I will not deny that there are nuances I bring to a character, because I clearly look Asian and am ethnically Asian. There are times when this is necessary for a role, and there are times I choose to incorporate authentic qualities of my Asian heritage to enrich a role. For instance, years ago when I played Tinkerbell, I decided to employ Vietnamese as Tinkerbell’s secret fairy language. Many of the student audiences were diverse in race, and it was an incredible treat to have the Vietnamese kids express to me how special they felt because Tinkerbell was a Vietnamese fairy. Certainly, there are characters that I’ve loved playing because they are Asian and I’m able to share a narrative that is a specific cultural experience to a wider audience.
And then there are times when my race has nothing to do with the narrative, and a director has chosen to cast me for my other unique qualities.
I played a role of a strong, dogmatic, hard-nosed detective in my most recent production. The role demands fierceness with an underlying heartbreak, and it’s not race specific. I am also willing to admit that the casting choice was brilliant because of my Asian appearance. It added an extra layer of surprise to a plot twist about my character's physical contrast to her virtual avatar. One could also justify that the character had the Anglo-surname because she was adopted. I wore a classic business suit, reminiscent of the hard-nosed, female detectives that permeate Law & Order.
So why is it that a theatre critic compared my character to a Maoist interrogator, pointedly citing my costume, which I’ll mention again was actually an Ann Taylor, size 2 Petite, classic suit? He saw a communist costume, when most audiences saw the standard dress code of an American detective. I believe he saw an Asian girl playing an aggressive interrogator, and immediately made the association to the Cultural Revolution and Maoist regime of China. Would he ever make that connection and associate a standard business suit to another culture if the role had been played by a white or African American actress? Most likely, he would not have drawn that parallel.
Listen, I know and acknowledge and think it’s actually good that we are race conscious. Unless you are blind, you will always see race. I am livid, however, that people continue to draw cultural parallels when nothing in the design, acting choices, direction, or text suggests foreign influence. As American Theatre Magazine journalist Diep Tran points out," assumptions are hurtful and dangerous." It is racist to exoticize a character merely because the actor playing the role looks something other than white. There are plenty of Asian American police officers and detectives investigating horrible crimes in the U.S. and I’m fairly certain they conduct themselves with the same assertive righteousness as my character did, when they are convinced that a suspect has committed a crime. It’s not Maoist. It’s police investigation that we see reflected in every detective show and crime thriller.
I loved being cast in roles for my abilities and for the personality traits that make me fit for a character. I hope that when audiences see me in non-Asian specific roles, they start to see Asians as a normalized part of society and not as The Other. In 2016 and the imagined future of the character I play, I had hoped that we were beyond blatant Orientalism. It seems, we’ve got a long way to go.