In our Speaking Up series, we chat with Chicago artists about their work in the community today, representation on our stages as well as ways we can achieve artistic and audience inclusion in our theaters. The Chicago Inclusion Project is proud to host artistic associate, Danny Bernardo in a workshop of his new play Tomas for a public reading at Eats and Sweets Cafe, Monday September 21 at7:30pm . He generously took the time to chat with us about his artistic process and the moment we find ourselves in Chicago Theatre...
Danny, what inspired you to write Tomas?
A few years ago, I challenged myself to read something that wasn’t a script or a comic book for a few months and I picked up Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Now at the time, the only thing I really knew about it was that it was the source of the term “Uncle Tom” meaning (for all intents and purposes) “a black man who was a self-effacing sellout." What I knew was that he was a token house slave, one who does not question “massa,” and quick to turn on other slaves if it meant his self-preservation. As I read the novel, I actually began to identify with Uncle Tom quite a bit. He was a good man, loyal to those he loved, and held steadfast in his beliefs. I began to wonder where they etymology of “Uncle Tom” as an epithet began and found in my research that it was from the minstrel show versions of the novel from the early twentieth century. The disconnect between the source to what we know of what an “Uncle Tom” is intrigued me and I wanted to use that as a springboard for a piece about race in today’s society.
A lot of the feelings I identified with connected with how I felt growing up gay and Asian American in a predominantly white society. I struggled with issues of racial identity and tokenism quite a bit. As a teenager, I was the first to claim myself as someone’s “Asian friend” or someone’s “gay friend.” It was my source of identity for a very long time. At the same time, I hated these parts of myself as I believed them to be the source of what made me different. I feel very differently as an adult, but it’s something I’ve been able to draw from as I wrote this piece. I started sketching bits and pieces for it a few years ago, but it wasn’t until recently with the conversations about racial tensions in the country beginning to boil over that the piece began to truly gel. Specifically, a gay black man in my social media network who just doesn’t understand why black people can’t tow the line and be respectable has really served as a catalyst for the piece as it is now.
Theater has been a part of your life for a long time. What was the turning point to make it what you embraced professionally?
Sad to say, it’s probably because I’m not very good at anything else. There was a series on HBO called "Unscripted" in 2005. It was a gonzo style, mockumentary-esque series that followed struggling actors in LA. Their common connection was an acting class taught by Frank Lagella’s character, Goddard. Early on in the series, Goddard addresses the class and talks about actors in their fifties and sixties who are still waking up every morning and hustling for auditions because “they don’t know to do anything else.” He tells these young actors: “don’t do this if the thought of not doing this doesn’t wake you up in the middle of the night." That’s pretty much why I’ve continued to pursue entertainment as a career. That, and I’m stubborn.
Did being a minority ever deter you?
In terms of acting, I feel that I’ve been very fortunate in some of my experiences. I’ve been able to play roles not limited to an Asian American actor. At times, though, I’ve gotten feedback from casting directors (mostly on the film/TV end) that I didn’t read “Asian enough." Infer upon that what you will. But honestly, sometime the biggest deterrence can very often be yourself. If you stop pursuing opportunity because you don’t think you’ll be seen or that you’ll book it, you actually will never be seen or book anything.
As a playwright, what steps do you take to ensure diversity in your plays?
Honestly when I first started writing plays, I didn’t think about race much. The workshop and development for my first couple [of plays] was cast with my friends, so diversity was ensured. Now that I’m sending out drafts to companies, I worry that producers and casting directors will default white when that is not the world I want to portray in my work. The world is a rich and diverse place and that’s what I’m interested in portraying. So in my pieces that are not specifically about race, I assign race to certain characters and give enough in the interactions/dialogue that the character’s race is integral to their journey but not what their journey is all about.
What is color blind casting to you? Color conscious? When are either appropriate and have you been a part that process? If so, what was your experience?
I feel like “color blind casting” is such an antiquated term. It was born out of the age of political correctness and affirmative action. I want to clarify before I go on that I feel like affirmative action has been a very important movement in our society and has an undeserved stigma. Truth be told, when it was conceived, employers/schools weren’t doing the best job in recruiting minorities. It was necessary for it to be a requirement of them to fill quotas for them to even seek out those candidates/students. But in terms of casting, it seems as though the end result is tokenism. The term feels like it’s been so haphazardly slapped on so many casting procedures to quell demands for diversity. My feeling is that you cannot be blind to my color: I am of Asian descent and I live that proudly. Is it everything about me? No. Is it everything I talk about? No. But it is a part of that so don’t be blind to it. That’s why I have such an aversion to the term “color blind casting” and what it has represented over the years. I feel it is appropriate in the sense that unless the piece is about race specifically, actors of every color should be called in for roles appropriate to their talent and skill. But again, too often the default is white and that is not happening as much.
In terms of “color conscious," should we be aware of the race of actors as they play opposite each other? Yes. As an example, a black man as a love interest to a white woman can say a very specific thing to an audience member, whether it is a complete non-issue or if it gives that audience member pause. Now whatever that says to that audience member is completely on them. And that makes for a more interesting conversation.
Why do you think diversity in playwrights, directors and performers has been so difficult for so many theaters?
In a lot of ways, it stands to reason. The industry has been an “ol’ boys’ club” for a long time. We like to work with people we know. And for a long time, all that people in power knew where other white people. I feel like that’s changing now but unfortunately not enough. With established theatre companies still announcing seasons of predominantly works for/directed by/written by/starring heterosexual, cis-white men, it can be a little disheartening. But the more we continue to make ourselves more relevant in the industry, the harder it will be to keep us out. And we as a community (especially in the Chicago storefront end) are doing an awesome job of that.
In five years, what would you like to have happened on our stages?
A production of Death of a Salesman directed by Jess McCleod, starring Joe Foronda as Willy Loman, Ora Jones as Linda, and Bear Bellinger and I could duke it out for who would be Biff and Happy. And for the reviews of that production to talk about the merit of the artistry within the production rather than the race of the artists. And that the biggest worry for that production is that we might lose ticket sales to the new play by Erica Weiss and Caitlin Parrish starring Lili-Anne Brown, Michael Patrick Thornton, and Alexandra Billings (because, come on, how fucking amazing would that show be, whatever it is). #ThisBlogPostIsMyDreamboard
In your opinion, what is the state of representation on Chicago stages right now?
During the whole debacle with “The Nightingale” at La Jolla Playhouse and “Orphan of Zhao” a couple of years ago, I shared some messages with diversity activist/blogger Erin Quill. We were comparing “battle stories” from LA, New York, and Chicago and when I told her the steps that Chicago theatre was taking to promote more diversity, she marveled at how “we were doing it right." Yes, Chicago has a long way to go as many other markets. But because our community is so tight-knit, because the separation between Equity/non-union and institutionalized/storefront theatre is slimmer than most, I feel that it is trying harder because we’re hearing the need for it stronger. So I think we’re taking steps in the right direction and maybe some of those steps are ahead of the other big cities. But we’ve still got a long way to go. That’s why I feel like groups like The Chicago Inclusion Project are so important.
Who has been doing it right?
In terms of diversity in programming, Goodman, Victory Gardens, and Bailiwick Chicago have been killing it over the past couple of years and that's largely due to the leadership. In terms of casting, Adam Belcuore and Erica Sartini-Combs are very diligent about getting representation onstage. One of my favorite pieces I’ve seen at the Goodman in recent years was Teddy Ferrara by Christopher Shinn. On paper it could've been a "default white" play, but Adam and Erica did an amazing job of getting a diverse range of non-white actors in the piece like Adam Poss, Fawzia Mirza, and Rashaad Hall. What I found exceptionally inspiring was the care they took to find an actor with a disability for a role of a gay student with a disability and a trans actor to play a trans character. That sort of specificity doesn’t happen nearly enough.
In terms of casting on the storefront end, I can speak with personal experience that Marika Mashburn at House Theatre of Chicago and Harmony France at Bailiwick Chicago go to great lengths in their collaboration with directors to ensure that the most diverse cast possible is found. They both do a ton of outreach into communities they might not be well-versed in to find the best talent for consideration. Rob Kauzlaric did an awesome job when he was casting director at Lifeline and I’m really excited to see what Lavina Jadhwani will bring to the position this season. And obviously, I’m over the moon that my girl Emjoy Gavino is stepping into the casting director role at The Gift Theatre and how she’ll be enhancing their productions.
What are challenges we still face as a community?
Lack of empathy. I can do a huge laundry list of all the things wrong with the community at large, but it boils down to lack of empathy. If those that made decisions in terms of programming, casting, and staffing could empathize with artists and audiences of color and realize that they deserve to be represented (and represent themselves!) on stage, we’d see a lot more diversity on-and-off-stage.
So what would you like to see done about it?
We have to accept that the human experience is universal. We need to see more protagonists of color. The majority of plays, television shows, and movies focus on Caucasian protagonists and supporting characters while people of color are relegated to quirky sidekicks or incidental characters that have no weight in the plot. That’s not the world we live in. Is it too much ask to ask audiences to relate to a protagonist that isn’t of their culture? Since people of color have been doing for the majority of lives, I think not.
What challenges do you face, artistically?
Honestly, more often than not, myself. Believing that I “can." It may be a little harder because I wasn’t born with certain privileges, but I’d also be foolish not to acknowledge the privileges I was born with. I also take for granted that whoever is reading this understands that I’m speaking about cultural privilege and not socio-economic privilege. But if you didn’t, now you do. With that being said, doors will open and doors will close. You can’t let your own insecurities stop you and you certainly mustn’t put yourself into the boxes that the powers that be would put you in. Just keep doing you.
Danny Bernardo has worked as actor or on production with such companies as Goodman, About Face, Victory Gardens, The House Theatre of Chicago, Lifeline, Oak Park Festival Theatre, Silk Road Rising, and Collaboraction among others. Although he currently lives in LA, he maintains his Chicago roots as a company member of Bailiwick Chicago and an artistic associate with the Chicago Inclusion Project. For updates, visit www.dannybernardo.com or follow @that1guydannyb