My Parents Were Tiger People
christopher oscar peña chats about writing race with A. Rey Pamatmat
A. Rey Pamatmat: In the lobby for a production of my play Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them I overheard a woman say, “This play would get done everywhere if the main characters weren’t Asian.” Discussing the same play, a young future theatre professional asked, “Why are Kenny and Edith Filipino?” To which I replied, “Why are you white?” And in the year following my apparent need to justify putting Asian American characters on stage, others did their best to keep Asian actors off stage by casting white actors in yellow/brownface (The Nightingale, The Orphan of Zhao, and Pippin: A Bollywood Spectacular come to mind).
Imagine my surprise when, upon the Flea’s announcement of my friend christopher oscar peña’s gorgeous play a cautionary tail, I felt compelled to ask why his main characters are Chinese American. chris is Latino, and his plays feature characters of his own ethnicity in Icarus Burns or of other Latino descent in TINY PEOPLE. All three plays deal with bicultural identity, but in a world that doesn’t seem to want Asians onstage, why would a Latino playwright compose a play with two Chinese American leads?
christopher oscar peña: Like you, my initial response is: Why not? This is America right? There are two reasons I do it. I grew up in the Bay Area, and San José has the largest population of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. There were ninety-nine Nguyen’s in my high school class. My best girlfriend was hapa (white-Japanese). The first guy I dated was a Filipino-Spanish mix. I ate lumpia and pho more than tacos, which is what people expect because I’m Latino. Asian Americans are part of my cultural identity and upbringing. To question why I write them is to deny my history.
As American playwrights of color, we are often told what we should be writing, restricting our work to simplistic ideas of race and class politics. As Tanya Saracho and I say, Latino writers are asked to write “rice and beans” plays about immigration, drug cartels, and the working class. That expectation assumes we’re all the same, and—most problematically for me—it creates a theatrical culture of inauthenticity. There are amazing Latino playwrights writing about these subjects; they’re true and important to them. But when you force me to do that, you’re perpetuating a lie.
The second reason I do it is because there are incredible Asian actors who I want to see on stage! Often people in various cities say, “We can’t find good Asian actors,” or, “We went with the best actor (who happens to be white).” If casting directors can’t find good Asian actors, they should quit their jobs (or call me). I write Asian parts because I want to see Jennifer Ikeda, Maureen Sebastian, Peter Kim, Louis Changchien, Mia Katigbak, Rodney To, Jon Norman Schneider, Angel Desai, Ruibo Qian, Angela Lin, Alexis Camins, Dax Valdes, Ching Valdes-Aran, and so many others on stage.
Rey: Do you know of work from Latino colleagues that features non-white or non-Latino characters? I specify Latino because somehow Asian American playwrights easily get away with writing diverse casts in a way that other writers (certainly white writers) don’t. I’m thinking, for example, about Qui Nguyen’s many Black and LGBT characters; Carla Ching’s Sugar House, which was written for performers of four different backgrounds; and Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India, where the characters were Middle Eastern and Indian. Who else is “getting away with it,” and do you have any theories as to why?
chris: Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s plays Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last feature well-written, complex characters of African American, Asian, Indian, and Persian descent. In those plays, the main characters—or the people through whose lens we’re tracking the play—are Latinos. So maybe the thing that surprises people about my work is that in at least three plays the protagonists are of Asian descent.
Last summer I was part of Two River’s Crossing Borders Festival with Tanya Saracho, Andrea Thome, and Carlo Alban. All of our plays featured all Latino characters (Icarus Burns is my only all-Latino play), and during a panel the question of what makes a play or a playwright “Latino” came up.
I feel very connected to these exceptional writers (and friends), but I also feel very different from them. Of the four, I’m the youngest. Andrea and I were both born in the United States, but I was born in the Bay Area, a land filled with the children of all types of immigrants who didn’t feel different from each other because our differences made us alike. When these playwrights write about immigration or learning English as a second language, the stories are in their DNA, which is why it feels false when someone says I should be doing it. Obviously, I don’t know everything about everyone’s work, but I think they’re writing mostly Latino characters. That’s not a bad or good thing. I would never tell them who should be in their plays, but their characters are different from mine.
I’m a huge fan of companies like INTAR and Ma-Yi, which were created to give voice to artists of color. But I wonder whether we need to think of their evolution as race and class evolve. For instance, I have plays with strong Asian roles, but Ma-Yi can’t do them, because I’m not Asian. But those plays don’t work for INTAR, because featuring their awesome ensemble of Latino actors is important to them. So where do I fit? I dream about a collaboration on one of my plays between those two companies.
This question also makes me think of Naomi Iizuka and Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas. If I’m not mistaken, Jorge’s play Blind Mouth Singing was either written for Latino actors or wasn’t race-specific, but it was produced by NAATCO with an all-Asian company. And it was stunning.
Naomi—my first teacher and the first person to call me a writer—defies being pinned down ethnically in a way that allows her to explore complex ideas and allows more people to experience her plays. I believe her mother is a Spanish woman raised in Queens, her father is Japanese, and she was raised all over world. She navigates between worlds remarkably in her life and work, and we should all be allowed to do it.
So some people do “get away with it” but not as many as I’d like to see.
Rey: Let’s go back to something else you said. I love what theatre did for identity politics, but a lot of writers bump up against the strict definitions you’re talking about. I’m often confronted by “compliments” that my plays aren’t “just” gay plays or “just” Asian American plays. Then, on the flip side, I’m criticized that they aren’t gay or Asian “enough.” The implication is that my life experience is a limit rather than a gift, when the real limit is others’ ideas of what gay or Asian American plays can be. If you could describe your play a cautionary tail—keeping the “Latino,” “Asian,” “gay,” or whatever labels away from it, while still embracing its celebration of these things—how would you begin?
chris: I’m going back to Naomi. Dan LeFranc did an interview where he talked about not thinking his childhood was all that interesting, until one day Naomi said something like, “You grew up near Disneyland? What was that like?” Suddenly this thing that seemed mundane to Dan empowered him to write his story and to trust his voice.
There is one identity I wear proudly: I’m a writer in and responding to “my generation.” People have a lot to say about us, but it’s rare that we get to tell our own story. Our generation grew up with a stronger (though not complete) acceptance of evolving sexualities. Our generation communicates in new ways, which is exciting but also completely terrifying.
Again, it’s about authenticity. I don’t have a problem with labels; I have a problem with being told to have only one and what that one has to be.
There is one identity I wear proudly: I’m a writer in and responding to “my generation.” People have a lot to say about us, but it’s rare that we get to tell our own story. Our generation grew up with a stronger—though not complete—acceptance of evolving sexualities. Our generation communicates in new ways, which is exciting but also completely terrifying. Our generation grew up with mixed-race kids. Sometimes we’re lost or confused, so we’re constantly exploring, continually questioning until we see what fits. In my work, that means writing about different people, writing about history and memory, reinventing myth, telling stories from different angles, and changing style, structure, tone.
People need to be okay with labels evolving and redefining themselves. I also wish plays were experienced on their own. The context of the writer’s identity is totally exciting… afterward. Let that add to the conversation, not be it.
Rey: I admire that ethnicity is neither the root of a cautionary tail’s primary struggle nor is it incidental. A common misstep when writers cross racial lines is dramaturgical “justification” of their character’s background (sometimes offensively), or conversely use of race as a marker without regard to how it shapes character. I’ve seen playwrights write characters as Latino to indicate that they’re poor, or justify underdeveloped women characters by saying they’re Asian and de facto mysterious, and hey—this character’s cool, because he’s Black! Because Black equals cool (don’t tell the blerds). How would you describe the central themes of your play, and what about those themes compelled you to write Chinese American leads rather than Honduran, Vietnamese, or Filipino ones?
chris: Originally, this play was a commission by Mark Wing-Davey for NYU Grad Acting. There were three Asian actors in this class, all different ethnicities. He wanted to feature them, so he gave me Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom by Amy Chua and said, “Go!” I remember thinking this could go badly and seem racist right away.
So I anchored myself in themes that were true to me, and I realized that the “tiger mom” idea isn’t just about Chinese mothers. It’s about how an immigrant raises his/her child. My parents were tiger people, so making my leads Asian reaffirmed the commonalities we all share. This play is about how fast the world is moving, how we’re all struggling to keep up, and how often we’ve lost the game before we’ve even realized we were playing it.
Rey: Finally, let’s talk casting. Asian American and Latino performers famously have been plagued by white actors in yellow/brownface taking the few roles available for them. A surprising recent example is New Theater’s production of Around the World in 80 Days where a white woman will play Aouda, a South Asian—doubly surprising because one of the producers is Asian American. Why does this problem persist? And what can artists do to make people understand how ignorant this practice is?
chris: Honestly, it’s too baffling to even process. People are being naively racist or willfully ignorant at best.
a cautionary tail and the Flea itself are important for artists, because they embrace our various experiences as people. Our multiethnic cast has an adopted Asian woman who was raised by white parents. We have another Asian woman who emigrated from China. We have a guy who is half Black, half German-Jew. There’s a guy who didn’t relate to the immigrant experience, until I pointed out that his parents were Brits and he was first-generation. Suddenly he realized that we perceived “immigrant” as Brown. These varied histories add to the conversation and elevate the story we’re telling. That’s incredibly exciting!
Many of us make work like this and call attention to these things because we believe in the power of theatre. But then these casting issues occur, and it’s all so wrong and outdated that theatre feels irrelevant.
As who and what an American is and looks like grows, we want theatre to be part of that conversation. Instead, we look on stage and think, “That’s the conversation we’re having, those are the voices, those are the faces?” It’s so far behind we might as well be in dialogue with other art forms that are interested in who we are today. Hopefully, the mainstream theatre will figure this out sooner rather than later, because the fact is we are the mainstream.