Christine Toy Johnson – Actor (2002)


I recently attended a conference organized by WORKING MOTHER MAGAZINE called “The Best Companies for Women of Color Summit“, hoping to get a window on how exclusion in Corporate America might be paralleling our experiences in the arts.  And since commercial theatre in NYC is being increasingly produced by corporate entities, I wondered if the connections ran deeper.  I wondered if the business woman’s approach to coping with discrimination in the workplace could inform me on how to deal with it, as an Asian American actress, in the entertainment industry. What I learned surprised me.  The issues that corporate women of color are dealing with are essentially the same as those which actors of color are experiencing. The main barriers identified were:  being isolated, feeling invisible, having limited opportunities for advancement, lack of acknowledgement, and the proliferation of stereotypes.  Things deemed necessary for productive action were: networks, mentors, and visibility.

In thinking about the climate of the theatre, in terms of inclusion, I could offer the same obstacles and the same solutions.  For although I have witnessed an increase in acceptance of the concept of non-traditional casting and diversity, a complacency in terms of relevance has accompanied it. As non-traditional casting and the concept of diversity is more widely accepted, I find that many people assume that there is no longer a problem.  I have felt isolation in knowing that exclusion is still very real, and I have felt invisible as the complacency for the status quo permeates.  And, the networks I have been fortunate enough to find in fighting for inclusion have proven vital in keeping the dialogue and the issue’s importance alive and visible.

The stereotypes which the Asian American professional women I met at the “Women of Color Summit” were the same as those which Asian American actresses battle.  I have always believed that media images play a deeply important role in how we perceive each other.  So here’s the vicious circle:  the media often presents us as submissive, meek “China Dolls”, the actresses are loathe to keep recreating these images but often do so because it is a “job”, and the general Asian American female populace is forced to suffer the consequences, because of the perpetuation of these stereotypes.  Why don’t we have any power to stop these harmful, inaccurate portrayals? Who are we
battling as the “Stereotype gatekeeper”? These questions gnaw at me in the same way that led to my not understanding the concept of inflation as a child.  “Why doesn’t everyone just lower their prices?” was my naive childhood query. I often struggle with that same naiveté, as an adult.  On some levels, I truly cannot fathom why stereotyping and labeling (to me, a passive-aggressive form of discrimination) and exclusion are still such predominant issues in our society.

As for Asian-specific characters that are written for the theatre, we have not gone beyond the dragon lady, foreigner or aforementioned China Doll.  We have yet to see more than one contemporary Asian American female portrayed on the Broadway stage in a new play.  As a Tony voter since 1992, I have seen 98% of all Broadway shows in this time period.  The only contemporary non-stereotypical Asian American character I can think of was in Stephen Sondheim’s short-lived play, Getting Away with Murder.

There has been progress in the increase of non-traditional casting in supporting roles on Broadway, but still not so much in the leading role category. Ironically, the more prolific my own work becomes, I find there’s not as much opportunity to compete where I should be competing. A leading woman, I am still competing for supporting roles, since that seems to be the accepted place for actors of color in non-culturally specific shows, and I am often knocked out then, since I do not fit the description of many
“supporting” characters. In the Broadway revival of The Music Man, I was fortunate enough to replace an African American actress in a supporting role that was reconceived by director Susan Stroman to be very different from the original production, and consequently very well suited to me.  And though this was extremely unusual, I also believe that I had a better than usual shot at getting cast, as this part was previously deemed an “actor of color slot”.

There are a few exceptions of course, but the occasional casting of Brian Stokes Mitchell and/or Audra MacDonald in lead roles seems to be considered to be “enough” to satisfy anyone who is concerned with increasing diversity on our stages. Also, it is extremely unlikely for two or more Asian American actors to be cast in the same non-culturally specific show: although unspoken, the practice seems to be only one Asian American principal in a show at a time, if at all. Most of my colleagues and I continue to receive most of our larger non-traditional roles in regional theatre, where the audiences are thought to be more open to the concept (though still one at a time).  What’s ironic about this notion is that Broadway audiences are mostly made up of the same tourists that feasibly attend these open-minded regional theatres across the country, yet producers often cite “catering to their mostly Caucasian audiences” as the reason for mostly Caucasian casts. I believe that this is a misguided vision of what the audience “should” be offered. It is insulting to think that diversifying casts means driving away an audience, no matter what their race. Also, via exclusion, we are losing out on vast amounts of talent, in the name of catering to the audience, who no doubt would, instead, appreciate it.

I think that the incoming generation of actors of color have a certain assumption that inclusion is the way it is now– as opposed to something we’ve achieved.  This is a good thing — meaning that what we’ve been fighting for has become an integral part of our industry’s societal dialogue, but not a good thing if it means that it’s taken for granted. We must always carry the torch. Complacency needs to be stirred up.  Along with this complacency comes participation in the guise of “political correctness” which
admittedly can sometimes work for us, as actors of color, but also often signals a lack of understanding on the part of decision makers that fostering inclusion must be an on-going initiative. I find that I am constantly challenging borders that people put in their minds about these issues.

I’ve also found that many Caucasian actors seem unwilling or unable to accept the concept that there is still exclusion going on in the theatre (referring to issues of race and color), as they experience their own difficulty in obtaining work. In backstage discussions of the issues, there is little understanding of why race-based discrimination is any different than not being cast for any of the perceived random reasons that exist in our industry, e.g. hair color, resemblance to ex-wives, facial hair. When I have tried to discuss why the perpetuation of Asian American stereotypes, in the midst of the dearth of truthful representation on our stages, is so harmful, the response has always been that “everyone has to battle stereotypes”. The ratio of stereotypes to contemporary, accurate portrayals is often invalidated, as just “one more thing” that anyone else must deal with.  I find that many of the Caucasian men I’ve spoken to, who statistically have had the most opportunities in our industry, are quickest to discount the notion that exclusion and stereotypes can be harmful, as they themselves battle what they perceive to be the same experiences on a day-to-day basis. Also, fear of quotas is still a very real threat to many. Many believe that their own opportunities will be diminished if competition is opened up to a wider playing field. A Caucasian male once said to me that “no one should be placed on the top of a list, based solely on his race.”  My response was that we’ve been on the bottom of the list for so long, we’re just trying to get to
the middle. What I really should have reminded him was that Caucasian men have been placed on the top of many lists for many centuries, based solely on their race.

The notion of privilege is something I’m curious to examine more.  In Stephanie Wildman’s book, Privilege Revealed-How Invisible Preference Undermines America (New York University Press), she reminds us that the inherent privilege of Caucasian males, in particular, in our society must be acknowledged before we can even approach the idea of working towards equality and inclusion.  We must acknowledge that each one of us deals with stereotypes and exclusion on many levels, and that we cannot question the necessity for challenging the perpetuation of these assumptions.

I believe that perception of what diversity means, and what it would look like on our stages is the number one remaining barrier we face. Advocacy organizations and individuals alike must continually challenge the notion that inclusion should be, in fact, non-traditional. At the risk of being redundant, we need to be very vocal about the fact that our society is not reflected in the media, and that this does not only deny opportunities to a wide and talented range of people, but also that it only serves to perpetuate
the divide which racism promotes. The notion of networking, via holding hands with other advocacy organizations appeals to me very much.  I believe that the passion behind these issues, when joined together, becomes more potent and will activate change.  We no longer need to experience isolation by believing in inclusion.

I know that I am extremely fortunate to make a living in this industry. My work is varied:  theatre, commercial print, corporate theatre, film, daytime and episodic television.  Issues of inclusion/diversity are always a factor in my work;  I feel that I either get a job because of my ethnicity or in spite of it.  In terms of the former, when an Asian American actor is specifically requested, I often feel that I’m battling stereotypes and competing with my Asian American colleagues for whatever look the creative team decides is the right degree of “Asian-ness”, more than anything else. In terms of the latter, I feel a definite sense of triumph and then a sense of responsibility to “represent” well.    I think there is still great pressure for Actors of Color to achieve even more than our Caucasian counterparts, in many ways. It’s as if we have to prove our worthiness tenfold, if the casting is going to be “outside the box”.

All that said, I am continually inspired and motivated by the men and women I meet who are willing to step forward and speak up about inclusion.  They give me hope and real pride in being a citizen of our ever-changing world.  Truly, it is this pride that reaffirms to me how increasingly vital it is to keep fighting the good fight: for a beautiful, authentic representation of ourselves and our nation.

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