In the last few weeks the Asian American Performers Action Coalition has been picking up steam and press in their efforts to draw attention to a surprising lack of Asian American representation on the American Stage. Their latest effort, a forum held at Fordham University on February 13, attended by such luminaries as David Henry Hwang and Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, was picked up by The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Backstage, and Variety. And in a brilliant twist of serendipity basketball superstar Jeremy Lin made a splash defying all stereotypes and expectations that same week. It all got me thinking more about my own cultural group and what fate is in store for it in a time when there shouldn’t be issues with multi-racial/color-blind casting.
I'm a "Brownie" - that's how some in the industry refer to theatre artists of Middle Eastern descent (and thrown into that large category are Persians and South Asians -- yeah, it makes no sense, but neither does our business of show). I first heard that term sitting in an audition room within earshot of the casting agent’s office. And I remember being enraged at being reduced down to a color. I was born and raised in Kuwait to Lebanese-Armenian/Pakistani-Muslim/Christian parents (talk about cultural confusions), where I somehow managed to escape all racist indoctrinations. We fled to America during the first Gulf War where I had to learn that we are a country divided along racial lines. It was the first time I saw people treating each other differently because of their skin color. It was also when I decided to enculturate myself as quickly as possible so as to be one with my Caucasian counterparts.
So my culture shock upon coming to New York five years ago was intense as I realized that no one was going to buy my charade here. I was not like the others; not like the race I was comfortable pretending to be. It took a couple of years, but I embraced being a "Brownie" once I realized that I didn't care if people held my ethnicity against me in an audition room or when I sent in a script. Besides, who was I going to fool?
But there are days when the fight is exhausting. As much headway as groups like the AAPAC (which ironically shares an acronym with the Arab American Political Action Committee) have made, I wonder what will happen with my cultural group. In stats that AAPAC shared, Middle Eastern actors made up only .7% of the entire New York City stage. That's not even 1%. That's not even breathing down 1%'s neck. And the percentage for playwrights is even lower. The majority of produced work about the Middle East is written by people who are not of that descent or have a fleeting flirtation with it. There are productions right now in New York where Middle Eastern roles are being played by Caucasian actors in shows written by Caucasian playwrights.
It makes me worry about my role as a playwright. I initially started writing because I wanted to create good work that wasn't filled with gross generalizations and stereotypes for my disgustingly talented peers. But I had to wrestle with my own identity as someone who has one foot firmly (re)planted "over there" and the other firmly planted "over here." The stories where the two meet fascinate me. I know we are more than political refugees or extremists battling it out with the American characters for who is the more evil. But I also write stories that are American (read "White"). And people are confused by this, as if the only stories I am qualified to write are those involving Arabs, Armenians, and South Asians. I am of that rare type who straddles the Brown fence of being Middle Eastern and South Asian with a very Americanized sensibility in an industry that likes to box talent. I don't fit neatly into any one box.
I worry that when I write “White” plays people will guffaw and pass over them as if I have no credibility to do such a thing. And I worry that if any of my “Brown” plays get produced I will be faced with the possibility that my casting will go the way that Giurgis' did in Hartford. Or worse, the recent production of Miss Saigon in Rhode Island where not a single Asian person is involved.
I appreciate that so many people at the AAPAC forum (and beyond it) were speaking up and saying something. But it's all talk - there is no action being taken. At the end of the day, I don't think the powers-that-be really have to care because we are a part of that .7%. Theatre will go on in this country and city with or without us. But I can't help feeling sorry for how banal theatre will become. How we are already rehashing the same stories over and over (and simply adding a color spin to the cast doesn't change the story). How there are so many stories waiting to be heard and waiting to be told that may never get on stage.
And then I stop to ask myself why I am even bothering doing what I am doing. Why I am working so hard and getting so frustrated every week, if not every day, to try and break through the barriers. Why I am a starving artist in an industry where I am not significant enough to hit the 1% mark. And while I wish I had some strong Pollyana finish or uplifting aphorism to shout out on a soapbox - I don't. But neither am I nihilistic about it. I’ll keep doing the work and knocking on the doors and getting into the rooms to make peoples’ heads tilt in confusion. My silence would just mean validation of others’ actions. I mean, if I survived a war I can survive this. Right?
Sevan will have a reading of NARROW DAYLIGHT as part of NYTW's Mondays@3 Reading Series in March. After that he is looking for more work and is a playwright-for-hire to suit all your dramatic and affirmative action needs.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.