As a producer and performer of color, I am constantly calling out the injustices of representation in the entertainment industry making it my professional purpose to make sure people from underrepresented cultures and communities are portrayed correctly and celebrated.
Specifically, I've made it my mission to go out and make sure that my Asian American and Filipino heritage are not turned into caricatures and are not solely based on stereotypes on the stage and the screen. However, something happened today where a friend called me out on something incredibly interesting and made me feel like a hypocrite in all of this.
DISCLAIMER: I am not upset with this friend in the least! The comment blew my mind and I now have a million thoughts I want to throw into the movement and discussion of #RepresentationMatters.
On Monday, December 17, 2018, my company LA TI DO Productions has the honor to partner with Broadway Barkada, an Organization that spotlights and supports Filipinos who are in theatre and entertainment industry, on their first event in Washington, DC called Balikbayan: A DC Homecoming Concert, of which I am thrilled to be a producer on and a performer in. The more amazing part is that we are able to pull in Filipino cast members of the Miss Saigon national tour!
"What does this have to do with hypocrisy?" you ask.
So today I did my usual two-says prior, social media, wanna-be-like-Kylie story posts on Instagram to promote the show and the production process, and while my content usually has a bit of sass and humor to it, I said the following phrase referring to the casting of the show Miss Saigon:
"If you're Vietnamese, you're not in that show, but if you're Filipino, you probably are."
Then I tagged a few friends in the cast and moved on with my day. A few hours later, my very good friend slid into my DM's (sent me a message) and called me out saying a couple of Vietnamese people in the cast might see that and be offended because they are 1) Vietnamese and 2) cast in the show.
HE IS ABSOLUTELY CORRECT.
So I first felt some kind of way, then reflected on WHY I would say something like that so easily even though I, too, know there are Vietnamese performers in the show, (NOTE: Which is a big deal because they are the first to be on the national tour). And the thought came to me: my whole life, I've only been hearing press about how amazing the Filipino performers are who portray their Vietnamese characters in the show from all sources.
Growing up, it began with Lea Salonga in the show's original cast as leading lady Kim, who is Filipino, because this show came out when I was a child. Then, the accolades for the show were for roles - usually the leading females - that usually had a Filipino playing it, which formed the terrible assumption that casts of Miss Saigon would always be a majority Filipino.
So I wrote back to my friend, apologized, and said "Messed up that I would have that thought, eh?" which sparked this post and the debate I would like to bring up now.
As a producer, I go on and on and on about the White-washing of roles in all its evil shapes and iterations, but very rarely do I look inward and look specifically at what issues the efforts for better representation is creating within our own community.
Look, my intention is not to take anyone out of a job because having an Asian American person play an Asian role over a non-Asian person is ALWAYS a good thing, BUT are we being just like the people we are calling out when we don't look hard enough to find an entire cast in the right ethnicity for a story that we want to tell?
For example, when producers of the live-action Aladdin said at first that they "couldn't find any actors" of Arab descent to play the title role, are we doing the same by celebrating non-Vietnamese performers playing Vietnamese people in all the leading roles of Miss Saigon? Or the Thai people of The King and I? Or the Chinese people of Flower Drum Song? Or the Japanese people of Allegiance?
I feel your cynicism growing. Stay focused.
The issue is not my understanding of why this casting practice already exists because I know that people need jobs and the structure of our society allows for us Asian Americans to play other Asian ethnicities because there are already so few of us in the industry to begin with.
The issue is: Are we also saying that we, too, "couldn't find enough" or support enough individuals of a said community to cast the ethnic culture of a show properly?
I would never tell anyone to turn down a job because like us, there are so few, and I know these casting decisions usually come from non-Asian producers and writers, but are we feeding into it by accepting?
While I LOVED Crazy, Rich Asians and the first All-Asian cast in a major motion picture in 25 years, should the entire cast have been people of Chinese-Singaporean descent instead since the actors aren't portraying a caricature, but an actual, real, existing culture?
Additionally, when creating a space that is supposed to be a "safe space" for one culture or community to live within, do we then go back on our word by inviting someone who is not of that community to participate in that space and disguise it within the word "ally" and toss it under the belief that we are being more inclusive instead of finding someone from the community who can fill that spot? Which, as a producer, I know I am guilty of.
There are no right answers in this debate, but what I am trying to do here is call out a deeper conversation that needs to be had in the entertainment industry. While obviously #RepresentationMatters in every space, there is still so much work to do beyond "the best actor should fill the role." Are we doing enough?
"But just having that many Asian actors together is already a big deal!" you say.
Yes. It is. But in my opinion - which is what this entire post is: my opinion - we have to continue to dig deeper. I applaud all of my Asian and Asian American colleagues who are killing it in the industry. However, we have to continue to find more ways to have an entire cast or line-up of people accurately and genuinely represent what it is the image and culture of the show, movie, cabaret, or whatever it is may be. We also have to encourage more new work and support producers who support the total accurate representation of said new work or even existing work, but what I describe as "color-corrected."
Adding just that much more specific attention to our cause is what will make the next generation of Filipino kids, like I was, not assume that a cast of Miss Saigon won't have any Vietnamese people in it. Or adults like I am now to make comments like I did today. And the same for the long litany of shows that include Asian "ethnic" roles that are sometimes just filled by the first Asian actor to say yes to the producers.
My friend did his duty in the movement to call me out, but are we all as professionals doing our duty to ensure that assumptions like that aren't made in the first place via new work and accurate production and casting choices? #RepresentationMatters, but does it matter to us when it should?