A couple of weeks ago, I received an invitation from the Asia Society to two theater events. As always, when I get invitations like these, I imagine an event where media people (sometimes, bloggers too) are invited with the implicit understanding that there’s a write-up in the offing. And when there’s a product involved (as in product launches where freebies abound), nine times out of ten, I decline to attend. But when it’s about cultural understanding or any topic that, for me, holds substantial social or political relevance, I go. I always have.
But there was another reason why Asia Society’s invitation caught my eye. Theater. David Henry Hwang of the M. Butterfly fame would be there. So would other playwrights who would present excerpts from their latest works. It was irresistible. I showed the invitation to Alex who got all excited and I told her I’d see if I could bring her. I called the number indicated in the invitation, told the contact person I would be attending… but could I also bring my daughter who is a Theater major? Of course, I was told.
And so, last Thursday, Alex and I attended two events. The first was a panel discussion: Breaking Through Barriers (How can we build bridges of cultural understanding through the theater?) and the second was the Meet the Writers Reception. Both were rather intimate affairs. Twenty people or so in the panel discussion; about twice as much in the reception. Just as I like it. No big jostling crowds.
Admittedly, theater is still regarded by many as a chi-chi form of art and entertainment, it is inaccessible to most, the prices are mostly prohibitive and theater appreciation seems to have always been limited to certain socio-economic brackets. Long time readers would know how I feel about that. I wish so much that theater as an art form could be brought to the grassroots level. That’s why I was very supportive of a friend’s effort to do just that. This was the thrust of the panel discussion which was also a backgrounder on the works of various theater groups involved in the efforts to bring theater to a wider audience. In the panel were John Eisner of Lark Play Development Center. Kate Loewald of Play Company and Jorge Ortoll of the Ma-Yi Theater Company. All three organizations are based in New York.
“Ma-Yi” is the term used by ancient Chinese traders to refer to a group of islands that is known today as the Philippines.
Ma-Yi’s mission is “to develop new plays by Asian American writers” as well as to break free from the stereotyping to which Asian performers in the West have been subjected to during the last century (to contextualize the Ma-Yi mission some more, I am reproducing on page two a column I wrote in February, 2009: “Asians in Western Entertainment” — just click the link to page two below).
It was a pretty interesting discussion — made even more interesting by the participation of some of the invited guests which revealed that, to some extent, in the Philippines, theater is still regarded as a medium for political protest. You know, artist’s freedom and all. It was a mindset that prevailed in U.P. when I was a student and a lot of the plays I saw then were thinly-veiled political protests. Martial Law was lifted in 1980, Marcos fled in 1986, we have a very licentious mass — and entertainment — media so I’m thinking that theater-as-political-protest ought to be a thing of the past. It might be more in tune with the times to view theater as a medium for disseminating critical thought. Creative and embracing rather than divisive.
But that’s just food for thought. Let me tell you about the Meet the Writers Reception which really made Alex’s day.
The reception was preceded by a program where members of the Writers Bloc presented excepts from the recent works. Okay, I won’t say I was thrilled with all the presentations. But there were three that I particularly loved. First, the excerpt from a play (autobiographical) of multi-awarded Vincent A. De Jesus, a U.P. College of Music graduate who has done work as a librettist, composer and musical director on stage, film and television. Memorable was the haunting song rendered (in the background) as part of the play which really shows how music can affect the mood of a presentation. Alex described the experience as spine-tingling.
The second was the excerpt from a play by Floy Quintos, a former classmate in U.P. If you will recall, the Code of Kalantiaw which, for decades, was taught in history classes as a legal system of pre-Spanish Filipino society was proved to be a hoax by historian William Henry Scott (read the nuanced take of Ambeth Ocampo on the subject).
In Quintos’ play, there was a (fictitious) confrontation between Scott and the Kalantiaw writer Jose E. Marco. The part of Scott was read by Richard Cunanan and the part of Marco was read by Tony Mabesa. It was glorious! The feisty Scott cornering an aging Marco into admitting that the Kalantiaw Code was a hoax, and Marco justifying his actions by saying the Filipinos need to believe in themselves — believe that we were a people before we became vassals of successive colonizers.
Floy Quintos’ play epitomizes all the reasons why the more popular forms of entertainment — movies and television, in particular — fall much too short in stimulating the mind. Where in film or television — with their tried-and-tested commercial formulas of sampalan, iayakan and apihan — will you find a plot like that? Where in popular entertainment will you find the nuance by which Marco tried to extricate himself so well that it was easy to feel sympathy, rather than antipathy, for him?
And, finally, there was David Henry Hwang who won a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for M. Butterfly. He surprised everyone with the revelation that he is half-Filipino. He spoke about why there is no end to writing a play — why the scenes and the lines kept getting re-written after a series of performances to get the message across in the most effective and riveting manner. Then, an excerpt from M. Butterfly with Jomarie Jose as Song Liling and Richard Cunanan as Rene Gallimard. Even without costumes and make-up, it was magnificent.
The program ended, everyone proceeded to the buffet tables, I knew Alex was starving so I got food for both of us. I didn’t want to linger because Alex had morning classes the following day. But I couldn’t leave without saying hello to Tony Mabesa (he will always be Professor Tony Mabesa to me). Alex by my side, I walked over, said hello, introduced myself (he was so gracious he acted like he was familiar with my name) and told him that Dulaang U.P.’s production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler which he directed was one of my earliest introductions to plays and theater. I introduced Alex, a few minutes of chit-chat and we said goodbye.
It was quite a day. A beautiful experience. Something that Alex — and I — will always treasure.
Below, a column I wrote in February, 2009: “Asians in Western Entertainment”.
Asians in Western Entertainment
(republished from Manila Standard Today)
On YouTube, a video of Lea Salonga’s audition for the original cast of “Miss Saigon” has been viewed 1,006,142 times since its upload in April 2006. There are 2,134 comments to date and viewers, mostly Filipinos, are still awed. It’s all about being proud that a fellow Filipino bested talents from all over the world. I read many of them and found no mention of the controversies surrounding Miss Saigon including accusations of its racist and stereotypical portrayal of Asians.
Set during the days before the fall of Saigon, the musical’s lead character, The Engineer, is a Eurasian pimp. The lead female character, Kim (played by Lea Salonga in both the original West End and Broadway productions), is a bar girl. The plot reprises Madame Butterfly except for the more modern setting. Critic Nicasio Cruz, S.J, in his September 17, 1988 Reel World column published in Starweek wrote that none of the Asian characters in Miss Saigon had any redeeming value while the Americans were portrayed as the good guys, concerned with the children they left behind.
Then, there’s the issue of bigotry. Mr. Cruz wrote, “No matter what we think of communism, we cannot deny that the Vietnamese fought a war to get rid of foreigners in their own land.”
Yes, the Vietnam war really happened. But Miss Saigon is fiction. It’s entertainment. It’s Asia during a war as seen through the eyes of the White Man. I don’t think the stereotypical portrayal of Asians was all that surprising. We can get as livid as we like but, the fact is, if we look at the gamut of Western popular entertainment, very rarely have Asians been portrayed in a genuine light.
It goes way, way back. To Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. To Suzie Wong and Breakfast at Tiffany’s Mr. Yunioshi (played, ironically, by American actor Mickey Rooney). And it persists to the post-Miss Saigon era. Asian men are martial arts experts who are most probably connected with the Triads or the Yakuza. Asian women are exotic, submissive creatures who are the perfect objects of conquest by the white male. Otherwise, they were dangerous and evil. It was hard not to laugh at the antics of Jacky Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 3 but it was even harder to miss the obvious stereotypical portrayal of the two Asian female characters — the frail Soo Yung who wouldn’t have survived without a knight in shining armor and the Dragon Lady with the killer fan.
Of course, there have been exceptions. The Hollywood production of Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club” is one. The roles played by Sandra Oh in “Grey’s Anatomy,” Gong Li in “Miami Vice,” and Maggie Q in “Mission: Impossible 3″ and “Live Free or Die Hard” are also examples.
The question is why the stereotyping persists. Why can Asians play only Asians and why do Asian characters have to be portrayed only a certain way? In his paper “Representation of Asians in Hollywood Films: Sociocultural and Industrial Perspectives”, Ji Hoon Park (who, as far as my research went, is an associate professor of Hope College in Michigan) says the reasons are both sociocultural and industrial.
The sociocultural aspect in a nutshell is about how popular entertainment is merely representative of already existing and deep-rooted racial biases (he explains this wonderfully and extensively from a historical context but including it here is too much obiter dictum so just go and read the 22-page paper which is available free at www.allacademic.com) or what Professor Park calls “the common sense assumptions and specific knowledge about racial minorities by defining racial characteristics, such as violent Latinos, physically strong but unintelligent black, and sneaky and evil Asians.”
One specifically interesting discussion revolves around the image of the Asian woman as a sexy whore. Professor Park refers to D. Y. Hamamoto’s “White and Wong: Ethnical Dilemmas of Racist Love and Lust on the World Wide Web” and his assertion that “the [hypersexual] portrayal of Asian women in film requires an examination of the historical contexts, such as U.S. militarism and neo-colonial domination in Asia.” Now, that should put Miss Saigon in context.
The second aspect is “a natural consequence of industrial routines and conventions in Hollywood.” Citing Turow (”Casting for TV Parts: The Anatomy of Social Typing” in Journal of
Communication), Professor Park says “it is important for producers to create characters that the audiences buy instantaneously. Common cliché or stereotypes are preferred in casting, because they contribute to a sense of reality by conforming to prevailing notions of social categories.” In short, the largely white market rarely accept anything other than what conforms to its belief — that the white man is supreme and must, therefore, play the lead and heroic roles. And because entertainment is a business, TV and movie producers are wont to gamble with the box office by casting Asians in non-stereotypical roles. It’s just too hard for the white market to accept.
It is these industrial routines and Hollywood conventions that make color-blind casting (defined as the practice in the casting a role without considering the actor’s ethnicity) difficult for Asians, whether on Western television, film or stage. Some overcome it. Maggie Q and Sandra Oh have and so have Lea Salonga when she eventually won the role of Eponine in “Les Miserables.” Others end up taking on the usual stereotypical roles.