Why art? Why art now? What must this art must be done right now?
If any of you have had one conversation with me about art in the last eighteen months, I have probably monologued about these very questions. Being a professional theater director and choreographer from a family of physicians, I have been forced to question what is “essential” as we live through a pandemic. After experiencing to the yellow house by Kimber Lee at La Jolla Playhouse, and speaking with Brooke Ishibashi—one of the lead actors in this production—these thoughts have turned into obsessive thinking, so let us take time to settle this on paper.
This world premiere by the prolific playwright tells the story of Van Gogh’s beginnings in bold, textured, detailed, vibrant, and colored strokes. The cast is predominantly global majority actors breathing vibrancy into Van Gogh’s story. When I first read about this play, I thought “Really? Bad-Ass Asian American playwright Kimber Lee and Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh? An unlikely pairing. I gotta see this!” After watching it, the parallels of artistry between a dead white man and living bodies of color are clearer than ever. We are all struggling artists wanting to be seen.
Actor Brooke Ishibashi’s performance of characters Sophie and Marie was joyful with physical humor and sharp turns knowing where to hit her counterparts where it hurts. I saw an Asian body with a big bustle and corset, and managed to see myself as someone who loves by serving and fixing. Vincent van Gogh’s story felt personal. In reconnecting with Brooke here in San Diego after a decades-long friendship, I was reminded of how essential making art really is thanks to her work on and off stage. She has spent the last nine months lobbying for artists:
“Artist is a beautiful word because I think of all the things the artists are. All the skill, labor, education, and craft that goes into being an artist.”
She admits that she struggles with this word because it has been disassociated from the labor that we do. When I asked Brooke what her canvas is, she reminded me of how theater itself is a tool.
“I was always excited about developing and originating new work with collaborators. But when I started doing advocacy work through Fair Wage on Stage and Be An Arts Hero, which I co-founded, I realized there was a fusion of arts and arts activism. So if you ask me about the tools and palette I use, I think about art as a tool and how it can affect change.”
This pandemic has forced us to question our value and what is essential. We are just a few months back to in-person productions and the theater is packed. We are essential.
Let me take up space for a moment and lift that for myself—my career is thriving. I am now working at regional theaters regularly, directing dream projects, diving into new areas such as immersive site-specific theater, film, even cruise shows with Virgin Voyages, and I just got tenured at San Diego State University where I am head of directing. I feel essential.
Is Van Gogh as essential? Millions, possibly billions of people past and present, including me, would agree that Van Gogh is a “great” painter. He has even come to life in the Immersive Van Gogh experience called Beyond Van Gogh, which you may see touring all over the United States., creating a perfect Instagram-ready set. But what is essential in this play? Why do we need to see this production now? What do we need to know about Van Gogh that we didn’t before?
Well, Van Gogh is an artist, or, let’s say in Brooke’s words, an arts worker. Every person on and beyond that stage is an arts worker; we are all the same. Brooke says, “If you put different faces and voices and colors on stage, it’s going to propel it in a different way.“ The intersection of artists of color in Van Gogh’s story propels us to see the parallels.
Every character was allowed to bring an authenticity of who they were as a version of themselves, rather than stepping into a “white” character. It felt authentic. Brooke admitted that some older patrons had problems with the modern language, specifically the swearing. How odd? In order to truly honor someone we must share their truth. And Van Gogh and his people were struggling with mental and physical health issues, abusing alcohol and sex. Kimber Lee shared an authenticity to Van Gogh’s truth by sharing our current truths as artists. THAT is respect. Great art is rooted in truth.
But enough about that unnamed patron, more about my perspective. This production did not illuminate any struggles or problems. If anything, I could see an equality between the playwright Kimber Lee and the painter Van Gogh. Her words and characters are as vibrant and lively as the strokes of his starry night. The multi-level set design had a minimal industrial feel with several empty white floating canvases against a backdrop of a textured sky. The score of the simple piano gently took us from one scene to the next. The costumes were period with hints of color and texture. Where was the vibrancy? I was left to wonder what would happen if the production itself captured that same life. What if the music, set, and projections brought the same fire as the words? What if the transitions felt just as alive as her characters? What if the projections were as bold as each swear word? The answer is in Kimber Lee’s play: honor his authenticity by defying expectation.
to the yellow house is a wake up call to use our color for change. Use the color of your skin, color of your voice, color of your heart, color of your blood, and color of your words in your art. Art right now must be “too much.” Like most La Jolla audience members, I find peace in massages, long walks on the beach, and yoga sessions. I go to the theater to disrupt that. So let’s fucking advocate for ourselves and change shit up, and do the Van Gogh—color these white canvases.