“In Cincinnati, we went to a zoo. They had many animals on display at this zoo. I did not think very much about what the animals were thinking. If they had dreams or ambitions, or what they hoped to achieve in their lives behind glass. I admired them for the way they moved, their hair, their eyes. If I am in a cage, what sort of animal am I?”
–Afong in Lloyd Suh’s THE CHINESE LADY
Sometimes, theater pisses me off. I have often said that American audiences watch Asian stories on stage like they’re going to the zoo. For them, it’s a cultural experience, exposure to something different. I don’t watch The Crucible and think that all white people burn witches at the stake. But audiences look at Asian characters as frozen avatars of an entire culture.
In Lloyd Suh’s smart, beautiful The Chinese Lady, main characters Afong and Atung hope to connect to white audiences – and make a little money – by performing Asian identity. But Yellowface minstrelsy proves unable to foster understanding, because the trappings of Asian minstrelsy are white constructs and expectations, blinding the white gaze to anything authentic. As Afong and Atung reveal more and more of themselves, the play challenges us simply to look at each other as individual human beings.
Do audiences wonder about Asian characters’ dreams, aspirations, sorrows, as I did while watching the Asian actors play Asian characters playing Asian? Do audiences see Asian characters and see themselves? These whip-smart actors beautifully articulate the play’s dilation of the gaze. They make us aware that, as we are watching them, they are watching us too. Suh’s play is as much about their evolving gaze on us, as it is our gaze on them.
I see myself in countless characters and stories that don’t have Asian characters. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if others saw themselves in us? At least enough not to assault us on the subway, or blame us for a pandemic, or tell us we are white-adjacent?
And what do I know about being Chinese? Or even being Chinese American? I certainly don’t know how to wrap dozens of nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures into one representative “Asian” character. I was born in San Francisco. I only speak English. I took one summer of Kung Fu classes, and dropped out when we got to the point where we were told to make contact.
I certainly didn’t learn how to be Chinese, let alone how to play a Chinese character, from watching plays. How many Asian-centered plays have been on Broadway? How many Asian stars have there been since Afong first appeared on an American stage in 1834?
Right before the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, I felt that NYC theater was having an Asian renaissance. There seemed to be so many shows that featured Asian stories: Cambodian Rock Band, Endlings, Suicide Forest and more. But according to Actors’ Equity’s new report on casting inclusion, the truth is that Asian Americans were only cast 2.4% of the time in 2020. What does it mean, when my feeling of abundance is prompted by just 2.4% of the work being offered to Asian actors?
Perhaps my disconnect is a reflection of growing up without seeing stories with people who look like me? I have spent my life feeling unwritten. I wonder what it means for an actor, for a person, to grow up surrounded by stories with heroes and villains and lovers and thinkers, all of whom look like them? What toll does it take for an Asian actor to have to perform being an American, perform being Chinese, so that an audience will believe they are human beings, so that an audience will see themselves?
In my search for the role models I didn’t have as a child, I had the great pleasure to chat with four of them, now starring in The Chinese Lady. In my book, Cindy Im, Daniel K. Isaac, Jon Norman Schneider, and Shannon Tyo are reliable stars, go-to actors, and transparent shamans.
I chatted with them individually, but their thoughts about the play circled around some of the same ideas:
Cindy: “To me, the thesis of the play is, we might have some significant differences between each other – cultures, gender, ethnicities – but ultimately at the end of the day, the core of each person is still a human being. If we take the time to look at each other and admire the differences and the similarities, we come to understand that we are all human…For me, that’s a message that is really necessary right now.”
Daniel: “Having to work it out on stage, we’re working out a lost history, an erased history, a diminished or purposely-told-to-be-undeserving history on stage…The DNA of this play is the burden of shouldering the entire, and that also has ramifications, as we’ve seen in these hate crimes, of an entire pandemic being blamed on what a person looks like. We shoulder that on stage. We try to make it funny, we try to send it up. But the burden is still absolutely there…What a wonderful day it will be, when we do not have to be burdened with the entirety and can just be the individual.”
Jon Norman: “We want to be able to witness somebody else undoing the knot, make it through that struggle. We want to have that kind of cathartic experience, to be understood, to be recognized in that way…Part of the reason I became an actor is to show the guts, and the messy, and the bad, and the awful, alongside the wonderful and the noble and the honorable. Because all of that is a part of everybody.”
Shannon: “I think the first thing that this show has truly taught me to the marrow of my bones, is I have no control over what the audience receives, over their reaction, over what they “get” or “don’t get”…I am going to do what this whole team has decided is the right choice. I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. I cannot control whether or not you see me as a person or an Asian 2D cutout.”
The point is not for everyone to agree. Not even among ourselves. But I agree wholeheartedly with these four bright lights of the American stage. When I was younger, I didn’t dare wonder what my dream roles might be, because I couldn’t imagine anyone asking an Asian actor. Cindy Im, Daniel K. Isaac, Jon Norman Schneider, and Shannon Tyo give me reason to hope. I can’t even imagine the depths and breadth of what they are capable of. But they make me brave enough to try.