.  As a philanthropist, Marianne partnered with Sharp to enhance access to drug and alcohol treatment programs by making a $3 million pledge. Her donation led to the creation of the McDonald Center at Sharp HealthCare. Additionally, to recognize her generosity, Sharp Vista Pacifica Hospital was renamed Sharp McDonald Center.

Marianne also has been honored with Greece’s Order of the Phoenix (1994) and Italy’s Golden Aeschylus Award (1998); and been inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame (2008).

Born in Chicago on January 2, 1937, Marianne achieved a 1958 B.A. in Classics and Music, Magna cum Laude, from Bryn Mawr; a 1960 M.A. in Classics from the University of Chicago; and a 1975 Ph.D. in Classics from UCI.  She went to school at Chicago’s Convent of the Sacred Heart and finished her secondary education at Chicago Latin School; during these years, she developed a fondness for Latin, Greek, and classical antiquities of the Greco-Roman world.  She now makes her home in Rancho Santa Fe in a house full of Old World furniture and Tibetan influences.  There is the sweet smell of incense, a harp, and beautifully decorated rooms that reflect the eye of someone who cares about aesthetics, comfort, and literature.  Outside the house, in a garden created by the home’s four sides, live Marianne’s beloved peacocks and peahens.  Because neighbors complained about the child-like noises they make, Marianne had to give up most of them.  That is sad to me because they reflected the beauty, grace, and magic that is part of Marianne’s view of the world.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #3

Dr. Marianne McDonald’s peacock and peahen from her homepage

McDonald’s life-long teaching as a classics and theatre professor primarily has been at UCI and University of California, San Diego (UCSD).  As a visiting professor, she has served at Trinity College, Dublin; University College Dublin, University College Cork, Dublin City University, and the University of Ulster in Coleraine.  Her publications include more than 250 books, translations, plays, poems, and articles.  As an actress, she has performed in numerous Greek plays.  As a scholar, two of her projects the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (a computerized compilation of Greek literature that McDonald founded and funded at UCI) and the Thesaurus Linguae Hiberniae (computerizes Irish literature no matter the language of the source material).

When I met Marianne, I felt a visceral connection with her as a human being.  I was invited to speak at her class at the University of California-San Diego via her then teaching assistant, Antonia Glenn).  I spoke about my play Kokoro (True Heart).  On that day in La Jolla, California, I found a true heart in Marianne.  Not only is she a writer and professor, but she also is a feminist, animal lover, spiritualist, organic intelligentsia, multiculturalist, U.S.-Japan being, and parent.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #4

Dr. Marianne McDonald and her beloved pets

Over the years, that truth of our human connection has flourished.  My Japanese mother always said that the soul is in the gut; I feel connected to Marianne with that kind of depth.  As artists, we support each other.  We have co-edited a book, The Myth Strikes Back: Medea Plays by Women, which recently was published.  We care about each other’s plays.  We celebrate and bemoan the politics of U.S. society.  Always, we discuss motherhood and our offspring.  The fact that Marianne is a prolific writer and intelligent feminist who is courageous in thought and deed inspire me constantly.  The fact that she is a true friend restores my faith in contemporary humanity.  She is a resilient person who cultivates resilience in others.

For the first five years of her life, Marianne was reared on a yacht.  During storms, she recalls dodging falling items and crawling to get around.  Not having sea legs or being seasick weren’t allowed in the McDonald yacht-hold.  There was childhood on the sea and then there was land.  Her father, Eugene Francis McDonald, said to her, “Land is a place to which you tie your boat.”  At six, Marianne shifted to that land and tied her boat into living a life of the mind where writing is paramount and the rest of life demands to be heard.  She began to strike that delicate and daunting balance.  No easy feat for an artist in the U.S., particularly a female one.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #5

Dr. Marianne McDonald as a child aboard the family yacht

Her father, who grew up in New York City, dropped out of school and became family patriarch at age twelve to support his family.  He wanted her to be fearless and expected her to know the land.  He taught her how to shoot, hunt, and fish.  From shooting, he lost his hearing in his right ear and she lost it in her left ear.  In those days, there was no protective gear to preserve their hearing.  After going deaf, her father established Zenith Radio, utilizing shortwave sets to broadcast Inuit songs to Australia and to outfit the U.S. Navy during World War II.  On that basis, he created the Zenith Radio Corporation.

Sometimes his loss of hearing was an asset.  Marianne said that, at home dinner parties, he placed “boring people” on his right; Marianne does the same on her left.  (If you have ever been seated to her left, pause for a moment of reflection.)  Her father also was a drinker and smoker, coupled with her concert pianist mother who was a drug addict.  When her father passed away in 1958, he left a large fortune to Marianne, along with a collection of gifts that broadened her interest in Ireland and in philanthropy.

Despite good fortune, Marianne had lack in her life at its outset and lost other valuable things along the way.  Her mother didn’t want children and never let Marianne forget it.  She often reminded Marianne:

“I went to the pits of hell giving birth to you.”

Even though her father wanted a son and got one when Marianne’s brother “Stormy” came into their lives five years after her birth, Marianne remained her father’s favorite.  After she married and began her family, Stormy committed suicide.  He called her and said that everybody was after his money and that he could only trust her.  Then he was gone.

“I wish I could have talked him out of it,” Marianne stated.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #6

With brother Stormy holding snakes in Canada, one of their homes

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #7

With brother Stormy and (behind them) a friend

The delicate and daunting balance of a literary soul often was challenged by Marianne’s parents.  When she was twelve, her mother parked her in movie theatres “so she could meet her lovers.”  Marianne noted that her mother kidnapped her and her brother “to sell us back to my father.”  Her father had to drag them from her mother’s car.  Despite these problems, Marianne’s mother gave her the gift of music, for which she is grateful.

“She let me hear her beautiful music,” Marianne reminisced.  “She often played in concerts and I still can hear compositions.”

At the Convent of the Sacred Heart, nuns provided Marianne with sanity and love that was free from alcohol and drugs.  The nuns encouraged her to read, which continues to be an avid activity.  Her father encouraged her scientifically, giving her a chemistry set at an early age.

“I did dangerous things…explosions and separating mercury from mercuric oxide,” she recalled.  “How I survived is a miracle.”

Her survival was laced with freedom from alcohol and drugs, a freedom that extended into her adult life.  As noted above, she founded the Scripps McDonald Center and then the Sharp McDonald Center for drug and alcohol addiction and rehabilitation.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #8

Dr. Marianne McDonald

Beginning her family was challenging for Marianne.  She had thirteen pregnancies and six children, who, as a group, look like what she calls “a United Nations gathering.”  Years later, one of the six, at age fifteen, took her own life, but under different circumstances than Marianne’s brother had faced.

photo matchabook marianne six children

Dr. Marianne McDonald’s six children

“Of course, losing a child causes more pain than anything else in the world,” Marianne said.  She wrote a poem about her departed daughter called “Aftermaths.”  Here is an excerpt:

matchabook marianne's poem 12-03-2018Marianne’s daughter died while Marianne was on a trip to Washington lecturing on Greek tragedy.

“She was staying at a house with some boys I’d forbidden from mine, and they found a gun which they passed around playing Russian Roulette,” Marianne said.  “She lost,” she continued.  “They were all high on LSD, the one drug they knew I never tested for.”

But Marianne’s life goes on, after Greek and real-life tragedy.  Her artistic energies are galvanized by her students (she has supported more PhD students than anyone else in her department at UCSD) and people who create exciting theatre.  I am honored that she includes me in the latter category.

Marianne creates theatrical excitement of her own, such as her Trojan Women, which was produced by the Old Globe Theatre; and a project rich with social justice with regards to color, culture, gender, and sexuality, her Medea, Queen of Colchester (an adaption of Euripides’s Medea) that explored the infamous heroine as an African drag queen of color.  In investigating themes of women subjugated by the men who love them but love power more, Marianne coalesced numerous dimensions of identity.

“The actor playing him/her said it was the first time he’d worn heels,” Marianne said.

For the theatre, she also penned …and then he met a woodcutter, which was named Best New Play of 2005 by the San Diego Critics’ Circle; and Medea: The Beginning, performed with Athol Fugard’s Jason: The End.

Her interest in theatre continues to be galvanized by the same motivators.  She loves theatre, but has no favorites (“That’s like asking what child is your favorite,” she mused.)  Her hope for those who live the life of the mind is that they reflect and “ask what’s wrong with the world we live in.”  In other words, she wants artists and scholars to be inquisitive and courageous.  She feels she sees less and less of that today.

Theatre, however, thrives in her veins because “it reveals truths in wayward ways…you continue thinking after you leave the theatre,” she stated.  She hopes that, rather than being driven by greed, artists create out of a desire to illuminate truth and cultivate change.

Some of Marianne’s numerous books include:  Terms for Happiness in Euripides, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978; Euripides in Cinema: The Heart Made Visible, Philadelphia: Centrum, 1983; Ancient Sun, Modern Light: Greek Drama on the Modern Stage, Columbia University Press, 1992; The Living Art of Greek Tragedy, Indiana University Press, 2003; The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, Edited with J. Michael Walton, Cambridge University Press, 2007; and Dancing Drama: Ancient Greek Theatre in Modern Shoes and Shows, book chapter for Oxford Handbook on Dance and Theatre, edited by Nadine George, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

photo marianne mcdonald matchabook #9

matchabook marianne final caption 12-03-2018









All photographs courtesy of Dr. Marianne McDonald and Dr. Bridget McDonald.  Used with permission.




What Holds Up the Air

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you discover the nearly perfect cup of tea.  You savor the flavor and the feeling it creates throughout your body. You feel it seeping into every molecule of your being as it lifts your soul above and beyond the trivialities of life. It’s a brilliant moment.

photo yamamoto san with me in kyoto by riverside 2015

-Kyoto, Japan, 2017.-

Despite that brilliance, however, you know that, sooner or later, the tea will be gone and the only remnants of that splendor will be what you retain in your mind.  You must cultivate that splendor because there will never again be a cup of tea like that one.  Certainly, some, if you’re fortunate, may come close to approximating it, but not truly.  Its distinction was one that connected with you in a visceral, unique way that will not repeat itself in the same way ever again.

When my daughter was eleven months old, a Japanese American woman colleague in the arts called and told me that an extremely shy, but incredibly gracious man from Uji, Japan, was an admirer of my work and wanted to meet me.  In town (Los Angeles) for a short time, he was staying in Little Tokyo.  Would you please call him, she asked, he’s too shy to pick up the phone and call you, so, if you don’t call him, you two won’t meet.  Even though I had a high regard for this colleague, I hesitated.

After all, it was an awkward request.  I wasn’t enamored of the idea of calling up a perfect stranger and scheduling a meeting with him.  My friend, however, noted the man’s deep and genuine interest in Asian American literature; and stressed again the depths of his shyness.  Shyness.  Reserve. Yes, this was familiar to me, especially the Japanese kind.  I had been withdrawn in grade school and had to take assertiveness training classes to find ways to balance Asian reserve with Western wherewithal.  When my daughter grew older (four), her shyness would be so intense that, if we had guests, not only would she close her bedroom door, but she also managed to move her large dresser against the door to ensure a proper blockade.

I decided to call a friend, a Japanese woman dramatist, Yuko, to attend the meeting with me.  After she agreed, I called the Japanese gentleman and made arrangements to meet.  On the phone, his voice was quiet and polite.  This eased my apprehension.

We met at Mitsuru Café in Little Tokyo:  my friend, my eleven-month old daughter, the Japanese gentleman, and me.  The Japanese gentleman was Iwao Yamamoto.

photo yamamoto san #3 with yuko & leilani first meeting 08-11-2018

-Mitsuru Cafe, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, 1997.-

Fourteen years older than I, he had been one of four brothers reared by their mother, a Japanese widow. As we began to converse, we realized that something special connected us.  It was the beginning of a twenty-one-year friendship that ended on August 4, 2018, when Yamamoto-san passed away from a rare, but aggressive form of cancer. Truly, his death stunned me.

Of course, I knew he was aging, but many of my Japanese friends live into their late nineties or over 100; certainly, I understood the nature of loss because I had lost my father at the age of eleven, and because of my mother’s aging and the reality that death is a part of life. I knew Yamamoto-san was ill, but I had been assured that the kind of cancer he had was treatable.  I suppose I found solace in that; some odd kind of creative evasion, I guess.

For five years, he had been troubled by an encroaching, diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. In 2014, he told me, “Remember our friendship and how much you mean to me in case I forget you in the future. You are my best friend.”  I feared for what my friend would lose, but part of that fear was motivated by what we would lose.  What is it that we truly fear when we see loved ones sinking into dementia?  Is it a selfish fear of oneself and all the brilliant experiences one shared being forgotten?  Is it loss, period?  I am not certain, but what I am certain of is that absorbing and processing it all makes me quite sad.


-In Yamate, 2015-

I held Yamamoto-san in my heart and will continue to do so, but I suppose one always feels one could have been a better friend, loved better, and spent more time together.  The last time I saw him, he insisted on joining me at Kyoto Station as I was leaving Japan.  We already had shared a meal and viewed the cherry blossoms I love so well, but he insisted on meeting me at the station to bid adieu again.  He told me that he had been enjoying riding his bicycle with his wife, Mari.  Recently, he had been struck by a car and momentarily lost consciousness.  In that moment, however, he seemed fine, although frail. His other adopted family member, Mikiko, and I noticed his frailty and feared together.  Yamamoto-san told me to hurry back to Japan so that we could see each other again.  He feared he would die before we had that chance.  He was correct.

For the last twenty years, I have visited Japan annually.  Last year, I decided to travel to England to interview Japanese women living in the United Kingdom.  When thinking about that decision, I wondered if, instead, I should return to Japan again so that I could see Yamamoto-san.  I envisioned myself taking the train to Uji, and visiting Mari and him at their home. I thought, If I wait a year, will he remember me?  Thinking that it might be salubrious for me to travel to England with my English husband, I chose the West over the East.  Balancing those two utterly different dimensions is the bane and glory of my existence.  That choice is now something that I will never forget.  Yes, I plan to return to Japan next year.  It, however, is a year too late to see Yamamoto-san again. Moreover, Japan will not be the Japan I have known without him.

Yes, I have many memories of Yamamoto-san: participating in Gion Matsuri together, the dense crowds floating our bodies along the streets as if we were at sea, the air so thick in that kind of rarified Japanese summer heat that makes one feel as if one is breathing chawan-mushi; attending Daimonji at the culmination of Obon, drinking cold mugi-cha while sitting on a blanket in northern Kyoto, visiting Nara and Hiroshima, walking among the deer on Miyajima, and going to Mari’s calligraphy exhibit at Kyoto National Museum.  In Nara, Yamamoto-san and I were deeply amused when two Japanese women looked at us with disdain and one declared, “I am so tired of seeing older Japanese men with their Filipina wives!”  At the Kyoto National Museum, Yamamoto-san introduced my daughter, my son, and me to dignitaries as Nikkei-jin and did not bother to explain our multiethnicity.  To him, the Japanese Diaspora was diverse, and Yamamoto-san reveled in being genuinely inclusive.

photo yamamoto san with kodomo 2001? in kyoto

photo yamamoto san gion matsuri 1999

Even with the best tea, sooner or later, it is gone.

I suppose that is part of the reason why it is so special: that ethereal quality; it is there in the moment, it happens, and then it vanishes.  Theatre shares that same beauty, that ethereal quality that allows one to enjoy it in its breathing reality and then it is gone.  You are the bearer of its essence.  Love and friendship demand the cultivation of that essence.

Besides giving me unconditional love and embracing my Nikkei and multiethnic heritage without question long before being of mixed ethnicity was fashionable (or at least topical), Yamamoto-san adopted me as family.  Indeed, he was what some might all an “O.G.” Japanese.  In the United States, O.G. seems a familiar enough colloquialism. When I was walking our family’s two Shiba dogs with my husband, a man stopped watering his lawn to stare at the dogs, “Are those gigantic Shibas?” he asked with a look of bewilderment.  “Yes,” I said.  I explained that the dogs were standard-sized Shibas and that the tiny Shibas that have become so popular in the U.S. are “mame-Shibas” or bean Shibas, miniature forms of the standard.  “Oh,” he said, “you have O.G. Shibas!”


-Kiyoshi Houston with Kenta and Koji-

What is an O.G. Japanese? Like many Japanese of my mother’s generation and the generations that preceded and followed it (Meiji-Taisho-Showa), Yamamoto-san lived his life with reserve, grace, broad-mindedness, and heart. When I visit Japan today, I find traces of that in many people, but I also encounter many contemporary Japanese who perform Western culture with such panache that they have transformed into a new Japanese being that doesn’t have time for pre-Heisei cultural ways.  It reminds me of the onnagatta in Kabuki theatre. As most know, Kabuki theatre is comprised only of male actors.  The onnagatta is the male actor who performs female roles.  He does this performance of femininity with such excellence that many say he is more womanly than cis-gender females.  Like the onnagatta in Kabuki, sometimes many contemporary Japanese seem to be more Western than Westerners.

With regards to Yamamoto-san, however, he was purely O.G. Japan and I feel so fortunate to have shared a special bond with him.

When he retired from the faculty of Ritsumeikan Daigaku, he asked me to write an essay about his departure from the academy and the work that he had accomplished over the years. I did so happily; it was called “Ties That Bind.”

photo chawan with tea canister 08-11-2018

-“Yamamoto” tea from Uji, Japan-

Every year, Yamamoto-san sent me new tea from Uji.  It commemorated an afternoon that we had spent in Uji having tea and talking about life. Every time I look at tea, I think of him.  Today, I drink the tea that he sent me last April.  I drink it in his honor, in his dearly beloved memory.

Another ritual of friendship we had was to send each other autumn leaves or pressed blossoms. Because of my love for cherry blossoms, he sent me different varieties.  They were like poems to me.  Sometimes we sent maple leaves.  I liked to find interestingly colored leaves.  A few weeks ago, I found a beautiful leaf that looked as if it had been painted gold and burnt orange.  I pressed it into a book to send to Yamamoto-san.  I never sent it.  It wasn’t ready yet.  I should have sent it anyway.

If there is an “other side,” he is one of the first persons I will seek.



photo yamamoto say orrizante kyoto 2016

-In the Kyoto International Hotel, 2017-












All photographs except maple leaves by Kiyoshi Houston, Leilani Houston, and Velina Hasu Houston.  All rights reserved.  May be used with permission.

Maple leaves photograph credit: Emmon.  “Autumn Foliage: the Magic of Maples.”  Web.   Downloaded on August 11, 2018 @