Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Oriental Vagina?

I promised I would document the production aspects of the Monologues, for posterity's sake and because it seemed like some of you guys were interested. Last Saturday was our first rehearsal, when I got to meet the other fabulous women cast in the show. There are 13 of us altogether -- I and two other women who are both Latina represent the only "women of colour". On Saturday, the director, a very pleasant, professional and all-business woman with significant background in theatre, had not yet cast us in roles in the Monologues. So, we spent about 3 hours "getting to know one another". Lots of ice-breakers and touchy-feely-type of stuff. I discovered that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot physically relax around others I don't know very well. I wish I could say that I met lots of fabulous women in the cast, but I'm still trying to keep 12 other names straight and although I feel more comfortable around the other castmembers, I don't really know them yet. I'm hoping that will change. This past Tuesday was our first "real" rehearsal: this was when the director announced her casting choices. We each got a copy of the Monologues and she called out names as we went through it. M (featured previously on this blog) will be the "Coochie-Snorter" Vagina. I kept waiting for my name to get called as we proceeded through the pages -- as we neared the final pages, I felt more and more like the girl last picked in gym. My name simply didn't come up (although there was a momentary, misplaced thrill when the other Jenn's name was called). Finally, we reached the last monologue. "And this monologue will be done by P--!" said the director. And we were done. Then she looked at me and said: "And Jenn, you don't have a monologue. That's because you will be doing the spotlight monologue, which Eve Ensler is writing specifically for this year. It will focus on 'Comfort Women'." Comfort women. Immediately, I felt my heart sink. Don't get me wrong -- I think the "Comfort Women" fund is extremely important; "comfort women" are rarely recognized by mainstream media, even though their stories are extremely horrifying and heart-wrenching. In fact, I feel extremely strongly about the "comfort women" of World War II. Of the great many injustices in the world, this ranks up near the top. Also, when I first found out that this year's proceeds would go in part to the "Comfort Women of WWII" fund, I was thrilled -- I've frequently railed about the invisibility of women of colour in feminist activism, so it was nice to see attention directed towards people of colour. That being said, there was something unsettling about being cast so decisively in the role of the "Comfort Woman" vagina. I couldn't escape the fact that I am not only the only Asian woman in the cast, but the only Asian woman who auditioned. There was no way around it -- I had been placed in the role as much because of the way I looked than my ability to perform; whereas all the other women had been fit to their role based on their personalities, their abilities, and their talents, I had been shoved squarely into the "Yellow" socket based entirely upon my skin colour. Hell, the director has not even seen the monologue yet -- it hasn't even been finished! There was no way I could have been matched to the role based on personality or talent. (At this point, I should mention that I don't think the director was intentionally trying to single me out for the "race" role. She's honestly trying to fit the best people to the best part and I was also the only castmember who actually seemed to know who the "comfort women" are -- in this case, I simply have bad feelings about why she picked me and how that makes me feel.) As we read through the play (and I rather conspicuously had no part to read), I couldn't help but wonder if the only reason I had been even chosen was because of my skin colour. Was I the token? Did I not have the talent to compete but had slid in based upon my "ethnic" credentials? Was I an "affirmative action baby"? Not only that, but was it fair to me to be forced into a racialized position by my monologue? Would Ensler write something that would be akin to me standing on stage with a chi-pao and a fan, chopsticks in my intricate hairstyle and mandolins playing in the background? Would the audience see not me, but me as Yellow? Would I be the "Special" vagina or... the "Oriental" vagina? Would I be the feel-good, no-MSG-added ethnic flavouring for the evening? This, apparently, is the problem with being a person of colour in drama; there is simply no good way around the quandry. Do the part and I'm left wondering if I was cast based on race rather than merit, and don't do the part and end up with a non-Asian actor playing an Asian character -- in other words, "yellowface". (Incidentally, M's monologue requires her to play a "Southern woman of colour". I am... concerned is a good word. M is many things; a Southern woman of colour is not one of them.) So, I called up my two favourite people in the world: electroman and R. Electroman told me exactly what I wanted to hear -- we discussed the racial implications of being cast based on race (not to mention the "sellout" implications if I take the part without argument) and generally vented about how unfair that is. We agreed that I should probably have a talk with the director and air out my concerns. It was with electroman that I set my limits: I will not do the part if I have to 1) Put on an accent, 2) Wear any sort of "ethnic gear" and 3) If the piece itself is stereotypical, offensive or in any way distasteful. Oh, yeah, and call it selfish, but I really will feel bad if it's just a bad monologue (short and/or poorly-written). In that case, not only will I be having to put up with being racially cast, but will have to settle for a forgettable, non-memorable and dumb piece. Then, I called R, my feminist of colour friend who had performed in the Monologues before. Knowing that I didn't want to quit the Monologues but felt trapped between a rock (my feminism) and a hard place (my race activism), she reminded me that though no one likes to be told that they were admitted to any program in part with the aid of affirmative action (no matter how necessary it is, it's not how you got in, but what you do with the part. She advised me to read the part, and try to make it my own, to supercede the race-based casting and shine despite why I was chosen for the part. I think I will take both their advice. I don't want to quit, but I can't say nothing about the role, and will have a sit-down with the director come-January and inquire as to why I was cast in this particular part. I really don't know what's going to come of it, but, once again, it sucks to be reminded exactly how much talent doesn't matter in America when race issues come into play. Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to seeing the part and making a decision. I'm hoping that I will be able to overcome these misgivings and give this piece my very best effort. V-Day is still extremely important to me, I just hope I don't have to sacrifice other parts of me in order to participate.


Anonymous normal2 said...

if you decide to stay, my guess is that these white liberal feminists will become increasingly uncomfortable with you as they become more aware of your concerns, and ultimately i think they will make your experience a negative one. i hope i'm wrong about that. i wish that more powerful groups could recognize how much they have to learn from less powerful ones instead of just using people like tools. if Ensler is interested in aspects of patriarchy that are specifically race related then what Ensler ought to do is politely request your help and offer you the opportunity to express the racial politics that you feel, as an asian woman, would best advance the cause of feminism, and give you full credit for the segment. but there's no reason to expect that to happen.

obviously terrible sexism exists in many if not all cultures. however, for white feminists to spotlight terrible sexist crimes perpetrated on asian women by asian men in front of a largely white female audience is racist and helpful to white male sexism and racism. let's call it what it obviously is: convenient and traditional sexual demonization of the nonwhite man. it's obviously not about stopping sexism. the most obvious sexist dynamic that exists between white people and nonwhite people is white male sexual domination of nonwhite women. almost everyone knows that. you can barely walk around in this culture without perceiving it. overseas it's even more obvious. it's probable that 4 billion or more humans are perfectly aware of this most common form of sexism. furthermore, this (the behavior of white people towards nonwhite women) is something that Ensler's audience can do something about: control their own society. (the only thing that Ensler's audience can do about the crimes of the japanese is to contribute their moral outrage to the long tradition of western aggression purportedly on behalf of nonwhite women. but of course Ensler doesn't consider you the right person to point that out). to ignore this extremely obvious reality and thereby forfeit the allegiance of 4 billion or more potential allies is so strategically wrongheaded that the only possible explanation is that the goal is NOT to stop sexism. unfortunately this pattern is standard for all the hyped up versions of feminism. down at the grassroots everyday women, children, and men too, see real sexism much more clearly.

a relevant link:

Betty Dodson points out the most central and fundamental error (which is not race related) of the Vagina Monologues: stubborn ignorance about one of the most important insights of modern feminism.

12/16/2005 06:21:00 PM  
Anonymous tmj said...

I can't wait to hear the resolution on this. In high school I was in the same situation...I was a senior actor in The Crucible, and had a great audition. Yet--I was cast as the slave, Tituba--and the only Black person to be in the production. I thought about it, then went on a rampage, got the play and the teacher canceled/fired and felt justified. Now, older and wiser, I see I missed out on a opportunity and let my reactionary racism get the best of me. Kudos to you for being more insightful, and keep us posted!

1/09/2006 02:47:00 PM  

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