The Case for Hiring Asian American Directors
I recently reread August Wilson's 1990 essay “I Want A Black Director!” and found myself compelled by his argument: “I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans.” As an Asian American director who longs to direct more Asian American plays, I've found myself wishing someone within my community would make a similar argument. I recently realized: I guess that person has to be me.
I, like many artists who identify as minorities, constantly feel alone in my work. We have to be our own trail blazers, and some days that's empowering, but most days (for me) it's pretty nerve-wracking. I'm nervous enough about sharing my work itself, without having to also consider that what trends I might be creating within my community. But here's a trend that's upsetting me: in the last few years, many world premieres of major Asian American plays—including David Henry Hwang's Chinglish and Rajiv Joseph's Guards at the Taj—have been helmed by white directors. This trend sets a precedent that I'm really uncomfortable with.
Now, I want to clarify that I don't believe that director-playwright pairings should be “matchy-matchy,” i.e. that women should only direct plays by women, and that black plays should only have black directors, etc. But I do think that, in the hiring process, the producer should at some point at least consider a director from the dominant culture represented on stage. I believe that a lot of producers are skipping that step when it comes to Asian American plays. Because Asian plays are produced less frequently in the regional theatre circuit, it's become deeply painful for me to note that, at many major houses, those opportunities go to directors outside of our community.
So when Asian American directors don't make the short list to work on plays by Asian American writers, my heart breaks. When this happens we're not just being denied a job, we're being denied an invaluable opportunity to connect with our peers.
Here's why I'm hurting:
I lack opportunities to connect with my peers.
As a South Asian American theatre artist, my peer group is quite small. I'm based in Chicago where my Latinx and African American colleagues have opportunities to connect locally through events hosted by ALTA Chicago, the Black Alliance Theatre Awards, the Latino Theatre Festival at Goodman Theatre, the African American Arts Alliance, and others. My opportunities to connect with a critical mass of Asian American artists have come from:
working on productions of Asian American plays.
I've had to either leave the city (which I can't always manage, financially), or get hired to work on one of those infrequently produced Asian plays. So when Asian American directors don't make the short list to work on plays by Asian American writers, my heart breaks. When this happens, we're not just being denied a job, we're being denied an invaluable opportunity to connect with our peers.
I know who the leaders in my field are—I just can't get in the same room as them. I'm frustrated and exhausted because I feel like I'm doing the work alone.
Only when I became involved with culturally-specific companies like Silk Road Rising and Rasaka Theatre Company did I begin to understand what makes me special. I needed to see my work reflected back at me through other South Asian artists in order to truly see myself.
I need space to be who I am, not explain who I am.
Directors are responsible for defining the work culture inside the rehearsal room. I've observed many non-Asian directors helm Asian American plays, as an assistant/associate director and/or dramaturg, and the discussion of our culture in those rooms is thoughtful, polite, and careful. I've also observed those conversations when they are led by Asian American directors, which can get raucous, irreverent, and self-critical. There's a certain permission in the room that comes from not having to explain who we are, but rather having the space to just be ourselves amongst our peers.
“Is that a stereotype? I truly don't know.” “Why the f*** do we do that?!” “Wait, is that racist?”
I've heard those questions asked in both processes. When the room is led by a fellow Asian American artist, those conversations are more likely to take place during rehearsal hours. When it's not, they become more of a sidebar.
I was only recently introduced to the term “Asian invisibility,” but when I heard those two words together, I immediately understood the phenomenon. As a “model minority” who grew up in a predominantly white suburb, my impulse, in racially mixed company, is to blend in. As a result, when I shatter a stereotype, it often goes unnoticed—even to myself. Only when I became involved with culturally-specific companies like Silk Road Rising and Rasaka Theatre Company did I begin to understand what trails I was blazing. I needed to see my work reflected back at me through other South Asian artists in order to truly recognize my accomplishments.
As a producer, you're not responsible for providing that opportunity to me or my peers. You're responsible for creating a high-quality production that responsibly represents the cultures involved. But why not do both?
There's a self-perpetuating myth that we don't exist.
We know that the actor who delivers the best audition is not necessarily the best actor for the role. For directors, our “audition” is the first gig we have with a theatre. The lack of Asian American directors helming major productions in regional houses signals a lack of audition opportunities. It perpetuates the problem of Asian invisibility and the myth that we do not exist.
Because careers in the arts are not often encouraged in the Asian American community, I've had to struggle to articulate the value of my work to my family and peers who do not work in theatre. After significant efforts to prove my worth to my ethnic community, it’s disheartening to feel like my professional community doesn't recognize my value either.
Hiring white directors for world premieres of Asian American plays sets a particularly unhelpful precedent for future productions. To be clear—I'm not asking for a job because of my Asian-ness. I don't want to be hired solely because of my racial identity. But I do think that, as a South Asian American director, my understanding of India's class structure and history of non-violence gives me a unique take on, say, Rajiv Joseph's Guards at the Taj (which has never been directed by a South Asian). I'd love a chance to audition for that project.
Season planning isn't just about what we're serving up to our audiences—it also indicates who we're willing to advocate for, as artists. Next season, will you consider going to bat for an Asian American director?