Susan Tsu – Costume Designer/Costume Professor, Carnegie Mellon University (2003)


Family, career and the opportunity to make a lasting contribution through teaching have all been a part of my life –and I have been enormously lucky while attempting to have it all!   There have been necessary sacrifices in every area in order to maintain a balance and those sacrifices have not always been easy, but my professional, teaching and personal lives have been rewarding: each aspect has complemented and informed the other.

Occasionally you, the reader, will find that I make Chinese, Japanese and Korean references in this piece, well knowing that Asian cultures contain unique and radically different societies.  Sadly, we Asian Americans are often seen as one large amalgam, especially here in the United States, but we are no such thing!  I deeply respect each unique culture while acknowledging that most Americans cannot quite tell us apart.  Note that I do speak from the distinct viewpoint of a Chinese American woman and my experience has taught me that to be Chinese American is to be a part of both cultures while not being wholly accepted by either.  I am always, in some way, an interloper between two worlds.



I am an Asian American female costume designer, and my experiences may mirror those of many first generation Chinese American women.  Many of us had parents who were immigrant scholars and we were raised with Chinese identities and values within an American landscape. Our parents were highly educated, forward thinkers and pioneers. They came to America unafraid of the challenges of uprooting themselves from their homeland and families to seek higher education opportunities in America prior to, and after WWII. They left China not to run away, but to embrace the quality of education to be found in the United States. Self-confidence, integrity and a fierce pride in their heritage are characteristic of this generation of visionary scholars. My parents brought me up to be bi-lingual but Chinese was my first tongue and even as I learned about Chinese traditions, I came to know America as “The Beautiful Country,” which is how it translates from Chinese to English.

My parents’ generation was one of strong and resourceful stock who survived the Japanese occupation of China and the American depression.  They weathered the “Red Scare” of the McCarthy years and the perceived threat that any Chinese was surely a Communist. The China they left was changing, and they watched from across the Pacific as the Cultural Revolution altered their family structures and relationships forever.

With such strength of character and endurance, it is no surprise that this immigrant generation held enormously high expectations for their offspring.  We children were expected to bring honor to the family through our accomplishments in society and education.  My generation, in coming of age, was the first to be labeled the type-A super-achieving Chinese American. We were driven in part by Confucianism, a strong component of which was filial and ancestral piety and in part by the unquestionable expectation that the sacrifices and standards of our parents dictated our own performance standards.  Nothing short of excellence was acceptable.  Working harder and forsaking individual pleasure for the greater good was deeply culturally ingrained.

Thus a stereotype took root. It is important, however, to note that stereotyping myths, like that of the super-achieving earnest Asian, are just that, no matter what the cultural heritage.  They derive from pieces of truth, but are never actually so cut and dried and can often be quite misleading.  The stereotypes can be seen as “positive” or “negative” but we can never elicit a truly deep account of a culture by these means.

From a positive viewpoint, the type-A super-achieving Asian has gained a greater social and political voice than before.  From a negative view, the dominant white society has decided that earnest hardworking Asians have worked themselves out of being considered minorities in America.  A kind of insidious reverse discrimination has arisen against the amalgam known as the “model minority.”  Silent and unacknowledged, it is there nonetheless.  People who are marginalized by this particular stereotype are also perceived as “pushovers” willing to do the bidding of their white “superiors.”   It is quietly believed that the Asian wishes to please because he/she inherently thinks of him/herself as inferior.

In point of fact, in traditional Asian culture, Cultural Revolution not-withstanding, deference is ingrained and valued.   The young are expected to defer to the wisdom of their elders and in turn, they are rewarded with the passing on of knowledge and the protection of those elders.   The American stereotype of the maverick, “can-do”, outspoken, feisty individualist is simply not acknowledged as a worthy model.   This clash of cultural values and misguided stereotypes can lead to many misunderstandings.  Yet people unfamiliar with a culture do rely on stereotypes as the entryway to understanding those who are different from themselves.

American stereotypes and views of Asian males and females are radically different.  The Asian male is now considered mostly earnest, if somewhat less masculine than his Western counterpart.   He is still regarded with a high degree of suspicion.  The Asian female is either considered young, beautiful, desirable, demurring and therefore powerless, or a “Dragon Lady,” a force to overcome.  These negative male and female stereotypes contain the seeds of racial discrimination made acceptable under the mantle of fear.


Many Chinese males are hardworking and accelerate quickly to high positions of authority, but are regarded as dangerous and too untrustworthy to have the power their knowledge brings them.   After all, they are inscrutable and hard to read. They look different and therefore they must behave differently as well.  Early on, impoverished railway workers, laundry owners and merchants trying to find ways to feed their families were largely representative of the Chinese men that Americans encountered.  While Chinese laborers’ sweat and blood built the Transcontinental Railroad from California to Massachusetts, there was enough colonialist blood left in many Americans to consider them indentured, ignorant slaves designated for the purpose.

The “shifty-eyed yellow menace” stereotype may be traceable back to that time, but Chinese men are still saddled with the mistrust of American officials today.  Hundreds of cases less publicized than that of Dr. Wen Ho Lee plague contemporary professional Asian American males who have been brought under investigation because they have security clearance to classified information.

Less damaging, but annoying nonetheless, is the fact that Asian males from many cultures become lumped together and still fall into four extremes of stereotype: first the Nerds, completely asocial and devoid of attraction in their bookishness, second: the Warrior Hoods like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan Kung-fu characters who are notable only because they can “kick ass” Asian style.  Add to those extremes the stereotype of the Monkey King imp that Jackie Chan also models. This Clown Servant type makes a mess and is naughty and dangerous, yet lovable.  In the West, he is also self-deprecating.  Finally, there is the Asian Scholar Sage, possessing not only great wisdom, but in the West, also having the ability to “kick ass” to an even greater degree, the likes of David Carradine — a “safe” non-Asian leading man, and Pat Morita! Pat Morita, by the way, was interned with his family in a camp for Japanese Americans during WWII.  The stereotyped roles he has sometimes played in no way accurately reflect the depth, wisdom and amazing good humor of the real man.

Nerds!  Denigrated in all countries?  I think not.  While teenagers in America continue to poke fun at gawky bookish outcasts, Bill Gates has defended them, “Be nice to nerds, you’ll be working for one someday.”   In America, for some reason, we like to laugh at nerds.  Movies and television have made a lot of money from the likes of Austin Powers, and “wild and crazy guys.” Nerds in China are simply Scholar Sages in the making.  One cannot be nerdish enough.

The myth of the Warrior Hood stereotype comes from unfortunate gang sources. Chinatown murders, opium ring exploits, exotic prostitution rings and the bartering of child-brides–all the seedy underbelly of tabloid news is here. News that fulfills a kind of Western fantasy of what is forbidden, exotic and therefore exciting about the East gives the Warrior Hood an air of fascination and fear, just as the Italian mobster does.  And like unpredictable wild animals, those cultures far removed from America’s European group of forefathers are all the more misinterpreted and feared when fighting breaks out amongst them. Conflict between whites has a more “understandable” context and history than that between Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Vietnamese, Afghanistani, Chinese, or Koreans.

Like many African American entertainers early in the 20th century, some Asian males find acceptance only because they adapt the Monkey King impishness of the Clown Servant: a posture that lifts them into the world of Puck and Ariel, both ultimately forgivable characters for all the havoc they deftly wreak.

Needless to say, all these so-called “types” place Asian males in unusual positions.  Some find themselves combating limiting stereotypes by actively working against them, while others seem to adopt them. The short, slight Asian males who take Shaolin, Kung-fu and other martial arts may do so not only to protect themselves but also to adopt the mystique and admiration associated with the role of Warrior Hood. They are actively trying to avoid the emasculating view that they are less male than their taller, muscular European counterparts in the world.  Clown Servant males place themselves in the safety zone of being non-threatening and self-deprecating at the cost of possibly burying some deeply felt pain. Scholar Sage males on the other hand, must work harder than their western counterparts to prove their trustworthiness.

I grew up in the midst of a thriving community of professional Chinese in Pittsburgh. In many cases their friendships and support extended back to pre-WWII China before they immigrated to the United States.  Scholars, teachers, scientists, research engineers, nuclear physicists — I knew the real Chinese Scholar Sages to maintain dignified low profiles and thankfully, Scholar Sages were most readily accepted into American society.  Cynics might opine that scholars were only accepted because they added to the brain trust of the nation.  However, they knowingly, actively assimilated themselves into the United States, adopting “The Beautiful Country” as their own. Their mental prowess and talent spoke for them. Secure in their wisdom, if any of them ever used Kung-fu as a final act of dominance, it would have been ridiculous. Physical dominance was simply never an issue.

I believe Asian women have also been better accepted into American society largely because their overriding stereotype may seem more benign– that of obedient, quiet, ready-to-please geisha-like entities.  Asian women fight two extremes of categorization of their own. When young, they are the China Dolls who are beautiful, mysterious, exotic and therefore desirable.  The China Doll fulfills what David Henry Hwang rightly claims in M. Butterfly as the Western male’s favorite fantasy.  She is his willing sex object and bedmate, possessing thousands of years of ancient pleasure-making secrets.  Existing only for him, she is ready to kill herself if he is no longer in her life. What an ego trip!

Some time between puberty and early menopause the Chinese woman supposedly continues this journey of exoticism while still deferring to her male and making him look good by being hardworking and yet ever willing to please.  Magically — and infuriatingly to some Asian women — she somehow then makes the leap to the other extreme when she supposedly becomes the “Dragon Lady”, the Tz’u-hsi Empress of China who dominates the throne through cunning and power, afraid of no one and mindful only of her own gain.  Some young Asian women combine these two extremes, wrapping themselves in a mantle of intellect or gorgeous untouchability while in fact creating a “safe-place” for themselves.

As for me, I do have a vague notion that as a younger designer the going was a bit rougher than now. Whether that was a function of the difficulties that all young designers have or the observations I make below is unknown to me.

Young Asian women are rarely taken seriously and are taught never to promote themselves!  Usually short of stature and soft of voice, a kind of behavior modification is often necessary in order to command the weight of a leader.  While many Asian females figure this out fairly early, it is not always easy to implement!  Most must transcend the role of “good daughter” who stays agreeable and makes herself as small as possible.  Even now, when there are many generations of Asian females in the United States, there are still countless young women daily facing the question of what parts of their early childhood roles they keep, and what parts they change at the peril of their parents’ disapproval.

Not so many generations ago, when parents chose their daughters’ future mates at birth, daughters had no voice about anything relative to their own lives.  In fact, they were lucky to be alive.  Now, there are many independent, powerful Chinese women as role models, but still, the transition from girlhood to womanhood usually takes a longer psychological journey for a woman of Asian descent than one of non-Asian background.  Moreover, some older directors and actors are charged by youthful Asian women’s enthusiasm and energy, while others do not trust the young females to be strong enough leaders or to have enough experience to make good choices.

Good quiet Chinese girls are still perceived more as seamstresses than as visionary leaders.  While their exteriors often evoke a demure persona, few people immediately recognize the steely resolve and power that may rest beneath the surface, instilled there by their mothers.

All of the above stereotypes, well-founded or not, provide fodder for theatre artists, particularly the playwrights, of this country.  David Henry Hwang certainly addresses them in his plays, and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in book, film and theatre forms has generated a flurry of conflicting views, even among the Chinese, regarding its use or lack of stereotypes.


During my life and career, I have striven to overcome the limitations of all stereotypes.  I want to be seen as a designer and citizen of the world first, and not be labeled as an Asian American designer alone.  While I have a unique understanding of what it means to be Asian, I do not believe that only Asian designers can do Asian plays, just as I do not believe that British designers are the only people in the world who can bring meaning to Shakespeare.   I believe a good designer has the ability to take on the skins of many cultures and can immerse herself in many situations, which she in fact has not experienced.  How many of us have actually murdered a King or eaten our children?  How many Western designers have made Turandot come to life, and conversely how many Asian designers have tackled the Western classics?  From the beginning, I have sought to be as versatile and far-reaching as possible and consequently I have been fortunate to be a part of many teams designing many works of great cultural range and subject matter.

In conversation with Ming Cho Lee about issues of race relative to our careers, we both agreed that we ourselves have not felt discrimination per se and that being Asian has in fact opened doors.  While I cannot be certain that others feel the same way, I like to think that bringing the sensibilities of two cultures to the table has enriched my collaborations. Principally, I feel bound and determined to simply do good work.  The fact that I am Asian American can allow me to do that good work from a unique perspective.  Perhaps I’ve been graced by color-blind Artistic Directors. Perhaps I have been lucky.  Or perhaps a doggedly optimistic view of the world has obscured what discrimination may have existed.  Living within my body and career, it is hard for me to know exactly which factors have benefited me and which may have hindered me because I am an Asian American female designer.

In the course of my daily life, aside from the grade school antics of mean-spirited boys or racial slurs shouted from passing trucks, I have more often observed racial discrimination emerging disguised in circuitous and saturnine ways than in explicitly bigoted and racist ways. Thankfully, I find it difficult to pinpoint any specific incidents in my design career where I have been adversely affected because I am Chinese American. Of interest is the fact that I am often offered African American and Irish plays to design. Not considering myself an expert on either of these cultures, perhaps these opportunities arise because I am thought to be non-mainstream myself, therefore having more relevant life experience from which to draw.  Then again, I have some rather wonderful African American and Irish friends!

There is one disturbing fact. For decades, in our great melting pot of a nation, Ming Cho Lee and Willa Kim were the Asian designers.  Period.  In pre-1970’s America, underlying issues of race and minority acceptance into mainstream society undoubtedly contributed to the paucity of Asian designers.  Asians were associated with the land of laundries and chop suey then, not with I.M. Pei buildings and Szechuan cuisine.  From the 1970’s to the 1980’s, Dawn Chiang, Victor En Yu Tan, and I enjoyed being added to the roster of American designers.  Notably, it was only in the mid-to-late 1970’s that other young Asians began considering careers as designers in the United States.  Today, the ranks of Asian designers grow every year as more and more dare break away from the doctor/mathematician/scientist expectations of their parents to become (alas!) theatre artists!

When all is said and done, no designer can separate who they are as a person from their work.  Who they are culturally, socially, morally, religiously and politically informs their Art.  Designers who have the good fortune of having more than one culture as a reference can bring unique voices and visions to their collaborations, and this is a plus.  Overall, I feel that Asian American designers are having as hard a time as everyone else in the current political and fiscal climate affecting the Arts.  Less and less challenging and new work is being done as Artistic Directors of theatres choose increasingly safe seasons, worried about their revenue and board support, losing both federal and state funding.  Safer hiring choices are being made either based on a designer’s track record at a theatre, or on his/her affordability and proximity in hard times.  These are a few of the greater overriding issues facing the American theatre.  As an Asian American designer within the American theatre, I am affected, but not singled out.


It may be useful to examine one other societal reality when considering what it means to be an Asian American designer.  The West, through history, has had a love/hate relationship with the East and Middle East, and that relationship mirrors the political balance in the world.  The views I observe below are often evidenced by the way our government, some politicians and the media behave but are not necessarily supported by the many well-read, good people of this country.

During my short lifetime, I have seen China go in and out of favor five times.  As a child growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, WWII was still a recent memory.  Anyone Asian in America was automatically suspect and denounced as a “Jap” and a “yellow peril.”  There was a great deal of mistrust.  Communists, whether Russian, Chinese, or homegrown on American soil were branded as enemies.

In the 1970’s Nixon opened up the door to Communist China, and suddenly, amazingly, we were “in.”  Exchanges among museums enriched our lives.  American store mannequins started looking fascinatingly Asian and fashion designers melded a Chinese influence into 7th Avenue chic.  We were the exotic fascinating ones.

When the horrors of the Cultural Revolution began to surface in the 1980’s, Chinese Americans were again associated (even though any Chinese realizes just how complex and many are the political variances) with the evil Communists and suspicion reigned.

Then, as Communism fell around the world, and before Deng Xiao Ping’s name became associated with the killer of college students protesting for Democracy, his international economic policies made the world turn around and salivate. China began to be seen as the next mega-market of opportunity. Joint ventures abounded and universities began to offer more courses in Chinese culture and language.   Chinese students came in greater numbers to study in the United States. Businessmen filled the flights to and from China.

Soon after, the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred and along with those murdered there, gone was the fantasy relationship with China.  China became the evil place again, where human rights were denied and old men imprisoned rabble-rousers for as long as the rulers liked without fair trial.

And so it is now. The irony that the leaders of America today find it possible to imprison anyone who looks Middle Eastern, Arab, or who seems Muslim for as long as they like without fair trial seems not to be recognized.  In 2003 one might say that Americans view the Chinese in much the same way as we did in June of 1989.  There is one difference — the relationship with China now exists as what it really is, barefaced capitalism on the part of the United States, out for its own gain. Since the Tiananmen Square incident, we Chinese have been out of fashion, but “tolerated” for economic profit.

As I address overt and hidden issues of diversity, I must say that I loathe the way the word “tolerance” is being used today.  It implies that people must “put up with” others rather than accept and embrace them.  The word underscores the fact that there is a problem and rift that will never be fixed, but that must be dealt with somehow and best at arm’s length.


Among Asians there are distinctions made about just how Asian a person really is.  People who are activists or recent émigrés often label second and third generation Asians as “Bananas,” that is to say, yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

So here goes! Back in the world of entertainment, my perception is that — aside from female newscasters following the pathway carved by Connie Chung — the Asian American has made little headway in the television and film industries where Asians are still largely stereotyped and restricted to roles that are one-dimensional.  While Charlie Chan was enormously popular, he was played by a “safe” Western actor as were the leads in The Good Earth. These performers were truly white on the inside made up to look yellow on the outside! Thankfully, Anna Mae Wong enjoyed film notoriety in the 1920’s and 30’s even if her straight Asian hair was often bobbed and curled American-style.

Epic heart-rending films like Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qui Ju both directed by Zhang Yimou, are coming out of contemporary China to great acclaim, but similar works are harder to find made here in the United States. James Wong Howe has made a mark as a cinematographer in Hollywood. However, aside from Kung-fu movies, sitting in the audience looking at the opening credits, it has felt as though we have only had The Flower Drum Song for a very long time.  Is that really the best Hollywood could do?

With the advent of the 1990’s we do now have more interesting films and directors such as Taiwan-born Ang Lee of  Eat Drink Man Woman.  Other films like The Joy Luck Club, beautifully designed by Lydia Tanji, have also heightened American awareness, if in a controversial manner to some who feel the negative stereotypes are still there. So many stories remain to be told. Current Asian actors in film and television do achieve financial success and name recognition in more mainstream films, but the roles they are given are still largely flat, uninspired and portray the white stereotype of what it is to be Asian.

All is not dire however: Ming Na, Ang Lee, Margaret Cho and Brenda Wong Aoki’s contributions bring hope and great gulps of fresh air.  As I write, a significant acknowledgement must go to Bill Moyers for the fine history lesson he has provided through his representation of and interviews with Chinese Americans in his series Becoming American!

It was a long wait to see Asian faces on the stage the likes of Randall Duk Kim who has left his theatre roots and former position as founder of American Players Theatre in Wisconsin for a career in cinema.  Aside from those theatres founded by Asians hiring Asian actors and designers there has been far too little growth.  Thank goodness for Mako, then more recently Tim Dang at East-West Players, Ping Chong and Company

and Tisa Chang’s Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. But where are the Asian actors in Regional Theatre?  On Broadway?

In my view, Asian designers and playwrights have faired better than Asian actors in the theatre.   I have already written about some designers. As for playwrights, it seems that Frank Chin and Wakako Yamauchi held the post alone before the 1960’s. A decade later came David Henry Hwang, and Philip Kan Gotanda..  Now they are joined by Chay Yew, Elizabeth Wong, Velina Hasu Houston and many others. One should note that playwrights and designers are seen and heard through their works and not through their bodies and faces.  “Identity” as seen, felt, and heard by their colleagues is not as threatening and loaded as it is for the actor for whom it is inescapable.  Moreover, this present generation of Asian writers is focusing less on issues of race.  The question arises as to whether this is a natural outcome of assimilation or whether it has been self-censorship at the cost of losing one’s cultural voice.

Fascination with things Eastern will always resurface in the West.  It is a yin/yang attraction. Kabuki drama, Butoh performance, Chinese Opera, Asian and Eurasian fashion models, Japanese mechanical devices and cars, the promise of one of the world’s largest and fastest growing consumer populations in China….these disparate aspects of the East will continue to be a part of the West’s longing.  Indeed, the East longs for the West as well, for its presumed sophistication, music, technology and especially for its wealth.

Regardless of the tides of yearning, and especially because they are tides that come and go, we have much work to do.  There are individuals and their artistic institutions that have passionate commitment to developing work and relationships such as the Arena Stage’s commitment to internships dedicated to fostering diverse participation. There are theatres that have forged relationships with Asian playwrights such as the Mark Taper Forum with Chay Yew. Peggy Shannon of Sacramento Theatre Company works regularly with Velina Hasu Houston who is playwright in residence there.  Committed Artistic Directors like Sharon Ott of the Seattle Repertory Theatre produce Asian plays such as Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior. Directors like Megs Booker continue lifelong commitments to theatrical exchange with China.  Playwright Ruth Margraff at HERE Theatre has ongoing collaborations with Fred Ho.  The stalwart, persistent work of our handful of Asian performer/producers and their companies, as well as the odd play or translation coming from our relatively young cadre of Asian playwrights cannot be underestimated.

Despite the good work here mentioned, we have gained too little ground in the past 35 years.  I feel the primary remaining barriers shall always be there.  While we are a great messy melting pot of a country, the dominant white culture will ride the tide of international politics and perceptions of the Asian will ebb and flow along with that tide.  With the Arts under siege, as they have been throughout the culture wars, those aspects of the Arts that are seen to be tributaries rather than major coursing rivers shall continually dry up first.  The struggle of Asians and people of color in the business will continue to be great.


I have no ready solution to the situation I have described beyond my deeply held belief that the education of our young people must be the first place to start.  Here we can alert them to the dangers of narrow thinking, and enlighten their minds to the damning effects of prejudice and intolerance.  In the now famous exercise conceived by Jane Elliot in the small town of Riceville, Iowa, we find a microcosmic simulation of how readily we fall into narrow beliefs about cultures based on negative stereotypes and the so-called undesirable behaviors perpetrated about them.  The day after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated — determined to drive home a first-hand experience about race for her all- white third-grade school children, Miss Elliot created “Discrimination Day” and told her students that brown-eyed children were the good ones, the smart ones, the clean ones and allowed them to play together on the playground.  They became coveted row leaders, could drink from the drinking fountains and have second helpings at lunch as well as extra recess time.  The blue-eyed children were the unruly ones, the stupid ones, the dirty ones.  They had to wear collars to separate themselves from the others, and were not allowed to play with the others on the playground unless invited.  They had to drink from cups and could not have second helpings at lunch. In no time flat, a class that had been harmonious and sweet to each other turned into what Jane Elliot described as mean children ready to find fault with each other.  Fights broke out on the segregated playground and one girl even hit her blue-eyed friend in the back when her friend was not looking.  Shockingly, issues of superiority and inferiority manifested themselves in body language and worse, in academic performance.  When the situation was reversed the next day, the formerly blue-eyed children were relieved to become the “race” in favor but felt no compunction about taunting their brown-eyed classmates.  Asked to talk about their experiences, students told of the pain and unfairness of being ostracized.  They admitted to hating the teacher for putting them through the exercise.  They talked about the tears shed.  One boy tore off his collar and methodically began destroying it.  Through this exercise, which has now been repeated thousands of times by other teachers with their school children and by management specialists with adults in many professions, we can learn a critical lesson: that children and adults alike fall prey to negative stereotypes with horrifying ease.  In its day, when this exercise was experienced early enough, in the right context, with a responsible teacher, it created a heightened sensibility to the injustice that mis-information could bring to an entire culture or race and a keen awareness of the damage that was inflicted.   This lesson stayed with those that experienced it for a lifetime.

Many good teachers and school programs on all levels do address issues of race and culture across America today, yet on our college campuses race discrimination is on the rise and hate crimes are increasing across the country.  Clearly there is more to do.   When paranoia about who to trust in our country is rife and it becomes increasingly evident that one culture after another will be vilified and reduced to a single point of view, another more urgent call must go out.  We as educators must find more effective ways to address the current reality.  Perhaps Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke to this issue by supporting Affirmative Action during college admissions procedures.  While the arguments for and against her reasoning have been compelling and complex, educators can and must effect change through hiring, recruitment, season selection, history courses that embrace other cultures and the choice of projects given to students.

When we were students ourselves protesting racism and the Vietnam war, could we have imagined the world that is now ours to run being in such a state?   We must first question our own resolve, passivity or activism and face our naked selves in the mirror.  We would do well to remember words spoken by the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tenzin Gyatso:

Deep down we must have real affection for each other, a clear

recognition of our shared human status. At the same time we must

openly accept all ideologies and systems as means of solving

humanity’s problems. No matter how strong the wind of evil may

blow, the flame of truth cannot be extinguished.


“WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…”


The Declaration of Independence states that we are all created equal with the right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” As an educator, I feel that these latter two unalienable rights are directly related to the quality of education that we offer to our students.

First and foremost, the greatest obstacle to the training of any student of color for a life in the theatre is that our society does not value the Arts.  Not really.  As long as that is the case, no parent of color will ever wish his/her child to embark upon a career path that will not allow the child to rise in society above that family’s or culture’s past. By default, I have counseled dozens of Asian and African American students who have been afraid to tell their parents that they have changed their majors in school, those who have been nearly disinherited for the choice, or who face a wall of disapproval from their parents and their parents’ friends.   Many of these students go it alone with grim determination.

With societal norms as described, recruiting students of color into a low-paying field like theatre becomes a challenge. Asian Americans have seen a greater measure of material success in America than other people of color, so much so that we are no longer considered “minorities” in the Halls of Academe.   While we look different enough to be considered “other” and are labeled as “minorities” within the United States, the mainstream social and economic achievements of Asian Americans have been notable, and it seems that more Asian American parents are endorsing their children’s choices to enter the arts than 30 years ago.  Not so the case with African American, Latino/a, Native American, East Indian or Vietnamese parents.

The Vietnamese are certainly Asian, and Vietnamese students do excel, but many in our country seem to carry a surprisingly imperialist view where the Vietnamese people are concerned.  How and why a culture of people have come to the United States very much affects how they are treated once here.  Inside the American psyche the Vietnamese are still seen as refugees, consequently they are “lesser humans” come to feed on “American cream.”  They are the newest of the small shifty Asians.  Gang warfare always makes the news but the many positive accomplishments of the Vietnamese in this country do not.

My African American friends confirm that African Americans in our country share family histories of the suffering of their grandparents and great grandparents brought over as enslaved Africans.  They feel continued, relentless racial discrimination.  Who can blame a parent for not wanting his/her child to embark on a theatre journey that entails so much hard, unrecognized work for such little financial gain and societal recognition? Certainly there are a wealth of successful African American role models in every discipline of theatre who inspire young people greatly, but those students who choose to study and enter theatre are still comparatively few and far between.  While I am glad to have taught even the few African American students I’ve had, they have often felt lonely in their departments and are sadly in need of more faculty role models.

Where the Native American is concerned our collective memory is painfully short.  Few people comprehend how acutely the Indians suffered at the hands of the European colonizers.  History lessons more often dwell on the victories of those who conquered and explored the territories of our country and how the Native Americans helped the colonizers.  Our “Cowboy and Indian” myths always side with the cowboy, and like so many conquerors, we see the demise of the spirit of the vanquished as their own racial, cultural shortcoming.  We invent a truth that allows us to live with ourselves. Indians “drink and are drunk all the time, they are unruly, they don’t take pride in their homes”…we take far too little responsibility for demolishing an extraordinary civilization that bestowed serenity and greatness. We erase ourselves from the picture as possibly causing what we view as negative traits that didn’t exist when their lives were whole.  I have not had a Native American student even apply for theatrical design training in 20 years of teaching.

Only in recent years have I had East Indian students in my classes.  I can only surmise that because many East Indians in America have excelled as doctors, mathematicians, and scientists just as other Asians have, those parents are becoming more lenient in allowing their children to consider careers in the arts. Perhaps as more generations of Asian American and East Indian Americans populate the States, a greater degree of immersion and assimilation will allow greater flexibility.  Both groups are now less constrained to prove their worthiness, and parents have somewhat relaxed the expectation for their children to succeed in traditional fields linked with success in a capitalist society.

Latino/a students are many in the United States, and institutions of higher education in states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida have a special obligation to recognize the reality that there will be significant Latino/a populations in their academic communities.  Just as in Vancouver and parts of California, where the Asian population is bordering on being the dominant culture, or in the Deep South where the grandchildren and great grandchildren of enslaved African families live in large numbers, there are many other cities where the Latino/a culture dominates or will soon do so.  In a diverse nation, this should not be perceived as a threat, but rather as an enriching of our heritage.  Sadly, our country has inculcated many ways of keeping immigrants and people of color in their “minority” positions, and a lack of proper education is often the first barrier.  The issues I bring up are challenges that face us despite activist work from within the Latino/a community and from those who advocate from outside.  The Latino/a and African American students I have encountered feel isolated within the predominantly white institutions in which I have taught.  They have few advocates, and fewer teachers whose faces match their own.

Those students who are recent immigrants to this country, no matter from which culture, have the additional challenge of learning English replete with slang, in addition to finding enough courage to put themselves and their ideas forward in a culture not their own.  Finding academic environments and teachers sensitive to their particular circumstances can be difficult.  These students must often be drawn out to behave in a completely different way than their upbringing dictates.  Americans want to hear the individual opinions of students in a creative field such as theatre.  Many other cultures value students who are obedient “sponges” capable of absorbing information from the master teacher and then putting that information into practice by emulating the teacher.  These students excel where technique and discipline are concerned but are challenged to explore and develop their individual opinions and imaginations.

We are the wealthiest nation of the world, and the fact that we do not offer the very best education to every young person in our country is a travesty.  We harm only ourselves in not strengthening all of the future generation with quality education and mentorship.  Here, I pose a few questions: Is it not the right of every human being on earth to receive the very best education in the world?  Must it always be the case that the parents of our newest citizens toil in back-breaking labor before the next generation can begin to make strides toward a decent education?  Where is the unwritten rule behind the glass ceiling that alerts us to the amount of time that needs to pass before an immigrant can claim to be a true American after they have received their citizenship?  Do we not perpetuate oppression by not proactively addressing racism in our curriculums and academic institutions?  Are any non-European Americans ever truly considered American by the dominant culture?  While America’s colonizers fled England and her imperialist nature, I daresay we have created our own form of imperialism and notion of class here in the United States.

In 1998, while serving on the National Endowment for the Arts Education & Access Committee and Heritage & Preservation Committee, I learned of the number of proposals being considered that supported the work of this nation’s people of color along with their stories. I realized at that time how limited my own scope of knowledge was and how much is quietly being created in places beyond the regional theatres with which I am most familiar.  Sadly, I feel that much more can be done in our educational institutions to expose our students to theatre-making throughout the world.  We are woefully myopic in our definition of theatre in the United States, and many of our educators are training students too narrowly. We must identify, develop and actively recruit faculties whose heritages and cultures are more diverse. Our arguments about core curriculum versus breadth of topics must find a balance.  We must work harder to encourage those students of color who have interest in theatre especially because they often do not have the support of their families.

Finally, the very structure of how we invite audiences to our theatres must be addressed. Like the university, the theatre can often be seen as a tabernacle for the white and the privileged.   If the people do not come to see theatre, we can take the theatre to see them. Certainly our grass roots and touring theatres are bringing theatre to the people and thank goodness for that. I can’t help but wish for more.  How many more Roadside Theatres who bring theatre to the people of Appalachia and other underserved communities, or PS122 tours could there be?  If the people cannot afford to see theatre, what can we do to break down that barrier?  Peter Sellars’ Marriage of Figaro set in Trump Towers brought the downtown workers — clerks, construction workers, teachers, bankers, truck drivers — in to see what the fuss was all about and it was phenomenal. I imagine that production and other boundary breakers like it being affordable to an even broader audience.  We all want more people to be seeing work that emanates passionately from our hearts.  If current practices are not bringing the audiences we seek, then clearly current practices must change. How can we dream and sweat new ideas into being?

Would these performance experiences not ignite a young person’s imagination with the thought that they too could find that kind of expression some day?  Must we have a Zoot Suit phenomenon only once every 20 years?  Will our Latino/a and Asian and African American playwrights always be relegated to the token “diversity” play of the season?  Shall it always be assumed that if one really wants to see “those” kinds of plays that one must go to the theatres that produce only those kinds of plays?  It is not that many are not valiantly gaining ground.  David Henry Hwang has a Writer’s Institute in Los Angeles. Yale professor Nilo Cruz has won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Chay Yew directs the Mark Taper Forum’s Asian Theatre Workshop. It is just that there is so much more work to do!

As educators we have an enormous responsibility.  We form the future of our own field by training tomorrow’s theatre artists.  We teach technique, process, and skills but do we adequately address the cultures and theatre of the world and within our country?  So many voices and visions in the cultural richness of the United States have yet to find expression, especially now when tolerance has taken on an entirely new meaning and our shutters are being drawn ever inward.  Especially now. We can change our world for the better if only we acknowledge the challenge, pick it up, and envision the unalienable rights of all human beings.