I’ve Become “THAT” Woman

A few months ago, I was on the phone with a current Syracuse University student. As an alumnus of the university, I’ve been known to give advice to nervous students who are trying to figure out if they made the right choice going to graduate school (though I can’t say I’m the most reassuring voice, but I can say I’m a realistic one). Anyway, in that phone call, he told me that I was an “expert” in theatre. To which I thought, “huh, I guess I am. Damn.”

I’ve been on the theatre beat for six years now (though I consider it more like five because I didn’t do much writing in my years as an editorial assistant). And if journalists become an expert after writing three articles about a given subject, I guess at year 5, with two theatre keynote speeches under my belt, I’m a scholar. And when you are considered a scholar, an odd thing happens: other journalists, people you would consider your colleague, start using you as a source in their articles.

My year started out when Wei-Huan Chen of the Houston Chronicle asked me for my opinions on yellowface in opera. Which led to me being quoted in his article.

“If you don’t do the work, then you’re using art to justify whitewashing, erasure and the continued marginalization of people of color,” she said. “Blackface/yellowface/brownface is an abhorrent practice that should be abolished, and operas should be taking action towards abolishing those practices, instead of making excuses.”

Man, I say smart things sometimes.

Then Kat Chow of NPR’s Code Switch asked me about my opinions on Miss Saigon after reading my essay about how much I hate it. The episode is here.

Then the Los Angeles Times asked me to speak on diversity in the theatre. And Theatre Bay Area too (and they include my headshot, which I did not anticipate).

And then a local NPR station in Nevada (KNPR) asked me to speak about diversity in casting. I get a lot of airtime.

And then NPR (again) asked me to comment on Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway after they read my essay on the show.

If 2016 was the year people paid me to yell at them, 2017 was the year I became an “expert” on theater. Now where’s my book deal?

Also, I feel like I shouldn’t have taken headshots when my hair was pink. Now that my hair is no longer pink, I may need to get new headshots. Or maybe no one actually notices? An artist friend suggested I used this photo as my new headshot. Who says journalists can’t be models?

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2016: Or the Year People Paid Me to Yell at Them….

For me, 2016 was a mixed bag of a year. While as an American citizen, 2016 was a shitty year (I would like to give a big middle finger to everyone who voted for Trump), as a journalist, 2016 was a banner year for me. If I could sum it up in one word, 2016 would be the year that people paid me to yell at them.

How so you ask?

Well, I started off the year by giving the keynote address at the American Theatre Critics Association’s annual conference. The full text is here.

Then I ended the year in Pittsburgh (what’s with me and Pennsylvania) leading a town hall about colorblind casting, where I gave another speech to an audience of about 150 people. The write-up of the event here.

In the middle were numerous panels and post-show talkbacks, which are all fairly new occurrences for me.

For 2017, I’ve already been confirmed to give the keynote address for the Mid-America Theatre Conference’s annual gathering in Houston in March 2017. Then there are couple of panels and gatherings I have been invited to that I have not confirmed yet. But suffice to say, I’m getting more comfortable with this whole speaking in public thing.

Other highlights of 2016:

I became a regular contributor to the Maxamoo theater review podcasting, and the year ended with me giving a pretty great rant on the state of the American theater, which you can listen to here.

I started a monthly column at American Theatre about Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. You can read the entries here.

Speaking of columns, shoutout to my friends Mark Peikert and Jack Smart, who let me contribute twice a month to a column about the largest regional theaters in America. It started in September 2016 and the final column will end in February 2017. My contributions to it are here.

I’m currently at work on a few projects both at American Theatre and freelance that I’m excited to see light in 2017. It’s never dull when you’re a journalist.

2015: The Year of Diversity

When I was in elementary school, we did a lot of role-playing during recess. One game we played was “Spice Girls.” All of my (mostly white or at least passing) friends would pretend to be the five Spice Girls and I would be their maid. Because we were 10 years old and you had to look like the character or it wouldn’t make sense. And the Spice Girls were all white. Where do you put the Asian girl? You make her the side character, cleaning up the mess.

Tonight, I was watching the pilot of “Supergirl” where a random character uttered this phrase: “Can you believe it? A female hero! Nice for my daughter to have someone like that to look up to.” Yes it’s a bit too on the nose but the same thought raced through my head while I was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film featured not one, but a whopping four female characters, one of whom (Rey) was the chosen one that was strong with the Force and the first speaking character in the Star Wars movie universe to hold a lightsaber. (There was a midriff-baring blue female alien in the prequels who I recall didn’t have any lines) And the female characters were in leadership roles where their gender was hardly mentioned: general (Leia), captain (Phasma), bar owner/seer (Maz Kanata).

Rounding out the leading players was a black Stormtrooper with a full-fledge story arc and character development (Finn), and a brown pilot (Poe). For all of the criticisms of how derivative Episode VII was, it had something that none of the other films had. It had diversity. It had equality. It was unapologetically feminist as hell and John Boyega rightly dismissed all of the racists who could accept green aliens but couldn’t accept black men as heroes.

Watching the movie, I was reminded of that perfect moment when I first watched “Battlestar Galactica,” where I realized that this was not a universe occupied by just white characters, and where the heroes weren’t just men. There was a mixed-race Admiral, a female president, a female pilot, and Asian Cylons and pilots. All of them got an individual spotlight, with character arcs and fully rendered backstories. They were all heroes. And their race and gender were non-issues.

“Battlestar” and Episode VII created a science-fiction universe where gender and racial norms were nonexistent, where a woman can be the chosen one (or Jesus, in the case of “Battlestar”) and a black man can save the day (in the case of Episode VII). They portrayed a world where men are allowed to be emotional wrecks (Kylo Ren’s temper tantrums being the most effective showcase). For once, it is not the woman with tears on their faces, it is the men as well too.

Science fiction as a genre invites us to imagine a more perfect, more advanced world. And with Episode VII, perhaps we finally, consistently have a world where its individuals are being truly judged not on their appearances, but on their abilities. It’s an inclusive world, one that can finally accommodate everyone: white, black and brown, blue and green.

Now they just need an Asian Jedi and I will die happy.

"Look! POCs are everywhere right now!"
“Look! POCs are everywhere right now!”

It’s not just Star Wars. 2015 was the year that diversity dominated the conversation. Just look at how many think pieces were written about the colorful casting in Hamilton (mine included). Or the rain of praise on Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” and its truthful representation of the immigrant experience or of casual racism in the entertainment industry.

It was the year where Viola Davis said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” And opportunities were aplenty for women and actors of color, to play against type. You can’t have two Indian characters occupying the same screen in the fictional “Master of None” universe. But you can today. Not even Indian, but East Asian (“Fresh Off the Boat,” “Dr. Ken”), black (“Empire,” “Blackish”), all the races (“How to Get Away with Murder,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), and shows that actually pass the Bechdel Test (“Jessica Jones,” “Supergirl”).

It was the year that we all called out the entertainment industry on their racist, sexist bullshit, from the wage gap, to casting controversies in theater, to Aloha. It was the year we were introduced to black Hermione.

So for all of my frustration with the entertainment industry, I do know that a better world is ahead. Because people of color and women are no longer sidekick or servant, girlfriend and mother. We can just be people.

Can we go farther? Absolutely. I’m looking forward to seeing what other genderqueer stories surface now that The Danish Girl is out. One of the best plays I saw this year was about a transgender character (by a genderqueer playwright) and January alone promises two more works about trans* individuals.

I’m excited and one thing’s for sure, kids of color and girls won’t be servants or damsels in distresses any longer. To borrow a phrase from David Bowie: They can be heroes. We all can.

Latest Diep Links

Now that I’m sequestered away in California for my winter vacation, and finished, for now, with my deadlines, I finally have time to update this website with links to my latest pieces.

I opine some more! This time about living room dramas and how I hate them unless they’re Hir by Taylor Mac.

Then I preview the 2016 Under the Radar Festival, for those who love experimental theater as much as I do.

Two episodes of American Theatre‘s Offscript podcast:

And last, but certainly not least, I preview what’s sure to be the next immersive theater hit: The Grand Paradise from Third Rail Projects for the New York freakin’ Times!

Finally, it’s not printed yet but I filed a piece three days ago about Danai Gurira for American Theatre. So check back here because I will inevitably put it on my website as soon as it’s online.

Milestone of 2015: That Time I Interviewed Lea Salonga….

…for an hour and ended up only using three quotes from her. You can find the quotes as part of this article. There are certain people that as a journalist, you wait your entire career to interview, because they mean so much to you on a personal level. Lea Salonga is one of those people for me (more on that here). So you can imagine the happy dance I did when I knew that she would be calling me. It looked something like this.


What was only supposed to be a quick, 30 minutes conversation turned into a discussion that lasted more than an hour. Then again, when two Asians get together to talk about race and representation, opinions will ignite. So I wanted to include some valuable soundbites that I couldn’t use, as a way of preserving it for posterity/in case I ever lose the transcript.

Here are some Lea Thoughts!

Why she wanted to do Allegiance:

“For me, I felt a very strong personal connection, because my husband is Japanese, which makes my daughter automatically Japanese-American too. I wanted to do this piece [because] one: it’s just a damn good one. It really is! I’m not saying that because I’m in it. And two: this is a part of my daughter’s history, this is a part of my husband’s history also. And it’s important for them to know what happened.”

On how relevant the story of Allegiance is right now:

“You see the news, and you see people in the name of their religion willingly and overtly and blatantly violate the constitutional right of another human being. You see how people, after 9/11, immediately changed their viewpoint on Muslim population. And then you see the talks of immigration and how it’s become very political. And then here comes our show. It COULD NOT HAVE BEEN a more relevant piece given the things that’s beens on the news and what’s on people’s lips. It could not have arrived on Broadway at a more perfect time.

“Whenever I think about it, I’m in my costume, in my wigs and I have a microphone in my hair, and I’m putting this character up. And bringing her to life, there are then these thoughts that enter my mind of oh my gosh, I could not have foreseen how this piece, that I am helping to prepare for, I could not have foreseen, I could not have anticipated in any way the relevancy of this. Three years ago I could not have foreseen this, and we were onstage at the old globe hoping for a Broadway bow soon after. And I’m thankful that it didn’t happen until now.”

On the continuing controversy of Miss Saigon:

“Stafford Arima [the director of Allegiance] has actually directed a production of Saigon. The thing is, when there is an Asian-American that is taking on a piece like Saigon, that’s something to take notice of….

“As long as there is a very authentic perspective somewhere. As long as a show is being put on its feet and coming form a very authentic perspective, that’ll definitely be something that’s worth watching. But if it’s coming from a place of, if a producer is being a complete ignoramus and putting the show up without giving thought to any sort of authenticity, then I stand with the protestors at that point.

“But I think Miss Saigon will always be a contentious piece. But I will always look upon it with love. I always will and I will always be grateful.”

On what constitutes racial progress in theater:

“There’s various ways of being able to do it. I’ve been very lucky, because of Cameron MacKintosh. I don’t know if anyone can take a leap of faith and cast me in something outside of being an Asian person. For a piece like Allegiance, for someone like George Takei to say, Lea is the only voice we wanted for this character. One, I feel incredibly flattered. And I guess I’ve gotten to a point of personal progress that my name specifically is what is looked for. And in another progression, I get to help create and shape a character. And this character is based on my skill set.”

On whether the musical theater landscape has changed for Asian-American artists:

“When I’m watching a random Broadway show, I will see more Asians getting employment. Maybe two or three in the cast of Newsies. I will see Asians in the cast of Les Miz. In shows where race is not another main character. But for me, progress is a piece like Allegiance being up on its feet. Where it is Asian America. There is many stories of Asian American in this country, THIS IS ONE, and it’s a BIG one. It’s a HUGE story.

….For me, progress is actually being able to put on a piece like Allegiance on the biggest stage in the world and to have it absolutely spot on in its characterization, in its tone, in its design, in its leadership, in its portrayals onstage. And the design elements everywhere. That for me is progress, because I don’t know if we could have been able to do something like this 25 years ago.”