Friday, August 3, 2012

Hashtag Nightingale (I Love Prison)

In regards recent Nightingale "controversy":  The Asian American theatrical community has many feelings.  The creatives have expressed they too have many feelings.  It seems like the entirety of the Broadway community has arisen with their own commentary, opinions and feelings.

I have one.  One instinctual feeling.

You may suspect it is a feeling of dismay; but it is not.  Saddened?  No.  Disappointed, heartbroken, wronged?  No, no, no.

Rather it is of pure ELATION.

For the theater to bring to host this conversation is incredible.

Let me clarify that I am not elated because someone finally "stuck it to the man".  I am elated because for the first time in my professional career, I believe that the entirety of a community I was born into has raised one collective voice to say, "We are here."

For those of you who need to be filled in of the goings on of # nightingale:
Playbill Article : Facing Criticism for Lack of Asian
Video of Panel Discussion : LaJolla Nightingale

Some of our Asian American theater veterans may proclaim that this is history repeating itself.  It seems like a twenty year cycle.

A little over twenty years ago, we experienced the infamous Jonathan Pryce scandal of Miss Saigon.  David Henry Hwang brilliantly dramatized the events in his play Yellowface nearly a decade and a half later.  Because of the open protestation of Pryce's casting, never again was the coveted role of the Engineer played by someone not of Asian descent on Broadway.

Miss Saigon was the first time Asian Americans have experienced yellowface in such a high caliber theater setting.  Right?

Actually, twenty years prior to that in 1970,  the Asian cast members of Broadway's Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentleman protested outside their own show because of denial of access for Asian performers to audition for the coveted role of Sakini in their own show.  These pioneer Asian actors went as far as to distribute brochures with headshots and contacts of dozens of Asian performers to casting directors to say "we are here".  The show closed on Broadway to eventually tour but the costumes of Sakini were never worn by an Asian man.

Will we look back in 2030 and be quick to forget the conversation that has been spurred by The Nightingale ?

Only time will tell but what we all can learn from history is "change is slow".  No, this isn't the first time this conversation has been had and it certainly will not be the last.  But this is the moment for this generation of Asian performers to make their mark for the betterment of the theatrical community;  this American theatrical community that we are very much a part of.

Specifically, in addressing my thoughts about The Nightingale.  I've heard both sides of the table.  Even then, I lack the ability to see the content of the show for myself, I lack the ability to validate either side's arguments, and I lack the ability to sort out for myself what is right and wrong/hypocritical or not in terms of the implementation of a multi-ethnic cast.

I can't say that any Asian actor was denied Asian appropriate roles as I have no hand in the artistic creative process.

Through much meditation about the subject, I became keenly aware that my issue was not with this production at all.  I began examining my existence as an Asian actor in the theater business of 2012 and I came up with the question:  "Am I not American enough to be considered for your multi-ethnic project?"  This notion stings.

Post the panel discussion, I felt satisfied that I had tweeted some thoughts (you can find by searching # nightingale) and I was prepping for the windfall of discussions I was sure to encounter in the coming weeks.  This blogpost never wanted to be written.

Alas, my impetus for writing tonight:  I saw an All-Asian production at this year's New York Musical Theater Festival called Prison Dancer  (  I've seen my share of NYMF productions in the past, but this afternoon's performance was truly inspiring.

I have worked with many of the faces on that stage.  This was a story told by Filipinos about a prison in the Philippines.  But, it did not matter to me that I was not Filipino, nor was a majority of the audience. I found myself in awe of what I was seeing, hearing....feeling.  I forgot that those were my friends and colleagues on that stage.  Instead, I was enamored by each one of them as artists who were all masters of their craft.  The craft of conveying a human story that is a identifiable to all who sat opened-hearted in front of them.

What I saw today was a new unique American (or Western as it hails from Canada!) story that could be told by none other-  a brilliant cast of Asian-Americans.   *Might I also add, a ridiculously beautiful cast*

Because with the focus so strongly on The Nightingale, I hope that we do not forget to celebrate the triumphs that we are achieving together;  Asian American performers and supporters alike.  To name a few on this ever growing list :

-The entirety of the production team, creatives, supporters and the cast of Prison Dancer.  Marcus Calderon, Marc DelaCruz, Andrew Eisenman, Albert Guerzon, Jose Llana, Jeigh Madjus, Nathan Ramos, Catherine Ricafort, Enrico Rodriguez, Moses Villarama, Liz Cassasola, Brian Jose and more! 

-Baayork Lee, Steven Eng, Zoie Lam and their National Asian Artists Project's continued education program for school aged children and exploration of classic works with All-Asian professional performers.

-The continued success of organizations like East West Players, Pan Asian Rep, Ma-Yi Theater Co., NAATCO, and Leviathan Lab for dedicating it's existence to explore theatrical work to exemplify the Asian and Asian-American experience.

-Upcoming new musical productions of predominantly Asian casts Allegiance and Here Lies Love fully produced in major theatrical centers (Old Globe and Williamstown/The Public, respectively).

-Asian performers that consistently represent on the Broadway stage in non-ethnic specific roles including Paolo Montaloban, Aaron Albano, Ray Lee,  Olivia Oguma, Telly Leung, and J Elaine Marcos amongst many others.

-Active diverse casting advocates for Asian Americans: Nikole Vallins and Michael Cassara.

I name these artists as my friends of whom we'll look back in twenty years and claim that it was not in vain. I name these artists as my colleagues of whom I constantly feel i am in a cast with regardless of whether we have ever even done a show together.  I name these artists as my heroes as they will forge an even broader path for future Asian artists to emerge.

We must take a moment to think of how far we have come as ONE community.  Even as fragmented as we may be under this large umbrella that is "Asian", we have formed such a strong brotherhood; this collective entity that can no longer be less visible than others.

I applaud La Jolla's artistic director and it's staff for initiating a public forum on the issue.  As a huge fan of Moises Kaufman and his LGBTQ work, I wholeheartedly thank him in his participation and acknowledgement that this is a momentous discussion in American theatre.  

And so I celebrate all of you, Asian or not, who have joined us in this conversation that continues to fuel the momentum of change (despite how dilatory it wants to be).

With a lack of Asian role models on television, in movies or on the stage, I spent much of my youth wondering, "what's wrong with me?  Why did I have the misfortune of being born Asian?"  This ideology has only recently shifted for me. My elation now comes with the idea that we are here at another crossroads.  I feel my words and my continued loving dedication towards this craft is now important beyond getting that next hit Broadway show.

I am here so that Asian-American kids will look back in twenty years and say, "Everything's fine. What was all the fuss about?"  So I can get mad at them for not knowing....

And until then, I lead with love.  Love of this battle while standing with you.


I take it all back.  My gut feeling is that this is only the beginning.  I feel HOPEFUL.