In their own words
“When I was first approached to join Remy Bumppo [Theatre Company], a few of my friends questioned it: ‘Wouldn’t that make you a token? Is this just for show? Didn’t they just cast you as a lizard?’ But I believed in their mission, I was honored they’d want to include me and I saw that the artistic staff and ensemble were excited to make changes and move forward. I got to help cast an entire season that according to company stats achieved a “46 percent increase of diversity.” I got to do Caryl Churchill. I got to do Noël Coward. I understand how lucky I was.
“But the fact is, I had no idea what it would cost me—that being the one voice to represent all minority voices in a company is not only exhausting, it’s lonely. I reached a point where I just wanted to be an actor, like the other ensemble members, but I turned into a symbol and ‘educator.’ And I can’t necessarily trust the work I do in that state.
“Most actors just want work. They don’t always feel safe enough to speak up, especially when they are new to the room, especially when people like them hadn't been invited before. There’s not one true solution to any of this. But hiring directors, playwrights, staff members and people in production and administration to add new perspectives is key to truly having the conversations that will change that company, inside and out.”
“I started working at a very small level. It was literally doing shows in people’s living rooms. I had a really strong group of peers and people my age of all races, etc. So when I finally started working with people who, you know, paid [laughs], I think people were more comfortable talking with me about, ‘How can I get more diverse directors in here? How can I get more diverse writers in here?’
“I became that person who can connect other people, but I think it's because I started in a much smaller capacity than I think other writers do, that people still see me as a weird outsider, even though we live in the city of Chicago, which is about 60 percent nonwhite people. It’s actually not hard to find dancers of color, directors of color, writers of color.
“And I just keep telling people that, encouraging them to make those awkward steps of sitting down with someone that you don’t know. It's really easy to do: You do a show that has race not even being mentioned, and you cast the best people for the parts. Well, if you're in a city that's majority people of color, then your cast is going to look like the city that you live in, and their friends will come, and those people will have more friends come, and suddenly you have an audience base that's much more diverse than it was a year ago.”
“It’s tough when the conversation doesn’t go further than the artists represented onstage. I understand why there’s a lot of energy around that—you can look at a cast that you might not agree with and point at that, right? But for me, it’s also about facilitating the conversation in the room. Whose words are you discussing? Who’s at the helm as a director?
“The thing is, as an Asian-American artist, there are fewer Asian-American plays in the American canon than there are African-American plays and Latinx plays, right? And there’s a lot of action around the anti-yellowface movement [or] #BeyondOrientalism, but as a South Asian artist, neither of those phrases actually include me.
“It feels like our community is in response to many things—in defiance of a stereotype, don't put us in that box, look beyond the ‘model minority’ label. But what is the thing we’re being proactive about? Those ‘who the heck are we’ conversations, that happens when we're all in a room together. So knowing where our community is in regards to the larger theatrical landscape, yeah, absolutely it breaks my heart that we don't have more Asian-American directors directing Asian-American plays in this town. It's a difficult place to be in.”
“When you’re talking about true equity and inclusion, it doesn’t start with the work you’re producing; it starts with the people who are producing. It’s who’s even part of the decision-making process to begin with. If and when you have a diverse array of those perspectives and it becomes a trickle-down situation, then you can have more robust conversations in artistic meetings, in production meetings, where you’re not defaulting to the societal mythical ‘norm’ that is the cisgender white male.
“I’m thinking about the article that was published 10 years ago that pretty explicitly highlighted theater companies whose ensembles are predominantly white. That was 10 years ago, and that remains true today. They’ve produced plays by and for people of color within those 10 years and there have been great plays, don’t get me wrong. But their ensembles are still white. Why? It almost feels a little bit like a facade. Folks are doing the play about people of color, producing a playwright of color, but there isn’t any institutional or organizational change to help ensure that method is sustained? Then I don’t think it’s true equity.”