Getting "Dangerous" in American Theatre
Three things you should know about me before we get started: I am a biracial, Vietnamese- & white-American actor; I do what Lavina Jadhwani tells me to do; and I’m dangerous.
At least, according to one white, male artistic director, I am.
“Your correspondence indicates several assumptions that I find extremely dangerous,”
That was April, 2018. After learning that I was the only person of color in the cast & creative team of his upcoming production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, I had written to the artistic director and casting director. I shared that I felt the need to resign from their production because the lack of representation was unacceptable to me and that as a biracial person, it raised concerns for me about having passed for white. In a turn of events that will surprise not a single BIPOC who has ever tried to point out institutional racism in a workplace...he didn’t appreciate my thoughts.
Over the email exchange that followed, he brushed aside my concerns as invalid:
“It is your choice to feel unwelcome in a room full of warm, welcoming artists,”
“You can’t possibly know the specifics of our casting process and the casting pool of this show,”
“We will have to respectfully disagree that the outcomes of casting are the only way to judge its integrity,”
Centered his own hurt feelings:
“Your insinuation that you ‘somehow slipped through a filter’ is untrue, hurtful and insulting to my integrity as an artist.”
“I will not allow you to call my integrity into question,”
“You have insulted my integrity, and I am allowed to express that to you as a result of your email, regardless of if you feel it is ‘gaslighting’ or not.”
And invoked his place in existing power structures to try to intimidate me into silence:
“As someone who has worked in casting for years at the highest level- I suggest that you make your casting restrictions known prior to your audition out of respect for your fellow theater artists and their time,”
It’s 2021 and I’m still writing about this exchange, so clearly it made an impression on me, but the fact is, though this incident has had a deep impact on me emotionally and in how I think about my professional life, I have not shared it much. I've unpacked it with family and close friends, seeking their support and guidance, but in the annals of racism in theater and media, in hiring, or in the history of the United States, it just didn't seem a big enough deal to raise a stink over.
I've come up with a lot of reasons to justify my silence. I sit at the intersection of a lot of different kinds of privilege. I am cisgender masc, heterosexual, and able-bodied. I am biracial but my light skin and relatively Eurocentric features have contributed to my largely evading the stereotypes and limitations placed on Asian men in media. Moreover, leaving this role didn’t do much to hinder my career. The theatre company is not powerful or well-connected enough to have intimidated me into silence, and I have continued to work since then at some of our city’s most well-known theatres. Given these circumstances, what right do I have to take up any of the oxygen in the anti-racism room with my little incident?
I also realize now—as acts of violence against Asian Americans have risen 145% in the past year and media coverage finally catches up to concerns AAPI community leaders have voiced for months—that my silence is participation in a long history of the Asian American experience being minimized and erased.
My own experience keeping silent parallels the broader Asian American experience of erasure, which is to say—many reasons have been manufactured to justify it. Writing for The New York Times Magazine in 1966, William Petersen coined the term model minority as a counterpoint to his less-enduring term, problem minorities. He applied this label to Japanese Americans in arguing that their perceived success in the face of racism, prejudice, and injustice was due to their particular cultural background and unique immigrant experience. Since then, the model minority label has been applied more broadly to the AAPI population, ignoring the vast economic disparity within AAPI communities, and is commonly wielded to separate Asian Americans from the broader BIPOC community. By giving AAPI people a status of approximate whiteness, we become a tool to criticize and justify discrimination against other BIPOC groups, especially Black Americans.
Even the terms Asian American and AAPI contain erasure. Asian student activists in the 1960s coined the term Asian American as a way to find unity in their activism and cast off the colonial term “Oriental,” but to lump Asian and Pacfic Islander Americans together as one population by default ignores the rich cultural backgrounds and varied lived experiences of different identities under the umbrella term. A Filipino American’s experience is not interchangeable with a Pakistani American’s or a Native Hawaiian’s, so we must be deliberate when we choose to discuss Asian and Pacific Islander Americans as one group so that our action is unifying, not homogenizing.
So let’s get back to my question, what business do I have taking space in the anti-racism room? Much like the model minority myth, this question might seem reasonable on its face, but it contains hidden assumptions that actually hinder antiracist work. Dismantling racist systems is not a zero-sum game. There is no limited oxygen in a metaphorical room, and by speaking out I am not preventing any of my activist family from also speaking their experiences into the world.
If we start delineating incidents of racism that are or are not “worth” speaking out about—where do we draw the line, and what does our silence accomplish? The only thing my silence serves is to uphold existing white supremacist power structures. Speaking out as one of a chorus—joining my voice with others bravely speaking out like Lowell Thomas, Issac Gomez, and so many others together—to say we will not stand for it a minute longer—that is the only way we can begin to build a new, more equitable, diverse, and yes, inclusive world. And the only thing our voices endanger is entrenched white supremacy.
So I guess he was right about one thing. Wanna be dangerous with me?
Ian Michael Minh (he/him) is an actor and advocate represented by Shirley Hamilton Talent. Follow his work at ianmichaelminh.com
Graphic of the interior of a theater, with multiple theatre workers scattered throughout; one person facing the stage is holding a megaphone; in the center - 3 large raised fists with varying tones of brown skin - illustration by Jennifer Luxton
Graphic of a upset Asian person, looking into a mirror of a smiling Asian person; framed photos of Asian family members on the walls - illustration by Gracey Zhang
Headshot of blog post's author Ian Michael Minh - photo by Tyler Core