Theater is widely hailed by audiences and participants alike as a vehicle for catharsis, or a way to escape the trials of one’s daily life and release pent-up feelings in a creative, expressive way. But what happens when the way you look limits the variety of roles available to you? And where do we draw the line on who can play whom?
Saya Jenks ‘16 began participating in theater at a young age because she was “shy as a kid” and wanted to find a community and a way to express herself. It was precisely those reasons that brought her in her sophomore year to the Asian American Theater Project on campus. Identifying as mixed-race with a Japanese mother and Caucasian father, Saya often felt like she was “not fitting into other Asian communities” during her freshman year at Stanford, as if she was not “legitimate enough as an Asian, or at least the archetype.”
However, in AATP, Saya found people who had felt the same way and wanted to explore everything that the very broad identity of “Asian” could entail. She performed as the lead role in AATP’s interpretation of “My Fair Lady,” a production in which “mixed race was the central theme” that made a statement about the exoticization and gaze that society lays upon people whose ethnic and racial backgrounds are not easily identifiable. “I’d rather be exoticized than criminalized,” Saya comments, reflecting on the fact that recently, mixed race and unique appearances have been in vogue.
But when it comes to plays that do not deal with explicit themes of mixed race experience, it can be hard for Saya to feel at home in a role. Audiences have certain expectations of what and who they will appear on stage, and as a result, they “read race into appearance,” says Saya, and make assumptions about the ethnicity and identity of the people performing for them. Saya’s looks have an element of ambiguity — people have mistaken her for full Caucasian and Latina before, and that has felt like a struggle for her in theater. “Sometimes when I play a full Asian character, I feel like I’m taking that away from someone who actually identifies that way,” Saya says. In fact, characters written for Asian people are quite rare, and sometimes Saya doesn’t feel like she should fill their shoes. “Plenty of white roles are open for me,” explains Saya.
Another problematic aspect of casting Asian roles — besides the fact that there are only so many, is that the group of people who identify as such is so broad and diverse. “Is it ok for a Thai person to play a Chinese character?” muses Saya. At what point does it become cultural appropriation to try to represent another group on the stage? These questions are tough ones to grapple with, and the audience does not put much thought into the distinction. “I mean, all Asian people are the same, right?” quips Saya. Ultimately, Saya’s main concern is that “the audience has to believe it.” From there, we can work on expanding roles and being creative with interpretations to be more inclusive to all.
Contact Madeline MacLeod at mmacleod ‘at’ stanford.edu.